Are inches or picas better?

Byron writes, “Is there an advantage in measuring in points or picas over inches, and if so, what is it? Also, where do you buy the best steel or other ruler to do it?”

—————

Inches are best for U.S. paper sizes.

Picas and points are the traditional measure and what I learned. There are six picas per inch, 12 points per pica, 72 points per inch, all easily divisible, unlike inches! A point is identical to a Mac pixel — the Mac runs on 72 pixels per inch — which makes paper-to-web transitions easy.

U.S. type sizes are measured in points.

A “computer” or “PostScript” pica is rounded to exactly 1/6 inch. An old-fashioned, traditional pica is .000622 inch shorter than this, so physical rulers no longer work. I’m unaware of any physical pica rulers (also called pica poles) that use the modern, computer pica.

I make my own rulers with inches on one edge, picas on the other, hairline rules. Depending on your printer, you may need to adjust the output size, usually in fractions of a percent, until it matches a real inch ruler exactly, and the picas and points will be correct, too. Also works for millimeters. Print on heavy stock.

Here for download is the file I made for myself.



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49 Responses to Are inches or picas better?

  1. Nancy Forni says:

    Depends on what you’re measuring. Page sizes are fine to do in inches, but try spec’ing your leading, indents and tabs with inches. Any text specification should always be done in picas and points . . . much more precise and much easier to figure.

  2. Kirsty says:

    Being in the UK, I use millimetres. Are they better or worse than picas?

    • John McWade says:

      Better, because they’re so simply, minutely divisible, and metric paper sizes are so sensible. Type, however, is still measured in points, and glass is still measured in pixels. If I ruled the world, everything would be metric.

      • Kirsty says:

        I actually think imperial measurements are nicer (easier to imagine — I can imagine a foot but not a metre — and that’s despite being taught metric in school), and always used them by preference until I started designing on the computer. But metric is definitely more efficient.

        And the A series of paper is the greatest thing since sliced bread!

    • Rufus Dogg says:

      Kirsty, you beat me to it. Millimeters rock. I love working with European clients, as there is never any discrepancy with using the metric system.

  3. Diane Douglass says:

    At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I use picas/points for almost everything but “page size” (if it’s a print piece). I have worked with picas/point for over 30 years (honest, I’m not THAT old) and they are far easier to maneuver than inches when it comes to using our common layout programs today. I too have my own pica ruler with inches separate and parallel to them, and points separate as well. My ruler is on film so it is transparent, which is a HUGE help.

    Good luck!

  4. Randy Martin says:

    To paraphrase Bob Dylan “. . . it was you to me who taught . . .”

    You were the advocate for picas. I resisted for awhile. Then I capitulated. Now, I can’t do inches. Picas work so well.

    I’m aware that there’s a distinction between standard picas and computer picas (1/6 of an inch), but I’ve always paid no attention to what that means to me since the variance was so slight I could not measure or see it. I am not able to understand what “. . . so physical rulers no longer work . . .” actually means. Are you referring to this infinitesimal difference? And does YOUR ruler measure Traditional or Computer picas?

    • John McWade says:

      The variance is visible only over several inches, but that’s too much; if I need an accurate measurement, I’ll use only my printed ruler (which has “computer” picas), never my old steel ruler.

  5. Keith Koger says:

    Also, how about offsets with drop shadows? I don’t know how anyone does that in inches. It is so much easier (and precise) in points. I’m old-school — worked at a newspaper for years — and learned (like John) to use picas and points. When I go on contract assignments, I totally freak out the other designers because I change all my prefs to points and picas.

  6. Scott Souchock says:

    When doing page layout, picas and points rule. I think the real reason this system of measurement was created was that it is divisible by 2, 3, 6, and 9, with nice, whole, round, easy, no-decimal-point numbers. You might say that it has a higher resolution in an abstract concept.

    Now if only we could get the engineers at Adobe to fix InDesign paper-size settings to be in inches (like Quark), because, at least in the U.S., paper is spec’d in inches, so we’d be getting somewhere. (And maybe we can get them to change “crop marks” to “trim marks,” which is what they really are.)

    Sometimes I am old-school, but, well, ever since computers, everyone’s a typographer, and they should darn well learn something about typography!

  7. serge paulus says:

    Here in Europe we do use mm or pica (in XPress).

    I made a “typometer” in Illustrator with a whole sort of measurements, including picas/mm.

    Here is it: http://www.serge-paulus.be/typometre.html

    • Olga says:

      Serge, could you explain for novices how to use your typometre?

      • serge paulus says:

        When I have to copy an existing layout without the digital assets (I mean, I don’t have the Indesign file, but I have to remake a book or magazine), many questions occur: What is the font size, the leading, the thickness of the rules, grey values in frames, etc.?

