Using design grids to beautify your vizzes

One of the ways designers create simple, striking designs is through the use of grids. Grids act as a skeleton to support the flesh of the design. You can’t see it in the finished article, but without it, the design would be a wobbly mess, kind of like you without your bones.

 
 

This is Apple’s design grid for iPhone icons. It already feels kind of familiar if you’re an iPhone user. The grid supports designers in three ways. First, it defines proportions, for instance the inner circles in relation to the outer one. Second, it sets up a way for the design to find balance — you could fill the four corner squares with a single colour and have a design that feels evenly spaced, or use the squares across a diagonal and feel the same. And thirdly it sets up a repeating rhythm for the icons on your home screen. All the apps use the same design grid, and therefore, no matter what colours or content, they share the same ‘feel’.

These are three of Apple’s own icons and how they use the design grid. The grid allows them to share a common language. From the obvious — they all use the outer circle to define the edges of the image, to the tiny — the way petals are lined up with the diagonal dividers, just like the arrows on the compass.

We can apply the same techniques to dashboards and reports. The results help create content that is easier to interpret and have a slick, professional look. You can also share a grid across an analytical team, creating a look and feel that your stakeholders come to know and love, and learn how to intuitively use. The question is, what grid should you use? How should you divide the page? You can choose literally anything!

 
 

Let’s pick a random place to start. Here’s an A4 page divided into a 6 by 8 grid. A gutter between each box to align spacings and content. I made this in Adobe Illustrator, but you can fill a Tableau dashboard with 48 shaded text boxes and get the same result. The boxes can now be combined in a whole variety of patterns, and each larger box filled with text, images or charts. Because you’re working off the same base grid, these final elements will always be in proportion and alignment with each other. The gif below demonstrates what I mean.

 
 

For every day analytics use, you’re probably don’t want to fiddle around with this detail though. No worries, there’s an easy trick you can use. Humans just love it when things are divided into thirds, or use the golden ratio. You can use that in your dashboards as well. Divide it into a 2x3 or 3x3 grid - leaving one box height for header, and half for the footer if you’re so inclined. Then combine as above. Here’s just a few options to get you on the road to beautifully proportioned, finely balanced dashboards.

 
 

If you're interested in learning more about information design tools and techniques, I run a data design half day training course. Get in touch for more details.