2021 April Week No. 3

A Critique of Making and Breaking the Grid

5 min read cw: transphobia, anti-trans bills in the U.S.

Making and Breaking the Grid wants a conversation about rational geometry to be part of discussions on race, gender, and other social concerns. That’s absurd.

I’m reading through a few books about layout, and I got pretty mad at one of them, and I want to share why. In the introduction to Making and Breaking the Grid, Timothy Samara writes:

Within the design community, discussions of accessibility, gender, race, and other social concerns are given greater priority than the intrinsic relationships between form, organization, and meaning; it’s hard to find that kind of discussion in the design industry any more. Given that form making and its organization are inextricably linked to the visual dissemination of information, however, it seems likely that this simple-seeming discussion could really be a bit more complex, perhaps even wrapping these same bigger issues that graphic designers have been giving more attention… an aesthetic ‘unconscious’ of sorts we’ve decided to ignore without realizing its fundamental hegemony. ( 7 )

“Hegemony” is a surprising word. One possible reading would be that Samara means the same hegemony the “bigger issues” are concerned with: white supremacy and the patriarchy. That we should question how design can reinforce structural inequality in subtle ways. Who benefits when form is presented as objective and rational? This is kind of interesting, if awfully abstract.

But I’m pretty sure this hegemony is “structural thinking” itself, the “institutionalized metaphor for all that is right in the world” ( 6 ) that, at times, designers have written about in explicit, political ways.Samara describes Josef Müller-Brockmann’s book Grid Systems in Graphic Design as “nothing short of a manifesto,” ( 17 ) which is almost underselling it. Müller-Brockmann writes, “Design which is objective, committed to the common weal, well composed and refined constitutes the basis of democratic behavior.” ( 10 )

This is setting up the second half of the book, the Breaking the Grid part that looks at layouts that don’t use grids. But I think it’s ridiculous that Samara wants us to talk about grids vs. not-grids in the same space we discuss social justice issues.

Interestingly, since the publication of this book’s first edition in 2003, grid use has become remarkably prevalent, ostensibly driven by the practical demands of responsive UX design in a world increasingly linked by online communication. It may also reflect a renewed urge for cultural unity in response to that early millenial confusion. Simplicity, order, and visual neutrality in communication are, historically, strategies aimed at facilitating inclusivity… But they also pose a potential threat through the aesthetic (and, arguably, intellectual) conformity they engender: designers need only consider the ubiquity of similarly templated, almost interchangeable, websites and branded communication programs in current proliferation to appreciate that efficiencies in organization and production can also render an experiential landscape that is repetitive, undifferentiated, and mind-numbingly dull. ( 7 )

On one hand, this design is accessible and inclusive to a lot of people! On the other, it’s boring. Which is more important? Who can really say.

There are so many weird parts to this paragraph, including the offhand dismissal of “practical demands” in digital design.Which are reinforced by HTML and CSS. When all you have is a sans-serif and display: grid, everything starts to look like an International Typographic Style. But consider the word “threat,” what a strong word! We’re discussing form, but Samara uses language that implies these are dangerous stakes.

Given ongoing discussions about identity, the individual’s relationship to society at large, and our responsibilities to each other and our shared environment, conversations about where to put things—the mundane ‘housekeeping’ of grid-based design—still have value, but so too do those concerned with imagining ways of connecting with each other through visual languages that are unexpected, unconventional, and uniquely expressive. ( 7 )

All this feels like a softened, equivocating version of the real argument that Samara wants to make. In the first edition of the book from 2003, there’s this in large, bold text in the middle of the page:

Amid discussions of race and gender, conservation, political empowerment, and civil rights, perhaps a simple conversation about where to put things—the ‘mundane housekeeping’ of grid-based design—might have value again. ( 10 )

A single, concise version of all of the above.

At best this is a weird non-sequitur. “These things you are talking about seem important, and by the way grids.” I can’t shake the feeling it’s adjacent to tone-policing. “I don’t like the way you’re visually designing your arguments.” It’s an attempt to appropriate. “Grids are part of these conversations, and so grids are even more important.” It’s a name drop. “How about race and gender, right?”

It’s the thing that happens when someone wants to appear as though they’re helping by doing the same thing they’re already doing.

Let’s make this concrete. Here are some things trans people are asking for: access to health care, access to identity documents with the right names and gender markers, housing and job protections, and the ability to exist in society without harassment or discrimination.

Here is what trans people are not asking for: a subversive fucking typographic treatment.

TRANS PEOPLE: There are over 100 anti-trans bills being considered in 33 U.S. states. Please stop using us as a wedge issue. Please contact your state representatives. Please support and donate to groups fighting these laws. Please help us.

GRAPHIC DESIGNERS: Have you considered letter-spacing lowercased text?

I am pretty mad at this! The stakes are not aesthetics, they are people’s lives and well-being! The hegemony is not rational geometry, it’s the patriarchy, white supremacism, imperialism, and capitalism. Design is an important tool, but you can make something that is exclusive or harmful, that reinforces structural inequality in any aesthetic. Racism and sexism persist through and despite art and design movements. These “mundane conversations” about layout are treated as secondary because they are.

You can write a book about form, and a specific form at that, but doing so is not praxis, it is not part of the work that needs to be done, it is not addressing issues of gender, of race, of social justice. That wasn’t true in the past, and it’s not true now.

Sources

  1. Josef Müller-Brockmann. Grid Systems in Graphic Design: A Visual Communication Manual for Graphic Designers, Typographers and Three Dimensional Designers. 1981.
  2. Timothy Samara. Making and Breaking the Grid. 2003.
  3. . Making and Breaking the Grid. 2nd ed., 2017.