Designing within a grid system involves defining the material you are going to work with, defining the page size, making a proportional grid onto the space and then fitting your design into the grid. Having a good grid system will speed up the work process so it’s always wise to spend a little time on the grid first.

Grid systems can be based on known proportions like the Golden Rule, Rule of Thirds or proportions based on standard paper sizes. But in the end most of the grids are based on the designers feeling for good looking page which is then made stronger by using known rules for making the grids.

A few articles have been published lately on grid systems on various blogs. Most of it is on grid systems for web sites, much less on paper based design. And some fantastic books have been written on the subject. Same rules more and less apply, whether you are designing for paper or web.

If you are new to this subject you might want to start by reading:

… a great set of articles by Mark Boulton, called Five simple steps to designing grid systems. Great read for novice and everyone else.

… a great selection of articles on designing with grids, old and new on Smashing Magazine

… everything on The Grid System, one of the major source on grid systems lately. Check out the section of the free grid templates. You can download the templates and investigate them. Be sure to read the explanation text that comes with the templates. It will give you some insight into the mechanism behind each grid.

… buy and read Grid systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller–Brockmann. One of the best books on the subject.

… finally, download and read the great booklet called The Vignelli Canon by Massimo Vignelli.

There are many other sources that come to mind but we’ll start with these.

InDesign, as a page layout program has some great tools to accompany a grid system, some that Illustrator is lacking. Like the Baseline Grid. Both applications have a Document Grid, a gray net of lines to snap text and object to. But here is a limitation in the Document Grid in Illustrator. It only allows you to set it for even sided squares, while InDesign lets you set different measurements for horizontal and vertical lines.


On the other hand Adobe Illustrator which is a one-page program (although CS4 has multiple artboards) has some other tools that are just as great in its own way, tools that can really speed up the making of the grids. I want to show you some of the tools here.

Let us start by making an A4 page in Illustrator. We want to make a grid what has three columns and is divided into six rows.

We have in mind to use 10,5 pt type on a 12 pt leading. This is just an example and after you finish making this grid you can make what ever better suits your taste. Actually the 10,5 pt type does not play any role in this grid making but our main focus is on the leading. In this example we’ll use the 12 pt leading as a basis for the grid but we have to do some adjustments to that number as you will see.

Have Rulers turned on, Cmd+R. Have your measurements set to millimeters. You can change to it by right-clicking on the Ruler and choose millimeters from the list that appears.

To start with we will make a box on the page. Select the Rectangle Tool, Cmd+M. In CS4 it’s easy to find the center of the page if you have the Smart Guides turned on, Cmd+U. Find the center and hold down the Option key and click once to get the dialog box. Hold a sec there.

Type in the measurements of the page, width 210 mm and 297 mm for the height. But hold again on a second. Behind both of the measurements type: –24 pt. This is a trick everyone should know and use. In all the Creative Suite you can do a math in any input field. And you are not bound to the measurements of your document. Like here we take for instance the width and subtract –24 pts from 210 mm. The Width line will read: 210 mm – 24 pt. The numbers are instantly converted to millimeters.

airectangularbox What we are making here is a 12 pt frame, margin around the page. We need it on both sides and top and bottom, so we use –24 points for the subtraction.

Click OK and we have a new rectangular which is 12 points smaller than the page on all sides. I choose to change the color of the box to light gray, Black 20%.


In the Transform Panel we can see what the measurements of this rectangular is and we need to use it for a little adjustment. We planned to use 12 pt leading but it’s not sure it will fit the box exactly. You may be used in InDesign to just let the text box go a little bit further or less down so the text fits, but lets make this more precise.

aitransformtypesize We do it in few steps. First, convert 12 points to millimeters. It’s easy to do with the Rectangular Tool. Make a rectangular, like you just did to make the big box and type in the width and height: 12 pt. The result, 4,233 mm shows instantly in the Transform Panel. Write it down or type somewhere outside of the artboard.

Take the height of the box, 288,533 mm and divide it with 4,244 mm. This gives us how many lines of text would fit into the box, 68,1628 lines. Here we have a problem. There is no way for us to use 68 lines for 6 rows. It just doesn’t fit. We will have to find the closest number that will divide into six even parts. In our case that number is 66 — 11 lines for each row. When we are making grids we always use one less, that is, 66 -1= 65. So 65 is the key number here.

Now, take the height of the box again, 288,533 mm and divide with 65 lines and we have our new leading that we are going to use, 4,439 mm which translates to 12,5829 points. Keep that number handy.

For those who are use to using points rather than millimeters you can skip all this millimeter stuff. You can have the measurements in points all the time. Just type in 210 mm and 297 mm in the measurements when you make the page at first and for the dividing here above you can divide 12 pt into 817,89 pts and then divide 817,89 pts / 65 lines and you’ll get the same result, 12.58 points leading.

At last we getting closer to even more fun. Select the gray text box. Go to: Object > Path > Split Into Grid…


(Notice that because I use this menu selection so frequently I have set a keyboard shortcut for it, Shift + Option + Command + G. To add it you go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts… and add it there.)


This is what appears in the dialog box. Our box is only one row and one column at the moment and we have under Total the current measurement of the box. Be sure to check the Preview check box, but leave Add Guides off for the moment. You might want to move this dialog box a bit to the side to get a better overview of what is going to happen.

