Composition and modules

Revisión: Natalia Pano

Artículo en proceso de traducción

«Order is the logic of design and it is controlled by space. The organization of this space is a key for both legibility and visual aspect of a graphic piece». Martin Solomon

During the process of building and receiving a message, relations between time and space are established. In a composition, ordering the elements on the plane based on rules of proportion gives the piece a specific rhythm and coherence. This is used by the designer as a tool for establishing visual hierarchies and to clearly express his communicative intention. Modulating the space has nothing to do with an esthetic or stylistic whim. Modulation is a resource of smart and useful design which allows for solving complex communication problems in a multiple and diverse way. And which also assures the unity and the harmonious behavior of the elements used.

When we think about a printed edition, be it is a newspaper, magazine, annual report, or other publication to be read, space must be modulated bearing in mind that most of the times we will be working with texts, thus, we will build a reticle or grid on the basis of typographic criteria.

To that end, the basic element to consider is the leading with which the main text will be composed.

This leading will be the structural unit of our typographic reticle or grid.

To begin with the task of modulating space according to typographic criteria, there are two different procedures that may be tried out:

a. One, we may consider a preconceived idea or a draft showing the characteristics of the printed area and its position on the page. So as to be able to make this draft, we must know all the information as to the text and images to be included in the piece. Besides, we must have a clear idea about how we want to organize this information so it is well received. Thus, taking the draft as a starting point, we perform a modulation that allows adjusting its proportions.

b. We may make a modular structure without any preconceived idea. This means that, previously, we will divide the working space to the most, trying to get a rich enough and versatile grid so as to allow different alternatives for its use. Then, we will perform the page layout.

There is not a single method for designing a grid, since, as we have already said, this depends on each designer’s experience and needs and on each specific piece. However, in order to explain the problem, we will resort to a basic system.

To that end, we have to divide the page vertically – division by fields from top to bottom- as follows:

1. First, we must decide the basic leading we will use in our work, based on what the main text requires. Then, we will find out how many lines fit in the height of the format using that leading.

2. Once we have obtained that number, we will in turn divide the page into 2, 3, 4 fields, etc., subtracting in each case the river that separates them.
For instance:
47 – 1 = 46 / 2 = 23 lines
47 – 2 = 45 / 3 = 15 lines
47 – 3 = 44 / 4 = 11 lines
47 – 4 = 43 / 5 = does not allow an exact division
47 – 5 = 42 / 6 = 7 lines
47 – 6 = 41 / 7 = does not allow an exact division
47 – 7 = 40 / 8 = 5 lines
47 – 5 = 42 / 9 = does not allow an exact division

We understand, then, that the first number corresponds to the whole number of lines in the length to be divided, the second to the subtracted rivers, the fourth to the number of fields and the last one to the result or number of lines per field.

3. Once we have analyzed the modulation possibilities given the leading we have chosen, we will use the result of the division that is most convenient for the purposes of the design (a).

As regards the head and bottom margins, they will be determined taking into consideration one or more fields of the division traced, bearing in mind the concepts developed in previous lessons (b). Once the partition has been made, we will define horizontal modulation based on the requirements of the design. If apart from the main text (how many columns will compose it?) we have other ancillary texts – notes, references, quotes, etc. – this should be considered when making this division.

To move on to horizontal modulation—division by fields from left to right- we will measure the whole page and we will proceed in the same way as we did for vertical division. Once we achieve field division, we will take full advantage of it, so as to obtain a dynamic work, which may contribute to communication by arranging its elements inside a coherent unit (c).

Modulation within the column

Once we have defined the basic modulation, we may need to include even smaller spatial subdivisions, an issue which is quite frequent when working with columns and tables, thus it is usual to resort to tabulation.

Tabulation is an operation that affects at least a whole paragraph and consists of the following steps: a) select paragraph/s for tabulation, b) select «tabulation attributes» from the corresponding program menu, c) in the dialog box, select the tabulation type needed, d) indicate the spatial location of the tabulation in the width of the line and e) if necessary, a «filling» character for the tabulation space may be indicated.

So as to maintain coherence with the rest of the publication, tabulation should respect the modulation criteria already presented. Thus, a good method is to tabulate keeping the minimal structural unit from our grid: the leading in the main text.

Considerations about legibility

From the moment we chose the leading we are going to work with, we must know which type size works better with that leading. When deciding the column width we will work with, we must keep in mind that type sizes that are too big (over 12 pt, depending on the family) or too small (less than 9 pt, depending on the family) are difficult to read and that a line of text must contain around ten words (depending on the editorial.)

The length of a line of text must be such that when we are done reading it, the beginning of the next line may be found. If excessively short, the change of line interrupts the regular reading rhythm and ends up tiring the reader.

Titles, subtitles, notes, etc., will act as multiples or submultiples of the type size used in the main reading text, either keeping the same leading or adopting a multiple of the previous one.


  • MÜLLER-BROCKMANN, Josef. Sistemas de retículas. Gustavo Gili, México 1992.

Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish

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