009 Design Tools, On Different Pages

I hope the mighty tiger, the subject of the last article in the CBA Design Series, gave you “paws” for thought. This month we’re delving into paper dimensions. Can you spot the difference between a sheet of letter and a sheet of A4? Find out about the heritage of paper sizes and what lay behind the decisions that led to their standardization.

America vs. (Most of) the Rest of the World

You like potato and I like potahto. You like tomato and I like tomahto…” In my head, the song, “Let’s call the whole thing off,” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald was stuck on repeat as I jetted off to the US of A for a new chapter in my life.

I can’t have been the first Brit to fall foul of this earworm. I was mindful of the broad spectrum of differences between the UK and US, despite our sharing a common language, and I was keen to bridge the gap. 

I’d done my homework and thought I was across our cultural, social and technical disparities, but one, in particular, came as a surprise. Read on to find out more.

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Confusion at the Printer Tray

They may be reluctant to admit it, but there’ll be plenty of Americans out there who’ve blown up the occasional, home-grown, electrical appliance on a trip to Europe. For a nation that’s built a reputation on doing things bigger and brasher, the USA has lagged behind in some key respects.

It can, for example, only boast around half the standard voltage in its domestic electricity supply compared with its neighbors across the pond. 

Having 100 fewer lines, the pictures on its TV screens have for years lacked the crispness and clarity of their European counterparts. Being across these and other divergences, I was cautiously optimistic of being already well on the way to fully-fledged American integration on my first day at CBA’s New York office. 

Hold the front page.

“Where do we keep the A4, mate?” I asked as I gazed down at the empty office printer tray. I was met with a puzzled look from one of my new American colleagues. Here’s why.

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Papering Over the Cracks

It turns out that North America does not sing from the same hymn sheet as most of the world when it comes to paper sizes. 

Mexico City, Ottawa and DC might buy their paper in “letter,” “legal,” “executive” and “ledger/tabloid” sizes. London, Paris and Rome most definitely do not. I embarked on a paper trail to find out why. Notepads at the ready. 

  1. Most of the world is on the same page and uses an international paper size standard, known as ISO 216. The most commonly used paper in this series is A4. It’s slightly taller and narrower than its stubbier American cousin, letter size.

  2. ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization. Based in Geneva, it takes Swiss-style accuracy to the extreme. After World War 2, there was a desire to rebuild fast. The consensus was that developing and using standards shared by everyone would help, hence the foundation of the ISO in 1947.

  3. The ISO is responsible for a whole raft of numbered genres, not just the one related to paper sizes. Here are some of its greatest hits:

    • ISO 3103 for a standardized method to make the perfect cup of tea!

    • ISO 3166 for country codes used in domain names and postal addresses  

    • ISO 6 for camera film speeds

  4. Back to paper: ISO 216 has its origins in a German system popular in the 1920s. Used to build desks more efficiently, it ensured paper fitted neatly on top.

  5. A0 is the biggest size of paper in the A-series. The sizes reduce at a fixed ratio down to A10: fold them in half and the proportions remain consistent.

  6. North American paper sizes don’t follow the same mathematical formula. When people made paper by hand, the molds that created it measured 17 by 44 inches. These then made eight 8.5-inch-by-11-inch pieces and letter size paper was born.
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It could be that the reason America hasn’t taken on the A-series is in part due to the distance it kept from much of the rest of the world during WW2. It was reluctant to get involved and its economy was more or less self-sufficient.

With an infrastructure left unscathed by the war, unlike many other countries it didn’t feel the same need to adopt international standards.

Paper size conventions along with other measuring systems may not have been overtly political. As the Cold War set in, they may have been considered part of cultural identities that were worth holding on to.

Most of Europe had been using metric units since the 19th century. And yet, the USA still uses the British Imperial system, something even us Brits managed to shake off in the 1960s. Admittedly that was a step too far for some Euro-sceptic die-hards.

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Paperback Writer

To an extent, the digital era has broken down the boundaries of the old world order. As a minor example, the virtual pages on our screens can now be as wide, round or narrow as we like. Woo hoo!

For some, paper sizes can feel like distant memories, strictures of a bygone era. Many of us have already crumpled them up and tossed them into the bin of history. And, the books we read still remain remarkably untouched by any desire to standardize their sizes. We continue to be as creative with their proportions as we are with their contents.

However, as I head back to the UK for a short break, I realize I still hold the ISO standardization and sheets of A4 close to my heart. They’re perhaps a small reminder of my roots and my heritage as a designer. 

Although in the grand scheme of things determining generic paper sizes may seem trivial, it acts as a prompt to flag up bigger social and cultural identifiers: Swiss precision, German efficiency and American hubris, to name but a few.

I’m also reminded that, because of the language the USA shares with it, the UK holds a unique position that straddles North America and its European homeland. I’m enjoying being continually surprised by the differences between their rich but different cultures.

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This article was written by Chris Martin, Design Director, New York.

The next Design Series article will be written and illustrated by CBA Associate Creative Director of Experience, Helio Salema!

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