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Improve your page layouts with Affinity Publisher’s column guides

For your publications to please, it’s important that they follow fundamental design principles. Column guides are a crucial feature of Affinity Publisher designed to help you with that.

Column guides divide a page into evenly spaced columns and rows, whose numbers you choose. As a design aid, they are a non-printing overlay on your document that is used to position and size elements to fulfil desirable design qualities like balance and harmony.

In practice, like many design ‘rules’, column guides can be broken if there’s a good justification. Use them as a starting point to ensure you have a fundamentally good page design in the first place and then experiment to add flourishes to your layout.

For example, an image might become more impactful if it breaks out of the grid formed by column guides.

Let’s look at how to work with column guides in Affinity Publisher.

How to set up guides in Affinity Publisher

To set up column guides, choose View> Guides Manager. On the manager’s right-hand side, click the Column setting’s arrow and drag the slider; the guides on the current page will update instantly.

Column guides sit within the page margins. Those margins can be adjusted in the Guides Manager’s mid-right section.

The Guides Manager, with examples of filled (left) and outline (right) guide styles behind.

There’s another kind of guide in Affinity Publisher: ruler guides. These lines are added to a page by dragging from the horizontal or vertical ruler and can be freely positioned.

You might use them to align objects when deviating from your column guides to make a layout more dynamic.

Ruler guide positions are listed on the left side of the Guides Manager. Double-click one to fine-tune it.

Apply column guides to multiple pages

Column and ruler guides are applied to the current page or spread only—the pages whose numbers are displayed at the bottom left of Publisher’s main window.

Use those controls or double-click a page/spread in the Pages Panel to change the current page—and so the focus of the Guides Manager, too. The manager’s window can be kept open while navigating your document.

To reuse the same guides for consistency across multiple pages/spreads, create them on a master page and apply that master to publication pages as needed. To set guides using a master page:

  1. In the Pages Panel’s Master Pages section, click Add Master.
  2. With the new master visible in the Document View, use the Guides Manager to set up your guides.
  3. Select one or more publication pages in the Pages Panel’s lower section.
  4. Drag the master’s thumbnail from the Master Pages section onto one of your selected pages. The master is applied to the entire selection.

Considerations when using column guides

Your first question when creating column guides will be how many columns and rows are needed for the design you have in mind.

Answering that is a discipline you’ll develop with time and practice, so don’t be discouraged if your initial choices produce poor-looking results.

We’ll work through a visual example in a moment to show why your starting and final settings may be very different. First, let’s look at some considerations to bear in mind.

1. An even or odd number of guides

An odd number of columns provides space within your layout to be playful. You might place a pull-quote or a picture entirely within the ‘odd’ column or span it across one or more adjacent columns.

An odd number of column guides gives a clear opportunity to hang elements like pull-quotes and images outside of your text.
2. Line length

The numbers of column guides and text columns on a page do not have to match—and often will not. A column of text may span multiple column guides. Try to look past the literal shapes formed by the guides and consider how text frames, picture frames and other elements should sit against them.

Elements spanning multiple column guides can add a sense of hierarchy or action, but be careful of it leading to overly short line lengths.
3. Work towards balance

Think how each element added to a page affects its centre of gravity and how you can maintain balance. Like actual content, white space affects balance.

4. Deviate for impact

Don’t be afraid to break away from your column guides’ structure.

If a grid of picture frames, for example, looks uniform and rigid, try merging two or more of them or extend a picture so it bleeds off the page. Column guides are constrained by page margins, but your design doesn’t have to be.

However, don’t deviate so much that clarity of the page’s structure is lost. Consider the proportions of deviations; when extending an element’s width into an adjacent column, try doing so in multiples of the gutter width, say.

The left example is too rigid. Consider removing one picture frame and making its neighbour more impactful by spanning twice as many columns, like on the right.
5. Steer the reader’s path

Be mindful of blocking the reader’s path through the page. A break in a text frame might be jarring; repositioning or sizing a pull-quote and allowing text to flow organically around it, using Publisher’s Text Wrap options, may help.

Consider whether an element spanning multiple column guides misdirects the reader through a page.
6. Research

Dissect a variety of professional publications and documents to work out their formal structure. Look for places where designers have allowed elements to break out of column guides and consider why they have done so.

An exercise in iterative design

Take the following scenario for a magazine article’s opening page. It illustrates how you might initially misjudge the number of column guides needed for a strong page design—and why it’s important to experiment with settings as you learn more about page design.

Our page will contain a headline and a standfirst (a brief summary or introduction). For simplicity’s sake, we will not change these between iterations.

The real puzzle is how many columns to assign to two text frames, snapped to the inner and outer margins, and a pull-quote and picture frame that add visual interest down the page’s centre.

We’re experimenting only with the number of columns here; our row count is fixed at 1 and the gutter between column guides is 1 pica (12 points) wide.

1. Five column guides

In the left example shown below, each of the body text frames spans two column guides. We’ve sized the picture frame so it cuts into them, but haven’t mimicked that on the pull-quote in order to avoid introducing an undulation down the page.

At just one column wide, the pull-quote is dwarfed by the body text either side of it. Line lengths either side of the picture frame are arguably too short.

Left: One column guide makes the pull-quote’s lines and those around the image short. Right: Rather than helping, seven column guides loses the page’s hierarchy.
2. Seven column guides

There’s too much emphasis on the supporting elements in the centre of this iteration. The pull-quote must be three column guides wide; one wide would make it even narrower than before, while two would shove it off-centre and ruin the page’s balance. Consequently, it dominates the page.

Extending the picture frame’s width to five columns would make line lengths either side of it terribly short.

3. Nine column guides

Line lengths throughout the body text are good here. However, with the three text frames being equal in width, the pull-quote loses impact despite its larger font size. The hierarchy has become too flat.

Left: Arguably better, but the equal span of text frames/columns and the quote is bland. Right: There’s a clear hierarchy, good proportions among text, and an impactful image.
4. Eleven column guides

Eleven columns sounds like a lot, but this page design shows that a low double-digit quantity can work well. This shows why it’s crucial not to give up too soon. Experiment and compare against earlier, simpler column guide configurations.

The picture box encroaches on the text only a small amount, so line lengths are comfortable to read throughout the text frames. Importantly, the hierarchy of text elements is clear.

The pull-quote here is the second narrowest among all four iterations. It’s only slightly wider than in our initial design, yet easier to fit text to its line lengths, which are in turn better for reading.

An 11-column grid has proved to be the right recipe for balance and good proportion in this specific layout. Don’t let this steer you towards always starting with a large number of columns all the time, though. A simpler setup is appropriate in many cases, whereas a more complex one might get in the way and slow you down.

Technical author

Alan is part of our technical authoring team and joined us from the world of magazines (MacUser), where he wrote up software techniques and worked on pioneering interactive digital editions. When he’s not neck-deep in page layouts, layer masks and adjustment layers, you’ll often find him digging through second-hand records for interesting sleeve artwork or gazing in wonderment at the graphical variety of Japanese video games.