Standardisation… Yes, size matters!

You look at a piece of A4 and think it’s just what it is… a standard piece of paper. That’s the size paper always is. But you know what? It took a while to get to this point; and it’s not even sorted yet.

Mathematical considerations

Originally, monks would just make parchment as per their own requirements. However, there is evidence back in the late eighteenth century that the approach to this was changing. Interestingly… for maths geeks… this shift wasn’t triggered by need, it was triggered by a letter that outlined the benefits of the height to width ratio relating to the square root of 2. Bet you weren’t expecting to read that in a Braunston Print log!

Anyway, this whole square root of 2 thing means that if you begin at A0 and fold the piece of paper (long side) in half, the new half has exactly the same aspect ratio. And not only that, but the height of the new size is now exactly the same as the width of the original size. Thus, if you reduce a pic to half its size, you can fit exactly two versions in the larger piece of paper. Neat, eh?

The standardisation of A-sizes

A Sizes

And so began the standardisation of paper size… sort of. We won’t touch on foolscap today, and this system is also only in most countries; we’ll come to the US and Canada in a minute. All sizes, from A0 to A8, follow this pattern. Thus, conceptually, to produce an A4 brochure, you use A3 paper and fold it.

Examples of how we use the different A-sizes

To give you a proper sense of what we’re talking about, here are some examples of what type of printing uses which size… generally… though there are no hard and fast rules.

A7 – Large Post-it-notes
A6 – Post Cards
A5 – Leaflets
A4 – Letterheads
A3 – Menus
A2 – Posters
A1/A0 – Technical drawings, posters

Why does standardisation matter?

Well, for those who have a penchant for order and neatness, standard sizes for anything made from paper make them scalable, stackable, ordered, and less wasteful. It also means that standard envelopes can be made to fit the printed material you create. You’ll have noted that envelopes are slightly bigger, and that’s a whole different naming system, but we won’t deal with that today.

In turn, standard sizes also mean that you can copy easily. But that’s not all there is to it. After WWII, many countries faced a considerable amount of reconstruction. The International Organisation for Standards (ISO) was formed to help sort out a set of standard measures for construction. Part of this, included agreeing standards for paper size so documents could be shared easily.

But what about the US and letter size?

However, whereas most of the world has adopted the A-size approach described above, the US has refused to play ball. Instead, they’ve chosen their own system. In the early nineties, the American National Standards Institute defined the standard sizes for ‘letter’ and ‘legal’. Thus now, that’s what they use in the US, Ronald Reagan said so… end of. And do they care that their particular sizing doesn’t have a nice, neat mathematical formula to set the boundaries? Nope, not a jot.

So there you have it. A very potted history of the standardisation of paper sizes. Hopefully, when you talk to us next about printing your leaflets or brochures, our questions about size and scalability will now make a bit more sense!