Type Size Explained

October 10, 2009 | Design Basics

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It’s a bit of a stereotype, but designers have a reputation for setting type too small and clients have a habit of asking for it larger. When setting type for print projects, there are a number of issues to consider:

Application: Across the room or held in your hand?

An ad, a poster at a trade show, or a book cover all need to have typography large enough to attract a browser’s eye. A brochure that is held at arms’ length relies on larger headlines to get key points across and then smaller type to fill in details. A business card should have the business and individual name easy to read, but other contact details can be smaller as it will accessed only when the reader is focused on getting that information.

Context: Attracting attention or a captive audience?

Another factor is how focused is the reader’s attention? While a novel and a sales brochure may both be held at arms length and include many paragraphs of text, the reading styles of the users are fundamentally different. When someone picks up a book, they have made a commitment to reading the text and they are probably willing to put on their reading glasses and get some good lighting to be able to get through the content. With a sales brochure, your audience is more likely to be skimming and wondering if the item is worth their time. Type size, along with other type styling (shorter content, more paragraph breaks, greater use of subheads) keeps people’s attention and helps them focus on the specific text that is of interest to them.

Size is relative: Type size as part of a larger design layout

Several times I have been asked by a client ask to set the type a certain size. Or, someone may be surprised when they inquire about the type size in a document and it was not what they expected.
For many in the business world, they do most of their “typesetting” in Microsoft Word. Often set in Arial, Helvetica or Times, Word documents are set up to be printed on an 8.5 x 11 sized paper. With standard margins, and standard line spacing, the type size that is the default in these programs (generally 12 point) is easily readable in these circumstances.

It is important to remember that when type is set into different sized columns, or placed into different applications that 12-point type may not feel right or even be the most readable. Imagine reading the New York Times set in 12 point type-believe me, it’s set smaller because of the narrow column width.

What is a type size: What does 12-point (or 9, 10, or 72 point) mean?

Point size is a measurement system that is a relic from when type was set as metal pieces. Points are just another unit like inches or centimeters, and are generally considered to be 1/72 of an inch. Therefore, 72 point type should be 1 inch high.

However, this original measurement system had a specific reference within the context of typesetting. A square piece of metal that was 72-points high (for example) needed to hold the complete letter forms of the font set at 72 point. This meant from the top of the tallest ascender (say the top of a capital letter “T”), to the bottom of the lowest descender (say the tail of the lowercase “p”) all had to fit into an area 72-points high. So a font with very tall capital letters or very low descenders would look different, compared to another typeface, within that 72-point high area.

Two different fonts, both set at 72 point, can look very different.

Two different fonts, both set at 72 point, can look very different.

As you can see, two different typefaces that are both set at 72 points in height can look like different sizes.

We’re digital now: Type sizes in the modern world

Now that type is no longer designed and set into metal blocks a difference in sizes between one typeface and another is even more likely. Size are now set by the type designer and are not necessarily in relation to the diagram above. So you can’t even really be assured that a type set in 72 points will be 1 inch high.

Both of these are set at 72 point, but are not the same height.

Both of these are set at 72 point, but are not the same height.

Both of these typefaces were set at 72 point. As you can see, the actual height varies. However, the typefaces feel pretty similar in size and readability.

Final Thoughts

Type size is not as set-in-stone (or metal) as you may think. As you move from one font to another you may need to adjust the size. Also, consider the application of the font and make adjustments based on the intended audience, the layout, the printing process, etc.

2 comments

  1. Mike Maddaloni - @thehotiron | October 10, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Thanks for the detailed explanation Emily.

    Then there is type on the Web, and the fact it can be resized by the Web visitor, which is a whole story onto itself.

    mp/m

  2. Emily Brackett | October 10, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Great point, Mike. I actually edited the intro paragraph to put in the words print. Looks like I have another blog post to write about type on the web.

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