013: Extreme Type

Updated: Jan 8

Today’s episode is one that looks at extremes. Huge type, tiny type and everything in between live here. But before we get to the fun extremes, let’s first have a look at how documents and type are measured in industry. For that, we must start with M-m-m-m-MATH!

Now, I don’t want to scare you. Many creative people RUN SO FAST when they hear the dreaded ‘M word’ so I don’t want you to turn this episode off. I truly believe that once you understand the units of typographic measurement and how they relate to one another, I’m confident you won’t be scared of typographic math any more.

First, there are a few different units of measure to be aware of including: imperial units of measure (inches), metric units of measure (centimetres and millimetres), and typographic units of measure (picas and points).

Here's an easy reference point: 1 inch = 2.54 cm, 25.4 mm, 6 picas, 72 points.

If you need to convert from one unit of typographic measurement to another (let’s stay focused on imperial units found in the world of design and printing - inches, picas and points), use an inch as the benchmark. In fact, take out a pen or pencil and piece of paper right now. Pause this episode and go get your materials. I’ll wait.

You’re back, tools in hand. So now please draw a horizontal line and label it “1 inch”.

Next, draw a line the exact same length below and break up that line into 6 equal parts. Label this line ‘picas’.

Next draw a line the exact same length below and break up that line into roughly 72 equal parts (you can break it up into 7 equal parts with little vertical lines and then 10 more parts within each to get to about 72). Label this line ‘points’.

So you should have 3 lines at this point: 1 inch, 6 picas and 72 points. These are your 3 basic typographic units of measure. Inches are typically used to describe the overall page dimensions (that book is 5.5” x 8.5”), picas are used to measure horizontal column width commonly used in the magazine and newspaper industries, and points are the way in which type size is expressed.

There’s one more piece of this typographic unit information you need to complete the puzzle. Points are a subunit of picas. If you have a look at your hand drawn lines, you should notice that there are approximately 12 points in 1 pica. 12 points = 1 pica. Therefore, if you have a document width of 61 points and you were asked to reduce this value to its lowest common denominator, the correct answer is 5 picas and 1 point (expressed as 5p1).

Let's try another one. If you had a document that is 1.5 inches and you were asked to convert that value into picas, the correct answer is... 9 picas. 6 picas is equivalent one inch and 3 picas is equivalent to half an inch. Add them together to get 9 picas.

If you’re expression points by themselves (ex: I’m using 13 pt. type), the way in which you express this measurement is identifying the number (13, in this case) and the letters pt. after it.

At the end of the day, if you understand the two big ones (inches and points) and how they relate to one another (1 inch = 72 points) this will help you tremendously when using software like Adobe InDesign.

Enough math. Let’s get into the fun stuff. Exploring the largest and smallest books and type in the world.

Largest Book (Size)

One of the world’s largest handmade books takes six people to turn each page. It’s located in a small town in Hungary and it’s 346 pages contain information about the flora and fauna of the region. It was created using traditional bookbinding techniques that were scaled up to work with such a large end product. The dimensions of the book are 4.18 x 3.77 metres (nearly 14 feet by over 12 feet). It’s one of the world’s largest books and it weighs in at a whopping 1420 kg (more than 3000 lbs)!

The largest book in the world broke the Guinness World Record in February 2012 is located in Dubai, UAE. The book measures 5 x 8.06 metres (more than 16 feet by more than 26 feet) and weighs 1500 kg (more than 3000 lbs). The book is called “This the Prophet Mohamed” and complies stories of lifetime achievements of Islam’s Prophet.

Largest Book (Mass)

This one goes to a collection of massive stone tablets in Myanmar. There are more than 700 marble tablets (each one over 5 feet tall and 3.5 feet wide) and tell a story central to Buddhist religion.

Longest Book (Most Pages)

The longest book is awarded to the 17th century work translated to ‘Atarmene or Cyrus the Great’ and over the 10 volumes contains over 10,000 pages and 2.1 million words. Keep in mind that books published today typically contain 50,000-100,000 words, or 2.5-5% of this book. Even the notoriously long ‘War and Peace’ contains only ¼ of the words, around 560,000.

Most Copies Sold

This one goes to the Bible, with an estimated 5 billion copies sold (4 billion in the last 50 years alone). It was the first book to ever be printed using Gutenberg’s printing technology almost 500 years ago and it continues to be a bestseller. A work entitled “Quotations from the Works of Mao Tse-Tung” came in second with 820 million copies sold and Harry Potter rounding out the top three, selling approximately 400 million copies and becoming the best-selling book series in history. No wonder J.K. Rowling is the one of the richest women in the UK.

Most Expensive

This notoriety goes to a book owned by Bill Gates, purchased in 1994 for $30.8 million. The book is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which is an original hand-drawn manuscript from the early 1500’s and it’s one of 20 of da Vinci’s notebooks still in existence. The entire book (notes and sketches) is transcribed in his unique right-to-left “mirror writing”.

Most Valuable

This one goes to the Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1455 using printing technology and moveable type. Although 180 2-volume sets were originally printed, just 49 exist today and only 21 are complete sets. Thankfully, most, if not all copies are owned by museums, libraries and institutions and many are available for the public to view so we can all enjoy this practically priceless work of art. Check out my fourth podcast episode entitled ‘Gutenberg’ to learn more about this great book.

Let’s flip to the other side of the equation for a second - the smallest.

Now, I can tell you with great certainty that the least valuable work, with the fewest copies sold, containing the least number of pages is anything any of us has created for school projects when we were little (well, maybe they were valuable to our grown ups).

The smallest book in the world was developed here in Canada at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The 30-page book, perfectly named ‘Teeny Ted from Turnip Town’, can only be read using an electron microscope. The book was printed using pure crystalline silicon. It measures an unbelievable 70 micrometers by 100 micrometers - it could fit on the width of a human hair!

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of typographic measurements, you can go out into the world and create the next massive or teeny tiny work of book art.

Go big or go home!


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