Just as ancient Rome made extensive use of physical columns to support the structure of their architecture, so to do we use columns to support the structure of our typography and design. Don’t be fooled though — just because a column is a building block doesn’t mean it can’t be used creatively.
To put it simply, a column is a vertical block of content positioned on a page (physical or web respectively). You’ll notice columns nearly every day in newspapers, magazines and websites, and their purpose is to improve page composition and readability. A section of text, for example, is much easier to read when split into columns as the eye is restrained to a more concentrated area, allowing information to be absorbed less strenuously than having to drag the eyes along the entirety of a page. The white space in-between columns is known as the ‘gutter’, and is what allows the eye to take a short breather between sections.
Keep in mind, however, that columns are not only used in text situations, and also apply to graphics, white space, and any other content within your design.
Though there is no real definitive answer for this question as each design is an individual case, there are some things to keep in mind based on what it is you’re designing. If you’re working with a lot of text, say a magazine article, the unwritten rule is that the more important content is designed with fewer columns (usually 2). This gives the text more presence and importance on the page. Less important articles are often laid out in 4 or more columns as they are shorter stories that can be digested a lot quicker.
If you are designing something less text-heavy like a poster or email newsletter, the basic thing to keep in mind is that fewer paragraphs will cause the fewer to spend more time absorbing the information, whereas more columns will increase reading time and allow the eye to cover the design quicker. You might be thinking “Surely seeing more of the design in less time is the obvious option?” and while this can sometimes be the case, remember that while the eye can cover all the information, the human brain is a lot more fickle with what it remembers! You don’t want to split an important message over too many columns or you run the risk of it not being fully absorbed. By the same token, if you’ve got an energetic design that needs to communicate key points in a short amount of time, it’s better to use more columns than to run the risk of the viewer getting bored.
(Left: A company newsletter with an introductory passage from the CEO utilizing 2 columns, one for the main important message, and one for the navigation bar and contents. Right: A large format poster designed to be read and absorbed quickly utilizing (Including white space) 7 columns)
Columns may seem like a rigid concept, but when used creatively they can become a powerful tool for helping your design stand out. Your blocks of content don’t all need to be the same size, try making one column bigger than the others to make a particular aspect more eye-catching:
Columns don’t always have to be boring boxes, play with the shape and format of your columns:
Don’t let boring text dominate too much of the page, use imagery creatively to back up and compliment content within your columns and bring flow to your design:
Remember that columns are a tool to help guide and support the flow of your design, not a restriction telling you where to place things. Don’t be afraid to push the limits! Because when used with a creative mindset, you’ll find that columns can be your design’s best friend.