Fill in for the Rows Number: 6 and Columns Number: 3. Instantly the other input fields will be activated. Notice that both the Gutters have 4,23 mm in them. This is a preset that we are about to change. In both those fields type: 4,439 mm or 12,5829. Also notice that Illustrator will round type/leading sizes. 4,439 will be rounded to 4,44 and 12,5829 is rounded to 12,58. Hit the OK button.


But what about the Add Guides check box? We are just about to get there. First we need to select all the gray boxes and Group them together, Cmd+G. This side step is just to make it easier later to grab them all together later because the guides we are about to make will be on top of all sides.

Select all the boxes now and be sure nothing else is selected. Go to Split Into Guides… again and you’ll see that all the measurements are still there and if we needed to make adjustments the group will take it. This time check the Add Guides checkbox and click OK.


Next thing to do is to change the size of these guides to fit the page area and then change them into real Illustrator Guides.

referencepoint Keep the Transform Panel open and make sure the Reference point in the panel is set to center. Make a New Layer and name it Guides. Select the guides and move them to that layer.

Using the Direct Selection tool, the white arrow, holding down the Option key, select the vertical guides only by dragging over the top ends of the guides. We have to do it this way because the guides are grouped together.

When they are selected, type in the Transform Panel the height of the page: 297 mm and the guides will be shortened into the artboard. Make the guides into Illustrator guides, View > Guides > Make Guides, Cmd+5. Do the same with the horizontal guides using 210 mm for the width and turn them also into guides.


When you make your next grid, after this tutorial you might consider if it suits you better to keep the lines in their green color and not to make them into Illustrator guides, but at least you should move them into their own Layer.

Now that we have our guides on one layer and the gray boxes on Layer 1 we can throw away the boxes. Or, as I prefer, to move the boxes to their own separate layer in case I need to use them for recalculating later. This is a great time to tell you a little trick that you might not know. And since we are at it let’s make two layer because we will need it later.

layerspanel First, lock the Guides layer. Then with Option key held down, click the New Layer icon in the Layers Panel. This forces a dialog box to show up and you can name that layer right away. Much more convenient than renaming it later on and it’s a good habit too if you want to keep your work organized. This shortcut is available in InDesign and Photoshop too. The second trick is to add the Command key, use Option + Command at the same time and click the New Layer icon. This will open up the dialog box and put the new layer below the one who is selected. Had to tell you.

Make this way two new layers called Boxes and Baseline. For the moment we’ll select the gray boxes and move them over to the Boxes layer and click the eye icon to hide the content.


Moving on, we need to make the Baselines for the text. If you think of a way to make 65 lines evenly distributed you know there are several ways to do this. You could use the Blend Tool or you could use Object > Move one line down 4,44 mm and then duplicate sixty something times with the Cmd+D.

The best by far way is however to use Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform… We’ll use it here. If you didn’t know that tool it’s about time now.

Before we go into that tool, select the Baseline layer. We have to make one line that sits on the top of the grid and we want it to be drawn into the Baseline layer. Be sure to have it with colored stroke and no fill. Red is an ideal color here.


While the new red baseline is selected we go into Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform… As you see, I have also made myself a keyboard shortcut here, Option + Cmd + U.


When the dialog box opens we can fill in the important numbers. First we check the Preview checkbox. Then the number of lines we want to duplicate and finally the direction of the copying and the distance between the lines, vertical -4,44 which is millimeters or you can type in -12,58 pt if you rather want to use points. Either one works fine as you can immediately see. Click OK.


When you zoom back you’ll see that only one line is selected. That is how it works with Effects. In the Appearance Panel you’ll see that the line has an fx or Effect to it. If you need to go back in, click the Transform word in the Appearance Panel. Do not go again via the menu because you will then apply a new effect on the line.

When you are sure all is right you can select the line again and then go into Object > Expand Appearance and you’ll get your 65 lines as normal lines, grouped, and you also have them already on a separate layer for your convenience.


If you managed to get all the way to here: Congratulations. You have made a grid for Illustrator in a brand new way and most likely learned a few Illustrator tricks along the way. I hope this gives you a basic understanding of how to calculate the correct leading to fit into grids. There are of course many more ways to do this but I hope you will like this method.

I am writing more about grids and grid making in Illustrator and will post it soon. Can’t wait myself.

Illustrator tutorials


  • Excellent article and it have been missing from the tubes, I might add! Since there are so many ways to build a grid, it can be painful building your own in Illustrator.

    Thanks for sharing Sigurdur

  • Great to hear, Esben. Glad if someone finds this useful. It’s really hard to present this matter in a simple way, so I decided to start with some basics. More to come.

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  • Nice article and resource.

    Another option is t create the grid in InDesign (which is simpler and more efficient for the reasons explained), unlock the guides on your master page and then export the lines as a PDF or EPS.

    You can then open this in Illustrator (hence retaining all of the correct measurements) and assign them to a Layer. Hey presto!

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  • great article, and very cool trick in the reply from Grez as well. wish i would’ve seen it when i was ‘stuck’ doing some guidelines in illustrator… next time i’ll be prepared thanks to you!

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  • Articles and people like you make it worth to search the web continuously 😉

    You did a really good job and finally I will be able to build my own grids 😛

    Thank you!

  • Thanks for the effort of putting this post together. Just completed one grid and have modified to fit in with the project we’re doing..

    Really useful. Thanks so much!

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