Why those units?

Units

These are picas:

Pica

and this is a foot , or at least a part of one.

Foot

The pica and the foot have something in common. They both divide into 12 useful parts. In the case of the foot, these are inches. Inches are the units used in North America to size paper. The pica is divided into 12 points. Points are the units that typography is measured in. For example, 10 on 12 is a type specification. Ten points is the size of the characters, and 12 points is the size of the leading or line spacing.

Why should this be so? Well, North American paper sheets are sized in inches because imperial units are what the industry started with. Originally, all the paper-handling machinery built for the North American market, whether for paper making or printing, was made to handle paper to be trimmed to whole-number or whole-number fraction dimensions in inches. To change this would require retooling or replacing most of the paper-handling machinery across this continent, a terrible waste of materials and effort.

Type is measured in points because early lead typesetters had their own system of measurement. They needed a whole-number measuring system with very small units so that they could cast and set type in easy-to-reference sizes. Since lead type is no longer common, keeping this system may seem somewhat arbitrary until you consider that these type sizes have a useful relationship to imperial paper sizes.

Conveniently, point and pica measures correspond to imperial measures, so that 6 picas equal 1 inch. Because of this, picas, points and inches are easy to use together. A half-inch is 3p. A quarter-inch is 18 points or 1-1/2 picas or 1p6. An 8th of an inch is 9 points. (Picas and points are expressed <pica>p<points>, so 4p9 is 4 picas and 9 points or 4-3/4 picas.) These kinds of relationships make design and layout easier, because they help to keep measures simple and easily expressed in whole numbers and whole-number fractions.

Whole numbers

PageWhole numbers are the ones you use most commonly. They are 0, 1, 2, 3 and so on. Anything that simplifies math is welcome, and whole numbers and whole-number fractions like 1/2 are the easiest measures to work with because they simplify math. If you have a document that is 8-1/2 inches wide, the outside margin is 4p, and the inside margin is 5p6 with an 11p narrow column and a 18 pt gutter, it is easy to figure that the remaining text column is 29p6. This sort of grid is relatively easy to set up, and if any changes are made, they will be easy to implement.

The same thing applies with type measures. Ten-on-twelve-point type is easier to work with than 0.1389 inch on 0.1667 inch or 3.528 mm on 4.233 mm type. You can easily see that 14 lines of 12 pt leading are 14 picas deep. It is not so easy to figure 14 times 0.1667. The same thing applies to all type parameters. The font is sized in points, so the job is easier to work with if the leading, indents and spacing, tabs and so on are in the same units.

Millimetres

I once worked on an annual report that was specced as A4, which is a European size, 210 mm by 297 mm. In imperial units, this is a very awkward 8.2677 inches by 11.6929 inches. Since paper sheets here are sized so that signatures can be cut down to imperial sizes, very commonly 8-1/2 by 11 inches, this design decision required that larger paper be purchased and cut down, increasing waste and cost, just to produce a booklet in an unusual size. Then, as the job neared completion, the designer insisted that it was the wrong size. It turned out that she believed that A4 was an imperial size 8-1/4 inches by 11-1/2 inches, not a metric size at all. This required considerable extra expense to change. Unless you are ordering European-sized paper and your printer is set up to print and trim to metric specifications, millimetres have no place in design and are just going introduce the possibility of expensive problems.

The point

The point of all this is that while paper is made and handled in imperial sizes, in design, it should be specced in simple inch measures. Type and typography, including specifications for such things as margins and gutters, as well as type-style specifications, should be handled in points and picas. And in all cases, where possible, measures should be in whole numbers and simple whole-number fractions like 1/2, 3/4 or 7/8 for inches or 36pt, 4p6 or 5p3 for the corresponding pica measures. Don’t be the person who creates documents with arbitrary, awkward dimensions that are difficult to work with and that drive people like me mmm-mmmm-mmm-m mad.

Paragraphs

Wikipedia says, “A paragraph is a self-contained unit of a discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea. This includes at least three sentences. The start of a paragraph is indicated by beginning on a new line. Sometimes the first line is indented. At various times, the beginning of a paragraph has been indicated by the pilcrow: ¶.”

In applications like InDesign, a paragraph is any discrete block of text that needs to be separated from those around it. Paragraphs as defined are an example. So are all heads of various levels, and list entries. Publishing software is set up with the assumption that these will end with a pilcrow, the paragraph return, and that paragraph returns will appear nowhere else. Otherwise, basic functionality such as style sheets cannot work correctly.

There are three common ways in which you might find paragraph returns misused:

  1. To position text.
  2. To create paragraph space, or
  3. To break lines within a paragraph.
Returns used to position a head
Returns used to position a head

All three of these usages present more or less the same problems. Because returns are not uniform in size, using them to position text or create relationships between blocks of text or other elements is imprecise and difficult to duplicate. Working this way, elements that appear throughout a document will be inconsistent because every instance is a kludge. Space above and below paragraphs must be created within the style sheet using the space above and space below properties. The position of a block of text should be achieved using the text-box alignment properties or by appropriately sizing and positioning the text box.

