In Outside The Grid, Molly Holzschlag compares the grid of Tuscon, AZ to the radial/random streets of London, and from there moves to a nice argument for opening up web design beyond the grid. I like the illustrations, and this point is particularly good:
The CSS visual model is all lines and boxes. That’s the stuff of grids, right? Well sure, if we want it to be. This is where the fundamental difference is. CSS allows us to take a box—any box—and do with it what we want, independent of its surrounding boxes (Figure 7).
Two larger points are related: (1) “grid” doesn’t necessarily mean “all orthagonal”—consider Harry Beck’s Tube diagram, which includes 45° angles as well. Tables and CSS, however, are solely orthagonal. (2) the reverse is also true: just because a design uses all right angles, doesn’t mean it’s an effective grid (cf my last post on the ESPN redesign).
Besides whining about reduced usability (sigh), many of the comments claim that grids are the way to go—more “natural” or “intuitive” than other designs. For me, that’s not only wrong, but not the point; the point is that contemporary webdesign, and technologies which facilitate it, both forbid the “breaking the grid” experiments Holzschlag, Timothy Samara and others represent here, and enforce one kind of grid: the regular, orthagonal grid evangelized by designers like Josef Müler-Brockmann, and made “natural” by modern newspaper and magazine design.
Update 1/24: An email exchange with Karl Stolley has made me think a lot more about the designer/design functional/art divide represented in the A List Apart comments here. I need to look more closely at that…