CalArts: Funds. of Graphic Design-W2: 2.3 Type Size: The Point System

One of the most important things you need to know about type is how type is measured.

Because type isn’t measured in centimeters or inches. That has its own separate measuring system. So let’s take a look at type size.

Now we already know that type has a cap height measurement. And you think that might be a sensible way of measuring type. But that isn’t how type is measured.

The system for measuring type that we use is based on times when type was actually set on metal and that metal was used on a printing press to print letter forms.

So each letter form was a raised piece of type and it had a body behind it, had a solid piece of metal behind it.

And that block of lead behind the type, that body. Would have a uniform size so that the type could be lined up on a press in order to print it.

And it’s this body that we measure when we’re measuring type. And that’s known as the point size of the type.

Now what is a point, you might ask?, that’s a very good question.

Basically there are 72 points in an inch.

So, a point is 1/72 of an inch, and this might sound like a confusing system but it’s actually very useful because it can be mathematically divided Into a very harmonious proportional system.

So here we can see some different standard type sizes. 120, 96 points, 72 points, all the way down to 6 or 8 point type is quite small.

And these are the standard set of type sizes and they came about again from metal typesetting. 
And in metal typesetting you would actually have to cast the typeface at a specific size. 
So, right, you couldn’t cast every single size, every single one point increment. You’d have to select which sizes you were going to set.

So these harmonious mathematical relationships grew out of that. So it’s very different from the computer screen where you can make type be any point size you like.

So these basic standard sizes are really useful, especially when you are starting type. They can be good guidelines and good starting points. So let’s look at what some of these different sizes are used for.

When you are first working with type these numbers can seem quite abstract. They don’t really make that much sense.
So it can help to categorize them into certain usages.

  • So the largest size type, 120, 96, 72, that would be something more like being used for headlines.
  • and medium size type will be for subheads 36, 24
  • and if you are setting text, you’d set it in something like 10 point type. Although I prefer 9 point or even eight and a half [8.5], a little bit smaller.
  • And then something as small as a 6 and 7 point type might be for footnotes or something like that.

So let’s take a look and see how that actually looks as comparative sizes in a format, say, for setting text in a book, for example.

So here’s some type set at these different sizes. 
You can see the headline set at around 96 point, 
the subhead around 36, 
the body text is probably around 9 point, 
and the footnotes around 7 point.

So you can see already how this kind of system, this scale harmonious system works with these different preset point sizes. And it can really help you get a rough idea of what point size you should be using for what job.