Creating a baseline grid in InDesign

Grids are awesome. They can be a tool that creates structure from chaos. They can offer flexibility. They create rhythm. I could go on and on about why I love grids and grid-based layouts, but I think you get the point.

CAPITAL magazine, with its Complex Grid
CAPITAL magazine, with its Complex Grid

There are many types of grids. One well-known type of grid is based on the golden section. Often, it consists of a single rectangular frame on a page, though it can be more complicated.

One of my favorite grids is the Complex Grid, developed by Karl Gerstner for CAPITAL magazine. There is a great tutorial on how to create such a grid, I highly recommend it.

The grid we'll be making in this tutorial is similar, though a bit more simple. It will be a twelve-column grid. Twelve columns is a great number for a grid, because it can be divided by two, three, four, and six. That makes it very flexible. The grid will be a modular grid, because it will also have twelve rows. Last but not least, we’re going to make sure everything lines up nicely with the baseline. This will give it that great ‘vertical rhythm’ that you may have heard about.

Let’s start and open a new document in inDesign. We’re going to be using points for all sizes in this tutorial, so you may want to go to preferences > units and set all units to be points.

One final note before we delve in: it’s useful to do all this as a master page, so that the grid will show up on all subsequent pages.

document setup for the baseline grid

Page size

The first thing we need to establish is: what is our page size?

This tutorial will deal with an A4 in portrait orientation. Using a US letter size is actually a bit easier in this case, because points are based on inches (but ISO-216 is still the best thing ever).

As you can see, the width of an A4 is 595.276pt and the height is 841.89pt. This seems like a weird amount, but that’s okay, it doesn’t really matter. (A US letter is 612pt wide by 792pt wide.)

preferences for the baseline grid
Make sure you set your grid relative to your margins and have it start at 0pt.

Leading

Secondly, let’s think about what our leading (and font size) is going to be. Body copy makes up most of the text, so set your leading with this in mind. For now, I’ve chosen to use 10pt Deja Vu Serif with a 14pt leading.

With this in mind, go into preferences > grids and set your baseline grid to be 14pt. Also, turn on the visibility of said grid in view > grids and guides > show baseline grid. You may have to zoom in to be able to see it.


math for the baseline grid
Please excuse my handwriting

A tiny bit of math

columns for the baseline grid

Get out a piece of paper, because we’ll need to do a tiny bit of math. Considering we have a twelve-row grid, we’ll have eleven gutters (the space in between the rows and columns). If we want the rows to line up nicely with the baseline, the height of a row needs to be as big as one line of text (leading), or two lines, or three lines, etc. Also, the gutter is going to be the height of the leading. Since we have eleven gutters, plus twelve rows of either once, twice, three times a leading (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) etc., the total height will be a multiple of twelve, plus eleven, times 14pt. This will give us the total height of the frame that all our content will go in.

Margins

Since we know the height and width of the page, we can figure out which of these sizes would fit nicely. The A4 is 841.89pt tall, so a row height of four lines would technically fit. However, that would only leave 15.89pt for both the top and bottom margin—way too little. Therefore, we’ll use a row height of three lines, which means our frame will be 658pt tall. So we’ll take the page height and deduct the frame height: 841.89pt — 658pt = 183.89pt. This is the amount of space for the top and bottom margin. I like to center the frame on the page, so I’ll just divide this by two: 183.89pt / 2 = 91.945pt. Both the top and bottom margin will have this value. However, you could, of course, make either margin bigger or smaller. As long as they add up to 183.89pt!

We can use the same process we’ve used before to create our horizontal margins. I like to use the same base value (14pt in this case) horizontally as well as vertically, but you don’t necessarily have to, for this grid to work. Anyway, an A4 is 595.276pt wide, so we’ll make our frame 490pt wide. (That’s (24 + 11) * 14pt, I hope you can see where I got that value.) This means we’ll make our margins (595.276pt — 490pt) / 2 = 52.638pt on the inside and outside.

margins for the baseline grid

That’s almost it!

Rows and columns

All we have to do now, is add the guides for our rows and columns. We might as well use the margins and columns dialog box to add our columns, but you could also use guides, if you wanted to. In any case, make sure there are twelve of them, with a 14pt gutter.

guides for the baseline grid
final document with the baseline grid

When setting the guides for the rows, make sure that they are fitted to the margins, rather than the page. If you remembered to turn on the visibility of the baseline grid, you should now be able to see that they line up nicely.

Voilà! We’re done! Now go make some cool stuff! Here’s a little example of how this grid can be used, but of course it’s much more versatile than that. If you end up using it, I would love to see what you create!