        And you have to measure anything else in the layout.

        That’s where this tool is useful — you can download it and print it on a film in order to put it on the page and measure things.

  8. Thamalek says:

    I find picas invaluable when designing items to be folded, as it is easier to figure out thirds (i.e., a “z” fold on an 8-1/2″ x 11″ page) in pica than in inches.

  9. In Adobe’s defense, they do allow you to use an assortment of measurement systems (Pics, Inches, Inches Decimal, Millimeters, Centimeters, Cicero, Agates, Pixels, and Custom). For many years I taught my public-relations students to use points and picas. I gave them math problems on tests to force them to learn how to use the system (public relations and journalism majors tend to have trouble with math). I also used them myself for many years. However, it’s a lot easier to do math in base 10 (inches decimal) than it is in base 6 or 12. Seven and a quarter (7.25) inches is a lot easier to calculate and remember than 43p6. Yes, you eventually get good at it, but do we need it any more with all of the quick measurement innovations in our design programs?

    Also, “smart grids” and “snap to guides” make most layout and design very easy; you do not need to use the ruler at all. Additionally, since you can specify the size of objects (text or graphic boxes) automatically, why would you be off?

    As suggested by someone else earlier, I teach my students to make their own guides on transparency sheets; that way, you can easily overlay it on a printed document to check type sizes, line weights, spacing, length, halftones, color, etc., whatever your needs are. The C-Thru ruler company also makes a lot of — you guessed it — see-through rulers that are great tools. The GA-86 (not transparent), and the GA-96 (see-through) are excellent, and you can get them for about six bucks online (I paid $20 for the first one I saw at a university bookstore 20 years ago).

    • Stephanie says:

      I also have a C-Thru GA-96 see-through ruler. It has a computer picas scale, computer points scale, leading gauge, line widths (from hairline to 12pt) and inches. Great tool. Wouldn’t be without it.

  10. judy warren says:

    I am self-taught (so I do most things the hard way!), hardly knew the computer four years ago, and am doing all sorts of web/print work. This topic was a HUGE help. I now understand how the measurements work and will be helped tremendously by your sharing of this topic.

    Keep the information coming; I have learned a lot with my subscription to Before & After magazine!

  11. Eco Mouse says:

    I’d have to say that if you are in the page layout and design field, you should not be using inches. Totally amateurish. Picas are quick and easy to see. If you use them enough, the mental translation is nothing. i.e., 21 x 12 is a business card. The “One-Pica Rule” for distance between objects still stands as the best visual layout spacing.

    On a steel ruler, inches and picas stop being dead-on accurate after four inches, or 24 picas. It’s not a big deal if you are using the computer anyway. If you are rebuilding a file from an existing print and you need to measure for accurate placement and reproduction, then you should use your printed ruler that matches PostScript picas.

    Secondly, I love real pica poles with that little hook on the end. I end up using them for all kinds of measuring. I can take a quick glance, see a whole number, and match the other side, if I’m measuring something that requires being even, as the unit of measurement doesn’t really matter.

    Picas Rule!

  12. Lilia says:

    If I need any of those measurements (inches, picas, points, metric, even decimals and agate lines) I turn to my trusty Schaedler Precision Rulers. In my opinion the best of the best. They are flexible, so you can measure anything with a curved surface, and they’re transparent. They measures to 1/32 inch and have never failed me in being accurate. I get mine at art-supply stores; I haven’t seen them anywhere else. So there is a ruler out there that has all of those features!

    • John McWade says:

      I see they have one with PostScript picas, exactly 72 points per inch. Nice.

    • Mark says:

      I’ve used Schaedlers since the early 80s as a print production manager in studios all over Los Angeles. They are the best, and as I recall a bit pricey, but well worth it.

    • Jon.Hersh says:

      I couldn’t do my job without the Schaedler Rulers. I think I’ve been using them for 20 years or more. AND they are also available at Amazon.

  13. Elise says:

    Inches, picas, meters, pixels, twips . . . the only thing that bugs me is if it’s pronounced may-zhur!

    =:D

  14. Alan Stone says:

    I’ll echo Nancy’s comment that it depends on what you’re measuring. I worked in the U.S. for over 30 years so it was all inches and picas, but now that I’m retired and living in Europe, it’s millimeters and picas — unless I’m doing something for someone back home. And, in Europe you need to think in “A4” instead of “letter” for a page size. But, more importantly, if you’re working on web stuff keep everything in pixels unless it’s a graphic you expect to be downloaded for printing.

  15. I like the handy dandy flexible rules from Galaxy Gauge. I use the shorter one more than the longer one.

    My pet peeve with all modern rulers: The 0 point should be at one edge. That is handier for measuring physical things other than books and type.

