Better Grids: Lessons Learned

Chad Mazzola

After our first Design for Developers workshop in December, we shared a few examples of student work we especially liked.

The next Design for Developers workshop is just a few weeks away, and I thought it would be interesting to highlight some common problems our first group of students had while working on their projects, specifically around grids.

We asked all students to use the 12 column, 960 grid when designing their pages in order to focus their work. However, it was very common for students to build unnecessarily complex grids instead of taking advantage of the simplicity that the 960 grid offers. Let’s look at four examples of problematic grids, along with strategies for improving them. As you’ll see, the solutions are straightforward: make it simpler!

The uncomfortable quartet

The first two examples have a similar problem: they are confused about whether they want to be a 3 or 4 column layout.


In the first example, the three columns on the left group together nicely. But the column on the right doesn’t feel coherent with the rest of the layout.


My solution? Stick with a uniform 3 column grid. The wider, more regular columns create a better rhythm across the page, and also give you more room to work with. The student who built this page was using the small column on the right for a navigation list. But it would be better to move that elsewhere on the page, and let the content on the left fill the width of the page. Often times using the grid correctly means re-thinking the placement of elements on the page.


The second example is similar, but has even more problems. The three columns on the right stray from the grid in an attempt to fit themselves into a space that is probably too narrow. The contrast with the correctly sized column on the left is awkward.


In this case, a uniform 3 column grid would also work, as would a uniform 4 column grid. Because a 12 column grid system can be equally divided by both 3 and 4, these column sizes are the most reliable choices when working with the 12 column 960 grid. They will create equal divisions of the page that are wide enough to fit most content, and as we’ll see below, they look good when matched with each other on the same page.

Mix and (mis)match

The next two examples suffer from awkward mixing of column groups.


The first example starts with the right approach, using three equally sized columns through the center of the layout. The problem comes with the columns above and below. When mixing columns with different widths, the goal should be a harmony between all elements on the page. Unfortunately, in this example the columns clash with each other.


The solution is to use column groups that have a more harmonious relationship to each other. We achieve this by matching the 3 column group in the center with a 4 column group below it, and letting the header run the full width of the page. As we said above, 3 and 4 column groupings are often the best choice when working with the 960 grid. The intervals are more regular and we reduce the clash of irregular columns.


In our final example, the middle group of columns is again well defined, but the columns at the top and bottom again clash. The one unit of white space at the top of the page is especially troublesome, as it stops the eye and disrupts the flow of the page.


Again, the solution is to use a simpler, more consistent approach to the column groups. We want the columns to sit next to each other comfortably, and the lead the eye down the page naturally.

There are of course other solutions to the problems I’ve highlighted. But the best approach is often to remove any complex grid structure in favor of groupings of 3 or 4 columns.

If you browse through the example sites on the official 960 grid site you’ll notice that many of them are using a simple 3 or 4 column layout. A straightforward approach to the structure of your page doesn’t have to limit your design. Instead, it provides a solid base that will introduce clarity to your layout. And that’s always beautiful.

Go deeper

We encourage developers who are looking to learn more about grid systems and other fundamentals of visual design to sign up for our next Design for Developers workshop, taking place Feb 21 through 23 at our Boston office.