Grids, Modularity and the Germans

Lego is a wonderful aid in developing the creativity of a young mind. With a box of bricks of various sizes, the imagination of every child can be brought to colourful and boxy life with just a few well placed snaps and clicks. It can also be responsible for instilling in one a strong sense of order and an understanding and love of the grid.

It is a most pleasing construction material for it works on a very simple, inflexible grid. As we all know, each block is three plates high and block sizes are counted in studs. The brick on the right is - in official Lego language - a 2×2 block, but more casually known as a ‘fourer’. As the image shows, a fourer can be matched using four ‘oners’, or if you were feeling less efficient, twelve ‘flat oners’. These are the units of measurement forming the grid that will run through the entire structure of any Lego creation.

As such, it’s a satisfying thing to work with. It leaves no room for error, gives no cause for bodging. If you conform to the grid you can be satisfied that things will work out. If the bridge you’re building is supported at one end by a column eight bricks high, you know at the other end you will be using another eight brick column. There will be no need for filling in small gaps, chopping a brick in half or shaving away edges to get things to fit. As long as you’ve done your counting right everything will click together and work. Lovely.

Designing pixel art is a very similar process. In fact the connection between pixel art and Denmark’s finest is one frequently made, as a bit of googling uncovers. It can be very satisfying to work with such a strictly gridded canvas. With a careful bit of judgement, working successfully within the confines of a very rigid grid can be a satisfying experience.

Of the many fonts I’ve had to create and build, the easiest was the smallest. Designed to be used as the body text for a title on the Nintendo DS (a console with a screen area of 256×192 pixels which may be put into context by me saying the column of text you’re currenty reading is 420 pixels wide) it was required to be as small as could be legible. This dictated that each character must be no bigger than 5×5 pixels square, and the tracking be set at a constant 1 pixel. At such small size, working to such a rigid grid, there isn’t really any way to go wrong.

So although working to such restrictive dimensions will never be the most creatively rewarding of tasks, you can assume that – so long as you don’t do anything stupid – the result will be spot on.

After one has worked on a few jobs at pixel level, with other restrictions such as 16-colour pallets and alias-free 1-bit alphas, it can be quite daunting to return to the high-res, high-def world. With no restrictions it can be incredibly hard to know where to start. Those rare times when a designer is given free reign, an open brief, a blank canvas and an unlimited budget can, after the initial excitement, be the most challenging projects of their career.

The line separating designer and artist is pretty blurred and frequently crossed, the two sharing much in common. Possibly the most obvious distinction one can make between the pair is that former will always be required to work within guidelines, while the latter will most often not. Grids, restrictions and guidelines are the foundations of design, and working successfully within them is a real skill. As Erik Spiekermann says:

Good designers like guidelines, bad designers feel restricted by them“.

The designer’s grid is, unlike budget, licensing or print issues, a self-imposed restriction. It brings order and structure to a design, an invisible layer underneath the graphics which holds the layout together. It serves as a safety net, a guide which, when adhered to, can offer logic and clarity. Brave, clever or foolish is the designer who works without a grid, as is the architect who builds a house with no foundations.

Logic and clarity, forethought and planning are the basis of much graphic design. To quote Erik Spiekermann again:

“I take it apart, look at the elements, oil them, grease them, clean them, put them back together again and it always works. It’s only graphic design [...] The details are wrong and the whole thing falls apart.”

As when building a Lego house, if we are clever and methodical with our building blocks, the resulting creation will be a success.

In the first paragraph I claimed that Lego can ‘instill in one a strong sense of order and an understanding and love of the grid’. This might have appeared a little random and in need of justification, so I will expand. I spent many years playing with Lego as a youngster, and attribute it to my adult expectation that the world should conform to logic and structure. I can never understand why, for instance, builders spend so much time bodging. Why is the lintel above our fireplace in the living room not level? The same amount of bricks support it on each side and they stand on a level floor, so what’s gone wrong? Why has the builder had to bodge it straight? There should be no need in the world for bodging, gap filling, level checking, expanding foam and making do. If you plan correctly from the start, surely things should work out right?

It’s no surprise that England’s answer to Lego was Meccano – that collection of nuts, bolts and plates so ripe for bending and bodging. It’s wonderful stuff, great fun and no doubt the childhood memory of many a world-class engineer, but personally I was always more drawn to the accuracy of Danish plastic. Perhaps it’s why I have always opposed that very British way of working – the belief that we can wing it, the attitude that says “it’ll be fine“.

It rarely is fine. It’s why everything made here falls apart. We’re great at design – among the most creative, innovative nations in the world – but when it comes to making our ideas reality, they fall apart. We approach everything with the assumption that bridges don’t need to be crossed until we come to them, that the details will sort themselves out and any indiscretions can be hammered out at the end. It’s short sighted and it doesn’t work. It’s why nobody drives Land Rovers across the desert anymore – they fall apart. It’s why our trains are inefficient and our working hours high while productivity is low.

I’ve always admired the German way of doing things. Sorry to do it a third time but his ramblings did inspire mine, so here’s Erik again:

“The Germans are modular. Our language is modular. So we build shit. We build cars. We make tolerances. That’s why everyone drives Audis [...] It’s to do with the culture, we come from a modular, controlled, mechanical culture”

I appreciate that efficiency of design, the logic of production. Modular works. Working with building blocks is a good way to guarantee solid foundation. I wish the British were capable of it. I wish the Land Rover was still the tool of choice in the outback. I wish our trains ran on time, and that we didn’t need to work such long hours just to compete with everyone else.

It’s an often lonely place, having no choice but to work in the shoddy British way when desperate to adopt the logic of the Germans. You can feel a bit out-of-place. I’ve often wondered if Massimo Vignelli – one of the most vocal proponents of logic and order in graphic design, the most fierce defender of brutal modernism and from who’s wonderful grid-evangelistic publication I grabbed the above letterhead images – might think similarly of his home nation. After all, Italy is a country so focussed on beauty that its workmanship can often rival ours in the shoddiness charts. Or are his beliefs in logic and rigid structure contained merely within the realms of the aesthetic?

The concern is that logic and order aren’t particularly compatible with soul and beauty. While German workmanship is wonderful, it does lack a certain… flair. If we Brits were capable of such methodical excellence and supreme attention to detail, perhaps our talent for innovation, wit and resourcefulness would have never developed. Those big ideas of ours might have remained unimagined while we focussed on such trivial things as straight edges, tight tolerances and screwing things together properly.

My own taste for order and structure certainly comes at the cost of outright creativity. I approach work with a level head and I can always see what needs to be tidied, cleaned, oiled and greased. I can see where logic should be introduced, and I can be as creative as is possible within that logic. But given free reign and no restrictions, I’ll soon struggle.

Give me a big box of Lego and I’ll build you a fantastic house, but give me a big lump of clay and watch as I panic.