Using a baseline grid

There hase been a notable resurgence of the International Typographic Style (aka Swiss Style) in graphic design lately and along with this trend, grids are big right now. Baseline grids in particular have been enjoying a lot of fresh attention, so this post is simply to consolidate some of the learning and resources I have come across.

First things first, what is the baseline?

Diagram explaining typographic baseline

Baseline refers to the line upon which most letters “sit” and below which descenders extend. It is important to note that glyphs with rounded lower extents usually dip very slightly below the baseline to create the optical illusion that they sit on the baseline.

Leading is the distance between baselines. The term originated in the era of manual typesetting, when thin strips of lead were used to space lines of type. The term is still used in print layout software like Adobe InDesign. In CSS the “line-height” property controls the leading.

Right, moving along…

Much has been written about the merits of using a grid in design. The first exposure I had to the principle was probably Khoi Vinh’s 2004 article on his Subtraction.com redesign. Column grids are pretty simple; divide your page into an equal amount of columns, decide on a gutter width (if any) and align the elements on your page to these columns.

Baseline grids are another story altogether. I have been experimenting with baseline grids in my own web and print design work for over a year now and they are a lot more tricky. The idea of a baseline grid is that the bottom of every line of text (the baseline) corresponds with a vertical baseline grid, set in even increments. CSS makes it difficult to apply all elements to a baseline grid since properties like margin, border, padding and line-height can disturb your vertical layout.

There are several good reasons for using a baseline grid, but the two that I find most logical are, vertical rythm and the baseline being a compositional aid – baseline grids add a sense of visual balance to your design and help you decide where to position elements. Leaving the positioning of elements to chance is something of the past for me! Of course grids should be treated only as guidelines in design and not as restrictive rules.

Ok, enough theory, on to the resources

Now go forth and experiment with baseline grids. If you have any tips and tricks of your own, please drop a comment below!