ARTICLES ON THIS PAGE:
COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY OF MEASUREMENT,
AS RELEVANT TO TYPOGRAPHY
(an attempt to explain why precise typographic measurements are essential)
“UNITS”: A FUNDAMENTAL MEASURE OF SPACE AND WIDTH
on the Digital Typography & Graphics page.
COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY OF MEASUREMENT,
To make the comparative point, let me begin with bookbinding and woodworking, crafts in which fine work requires a fine hand and mind, and much skill and experience, but does not typically require the minute numerical precision that is a constant essential in most real typography.
AS RELEVANT TO TYPOGRAPHY
Bookbinding and woodworking are about getting small numbers of things to fit together within close eyeball tolerances, or to fit together exactly but with regard to the dimensions of each actual piece, rather than the theoretically exact numerical dimensions of those pieces.
The very fine measurements used in other crafts are rarely or never relevant here, and would often be meaningless and misleading. (Woodworking sage Chris Schwarz says “I rarely measure anything less than one sixteenth of an inch,” though for some specific operations he does in fact go to thousandths.*)
Thinking in terms of measuring everything to a precision of a seventy-second of an inch, or a thousandth, of an inch, and having all the measurements add up to the actual final total major dimensions, is not necessary in woodworking, and thousandths probably aren’t often relevant to bookbinding either, though I have a lot to learn about that craft.
In fact, as I’m just beginning to appreciate about bookbinding and woodworking, in these crafts thinking in terms of this sort of precise measurement is more than just unnecessary. It’s fundamentally the wrong mindset, since it leads one away from the most useful practical measuring techniques (and wastes time in the search for an unattainable level of exactness).
For example, skilled bookbinders and woodworkers will often use uncalibrated dividers where most people would expect to use rulers. Working finely in these crafts is not so much a matter of measuring and calculating as it is of directly matching and comparing objects. In these crafts, the objects are more important than the numbers, at least on the smallest end of the measurement range.
I grew up in a different world. My measurement necessities were always those of typesetting (both metal and digital), and printing, with a little DIY auto tech thrown in. (I have only basic woodworking skills. My other areas of concentration were philosophy and editing. In philosophy, neither rulers nor micrometers help much, while in editing, when you go beyond counting words and characters and get into measuring things, you're doing typography.)
So I’ve always taken it for granted that things were best measured in points—and fractions of a point—in type, and in thousandths of an inch for paper and for metal machine parts. (Real machinists work to ten-thousandths of an inch.) My go-to tools are finely graduated pica and inch rules, loupes with graduated reticles, and the occasional micrometer.
I have even found it extremely useful at times to measure the cap heights of letters in thousandths of an inch, though this can only be done to a precision of two or three thousandths, at best, and requires a lot of experience at evaluating the reliability of what you are measuring. I never met or heard of anyone else who does this, but I have taken its usefulness to the bank.
Also, a genuinely expert digital typographer will be thoroughly accustomed to working in relative units in the range of one two-hundredth of an em, which is seven ten-thousandths of an inch for ten-point type. (Your software will probably offer you units of one thousandth, but this is unnecessarily fine and inefficient. InDesign offers a keystroke default for one fiftieth, which is way too coarse. A better alternative is easily available in InDesign, but nobody knows about it. See the discussion in “‘Units’: a Fundamental Measure of Space and Width” on the Digital Typography page.)
You don’t see thousandths of an inch, of course. Neither does a machinist. But you see their effects, and in order to gain the desired effect quickly, without a lot of trial and error, you calculate with the necessary degree of precision, at every stage right from the start. Unlike the machinist, the typographer in normal practice rarely has to actually measure anything smaller than a point: for digital typography, the computer will do any smaller measurements and most of the large ones, while for metal type smaller measurements are rarely needed. A good typographer will, however, be constantly doing arithmetic, mostly in his head.
In fields like typography and printing, there is a reason for that degree of precision, and all that calculation. Bookbinding and woodworking, as I said, are about getting small numbers of things to fit together within close eyeball tolerances. Printing, however, is about getting small numbers of things (e.g., packing sheets and paper, type heights and roller heights) to fit together within extremely close tolerances, the sort of tolerances that can make the difference between a fine, sharply-defined film of ink and ink squish. It can also make the difference between printing from type and destroying type.
Typography is not like bookbinding, woodworking, or printing. It’s about getting large numbers of things (dozens of lines of text, thousands of letters) to fit together—and look good—within close eyeball tolerances, and sometimes to much finer tolerances when it comes to fitting things together. When large numbers of things have to fit together, tiny differences in the dimensions of those things add up quickly to errors that are unacceptable even for eyeball tolerances. And in complex layouts, errors are compounded even further, so that the whole piece may look like a Frankenstein layout, or may not even fit on the paper.
Such failures are not hypothetical bad outcomes. They happen constantly, whenever type and layouts are put together by people who don’t think and work in points, fractions of a point, and, for text aesthetics and text fitting, relative units. (Inches and millimeters don’t cut it, for reasons discussed elsewhere.) The way these people think is not only inadequate, it’s fundamentally the wrong mindset, since it leads one away from the most useful practical measuring techniques, and wastes time in the very complicated do-overs and re-designing needed to make things look acceptable and fit necessary dimensions.
This may not catch up to individuals right away, but it eventually catches up to whole industries. That wastefulness, along with the rest of the new-age carelessness of the new-school “typographers,” is the reason why the “decline of print” is in some degree a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It’s also one reason why the graphic designers who today claim to be typographers do not enjoy the security of employment that the old-school type people did. I remember well from the 80s and 90s that the old-school people changed jobs often, as accounts moved around and shops closed. It was a volatile industry. But, if they were even halfway competent, they could always find a new job quickly. I spent twenty years moving around that way (on top of ten years as a tramp pressman).
* In his book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, Fort Mitchell, KY: Lost Art Press, 2011, pp. 115, 309. The present article was inspired by a reading of his chapter on measurement. On the use by woodworkers of dividers and proportions, as opposed to measurements, see also Walker, George R., and Jim Tolpin, By Hand and Eye, Fort Mitchell, KY: Lost Art Press, 2013.
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