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Diffractive structures such as pillar gratings are a promising way of coupling light into or out of thin semiconductor devices, for applications in thin film solar cells and light-emitting diodes. In this paper we show that the diffuse transmittance behavior of pillar gratings can be understood using the concept of grating mode interference and that the optimum heights of the grating and an estimate of the optimum period can be predicted with the effective index method. Furthermore, the method also gives good results for structures outside the range for which it was derived, including circular pillars and quasiperiodic structures. We also show that pillar gratings offer substantially improved performance over groove gratings for thin film silicon solar cells.