    • Gordon says:

      I agree from a certain point of view, but the 0 point is placed a few millimeters from the edge to guarantee that the ruler is accurate, even after the edges begin to wear off.

  16. Curtis Partridge says:

    I’ve used both inches and picas for years. My first job required me to use a Haber Rule for counting and casting type for a catalog company, then having the copy set at a typesetter with hot type (geez, I sound old).

    Now that I’ve been banging out page layouts, posters, and various other printed materials on the computer for nearly two decades, I prefer inches over picas. Decimals are so much easier to figure in my head, rather than the 3, 6, 9, and so on of picas.

    I think whatever works for the individual, they should stick with it. But don’t limit yourself; learn as much as you can about the craft, and stay on top of technology. My early years working with typesetters have proved invaluable to my career, and it pains me that it is a bygone era.

    For anyone who’s starting out (or needs a refresher), there are several good books on typography; one of note is Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton. Well worth the time and money for an excellent reference book for your personal library.

  17. Brad says:

    Hmm, I’m bothered a bit by the assertion that “A point is identical to a Mac pixel —- the Mac runs on 72 pixels per inch”. This is misleading, since few monitors are now (or ever were) actually 72 pixels per inch. I think it’s advisable to forget that there ever might have been any connection between a well-defined unit of measurement (point) and something whose size is getting smaller every day (pixel). Someday InDesign will let me set the real resolution of my monitor in Preferences so that 100% zoom means something.

    Cheers!

    • You’re right Brad. The single Mac pixel=1 point thing was true when the Mac was first introduced. It had a 640×480 resolution screen that translated to 72 pixels per inch. In fact, the whole “web graphics resolution is 72 dpi” thing is based on that ancient belief. Truth is, the resolution of a web graphic is dependent on the device you are viewing it on. There is no resolution for web graphics :-)

      The iPhone 4 Retina display is 336 pixels per inch, and the new Retina MacBook Pros are far higher than 72ppi.

      Regarding InDesign, it’s one of the “less than sexy” features of CS6, so no one talks about it, but CS6 looks at your monitor’s resolution and uses it. In CS6 when you view your artwork at 100%, it’s actually 100%. Hold a ruler up to the screen — you’ll see :-)

      :-) Mordy

  18. Chuck Beard says:

    Picas! I’ve always tried to teach the younger folk that picas are so much more precise than inches, without much luck. I can visualize placement of items so much better in picas.

  19. Cindy Cook says:

    Thank you for you timely article on picas. I’m with Mrs. O above on this one. My C-Thru ruler has served me for almost 17 years! I just searched the web the other week to see where I could order another, as mine is cracked to the left of “0” and chipped on the right-hand lower corner of my point scale. The handy font point scale served me well back when typesetting to recreate a document was faster than OCR.

  20. Mark Cameron says:

    I’ve also been using Schaedler Precision rules since the 80s, and have had their “6 picas = 1 inch” pica/point ruler for quite some time. It’s also see-through, flexible, and very tough. They last.

  21. Jon P says:

    I use whatever the job requires. But my own preference is inches because it’s the originating measurement for most of the page sizes I deal with. (For European pubs, I follow their lead and use millimeters.)

    I used picas when newspaper ads were more popular, and column depths were measured that way. But now, it just seems like a hassle to have to keep three measurements in mind when dealing with a U.S. print piece, and my mind is hard-wired for measuring in inches. So I opt for points to measure type and inches for sizing everything else.

    Web design is getting more complicated these days with the introduction of each new device. We may soon see a standard that requires 300 pixels per inch like we have with print graphics. That is if we settle on any standard at all!

    That being said, the content on the page or the screen will always mean a lot more to me than the arcane details of the production methods we use to represent it.

  22. Beth says:

    C-Thru Ga-96 Graphic Art Ruler has both picas and inches. It’s clear, so the E-chart is handy, too. I’ve been using this ruler in my digital publishing classes for over 20 years. It’s usually under $4 at our local art store. I use picas and points for type and in general, because I like whole numbers better than the long decimal fractions involved with inches. I have other measuring tools in case a project requires millimeters or centimeters.

  23. Skip Savage says:

    Shucks, I love rulers. I collect them. The one I use most these days is a pixel ruler, a Mac dashboard widget by beWidget. The maker says beRuler is “a simple yet useful scalable horizontal-vertical on-screen ruler.”

    Indeed it is. Incredibly useful, if not indispensable.

    I am Canadian and came of age during the change from imperial to metric. We switched because our greatest trading partner was going metric too. Then at the last minute, the USA decided to stick with imperial.