Returns used for line breaks
Returns used for line breaks

Creating line breaks with returns is an even more problematic misuse of paragraph returns. Inserting a paragraph-ending return within a paragraph creates two paragraphs. So, the second paragraph must have its style changed to make it appear to be part of the paragraph above. There is a forced line break character intended for this purpose. However, if you are manually breaking hundreds of lines in a document instead of, for example, unchecking the Hyphenate box in the style sheet once, what are you doing?

If you use returns in any of these ways, you create a document that is much harder to work with. Design changes that apply to elements spaced or positioned with returns require that you revisit and redo every instance instead of making one change to a style sheet. Text edits that cause kludged paragraphs to reflow can produce typographic messes that add hours to production time.

There is another drawback to using empty returns in a document. Every one of those returns has paragraph attributes of its own, including style, size and font. While these varying attributes make the returns problematic as formatting elements, they also introduce fonts and styles that may not appear anywhere else in the job, confusing the document’s design and output. Jobs or portions of them routinely get picked up from other jobs. If the picked-up content is not reconciled with the current design, you will soon end up with a job full of extra fonts and styles. Empty returns are a place for such problems to hide.

Returns used to position a block of text on a page
Returns used to position a block of text on a page

The Bridge Metaphor

You find yourself about to cross a bridge. The bridge spans a deep canyon. A sign on the approach to the bridge informs you that the architect was as little concerned with, engineering as a great many designers are with sound document creation . . . Will you cross the bridge? It looks like a bridge, after all. But what will happen if the architect felt that precise dimensions were not his responsibility? The bridge ends might not meet in the middle. For that matter, what if the architect was not all that interested in materials and figured that cardboard and hemp would do just as well as, say, reinforced concrete and structural steel? It indeed looks very like a bridge – a beautiful, arching, graceful bridge, in a very interesting colour. It is, however, starting to rain and the cardboard looks to be getting wet.

When I started working about twenty years ago, the technology that is used in graphic design studios today was in its infancy. This technology changed almost every aspect of workflow, which became as unlike that of a pre-computer studio as it could be. This presented problems.

The technical experience and customary working process of many senior people who had been in traditional studios for decades became irrelevant. Their aesthetic skills may have been intact, but they no longer understood how their concept would or could be realized. The stat-camera they were so familiar with was gone. There were no rough paste-ups, galleys, marker renderings or comped type. They did not have the skills or working vocabulary to do or to direct computer work, so their ability to interact with projects was significantly compromised. They could jump on the learning curve, and many did. However, many more blundered ahead and produced work that required extensive alteration and correction to be useful.

Junior designers, entering the field with computer skills, were often saddled with this task, pigeonholed in a way that was very difficult to escape. Juniors who a decade before would have been mentored by more experienced designers found themselves explaining why the direction they were being given was inappropriate. They found themselves instructing the very people they should have been learning their trade from. How could resentment not arise from such a situation?

Where once there was a ladder of junior, intermediate and senior designers, everyone ascending according to talents and ambition, there appeared a two-class system of creative and technical people. The former were seemingly above technical considerations in their stratosphere of ideas, and the latter were not taken seriously for their creative abilities because, by definition, anyone who had technical skills could not be creative. This is where my bridge metaphor comes from. It was like choosing an architect with no technical appreciation over one with extensive engineering skill precisely because the former didn’t know what he was doing.

Add to this that many people entered “desktop publishing” with no design skill set whatever. Companies that decided the operation of a machine was a menial task would grab a handful of their clerical staff and send them on a ten-week course to become desktop publishers. These people were particularly ineffective at dragging studios into the 21st century. Senior designers who lacked the technical vocabulary to do or direct computerized design were directing DTPs who may themselves have understood the basics of operating Quark XPress, but lacked the design skills to understand what they were being directed to do.

In these circumstances, what passed for design or art direction usually resolved a minimum of the design requirements. And what happened in production amounted to what carpenters call back-framing: trying to make a comprehensive design based on the existing pseudo-design. Since the artists doing this were either junior designers or not designers at all, and since neither was benefiting from effective guidance, the quality of their work largely depended on what they could figure out for themselves.

This situation produced a lot of problematic work. For years, much of what film houses and printers did was to correct and adjust artwork in client files just to make it possible to RIP the jobs.

Computerization revolutionized graphic design, and revolutions are messy. And yet, a messy transition period between an old order and a new should come to a conclusion. Two decades later, some of the most fundamentally awful design and production documents I have ever worked with were recent. Why?

There has never been a “clean start” since the introduction of computerized design and production. Designers drag along work practices and bad habits acquired years ago. They have all evolved their own standards, giving rise to the notion, excusing inconsistency, that “everyone has their own way of doing things.” No surprise, then, when it is difficult to prescribe sound work practices or distinguish bad ones. And yet we should.

When we do not produce sound comprehensive designs and documents that are easy to work with, there is a toll in time, money and peace of mind. No one wants to be the architect of little disasters, and we can do better.