    Forty years later, we pump our gas in litres and weigh ourselves in pounds. We still think of letter-size paper as 8.5 by 11. We buy a pound of butter, but the label says 454 grams. It’s absurd, and should be a lesson to bureaucrats everywhere.

    More to the “point”, I use millimetres in InDesign, pixels in Illustrator and Photoshop.

    Changing the subject, if 72 ppi is no longer the correct resolution for web design, what should we use? Will Save for Web cause our images to look shabby on the Macbook Pro’s new Retina display?

  24. Saya says:

    I studied my graphic design outside of the U.S. and used to use the metric system. When I moved to the U.S., it was very hard for me to switch, but now I’ve gotten used to it.

  25. r says:

    Eventually the whole world will be metric, even the U.S., but they will only get there inch by inch!

  26. Ben Archer says:

    Hi John McWade and team,

    Re: “I’m unaware of any physical pica rulers (also called pica poles) that use the modern, computer pica.”

    Well, apologies for the late post. There is one enclosed in every copy of Joep Pohlen’s recent typographic textbook Letter Fountain (pub. Taschen 2011). I attach a picture of this taken by Peter Bilak for my review of the book at

    http://www.typotheque.com/articles/letter_fountain

    Scroll to the end of the online article and you’ll see it there as well. The paper stock version in the book is a development of Pohlen’s earlier ‘Mackie M’ boxed set, which is, unfortunately, no longer available, but it contained a big, German-made etched-steel ruler with the same Euro/Anglo/digital calibrations. Joep posted a picture of the boxed set and the full production details at

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/66045789@N06/6011792840/

    Worth a look if you get a chance.

    The original inspiration for a book-related giveaway pica ruler was Rudolf Hostettler’s The Printer’s Terms in 1958 — but they are now quite rare, and his picas are traditional ones!

  27. Gary says:

    The MacBook Air has a pixel density of 105 pixels per inch.

    The 27″ Apple Thunderbolt Display is 86 pixels per inch.

    Explain how Apple uses 72 pixels per inch.

  28. Andrea says:

    I still measure in picas and points, because I think it’s more precise and gives a design a cleaner look. You may not know it, but you sense it. Younger designers who have never done typesetting or production the old way measure things in inches. Sometimes they just eyeball something to measure it, and in my opinion that kind of guesswork can result in sloppy work. Most people think it looks “okay enough,” so that has become acceptable. They rarely see precision.

    I learned phototypesetting in 1983, before the Mac was introduced, and I remember when an Apple rep came to town to show off this tiny machine and what it could do. I whipped out my loupe to examine the printout of type and recoiled at the sight of all those jagged edges. Told my boss, “That thing will never sell.” Ha ha.

    Does anyone even remember what a loupe is?

    • John McWade says:

      Sure! I keep one on my desk and use it fairly often!

    • Michele says:

      I used to love looking through the loupe at the type that came off of the Compugraphic imagesetter! I still have a couple of Compugraphic E-scales — can’t find them anywhere anymore, but I use mine constantly. And definitely picas and points for me. I like the divisions of 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, etc., and in InDesign, you can even use 10ths of a point for even finer positioning :-)

      • Laurel S says:

        I too still have some Compugraphic E-scales (three, I think). At least one is in pristine condition. The one I use the most has gotten so much use that it has cracked and been repaired with tape! I will use it until it falls apart.

  29. Steve Kay says:

    McWade: ” I’m unaware of any physical pica rulers (also called pica poles) that use the modern, computer pica.”

    Response: As others pointed out, there are physical rulers out there that use the computer pica. I have one from C-THRU:

    AS-2A AccuSpec II: very durable and see-through, with 72 computer-pica ruler plus 72 traditional pica ruler, 216 computer point scale plus 216 traditional point scale, plus leading gauge, 12″ ruler, and a range of size samples of type characters, bullets, and rules

    As you can tell, I like old, multipurpose physical rulers like these. Certainly beats printing out a ruler, unless maybe you’d like a very long ruler. (Any pica tape measures out there?)

    I do wish, however, that authors who refer to picas in template designs would specify which type of pica they are using.

    (BTW, I’m just an amateur doing publications as necessary for my business — though, really, it’s a progressive public-interest project with a subsistence/nonprofit orientation. Anyhow, the design work provides a nice diversion from other aspects of my work.)

    Thanks for you blog.

  30. Laurel S says:

    I have two pica poles, both manufactured by Gaebel Enterprises. One is probably about 30 years old, the other one I got around 18 years ago. The older one features the older (smaller) pica measurement. The newer one has exactly 6 picas to the inch. http://www.geionline.com/index.php?p=catalog&mode=search&search_str=pica

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