Post by Student Body
What is a 12 point font? Is it my imagination, or is MS Word's Times
New Roman in 12 point font much smaller than 12 point font when using
One way to understand this is to go to a print shop and see some metal
type for yourself.
If you look at some 12pt sorts (which is what individual pieces are
called) and measure them, you'll see that the pieces of metal (or wood,
in some larger fonts) are 12pt tall.
If you now look at the letters on the sorts, you will see that they take
up only part of the available height.
Most typefaces include extra padding space both above and below. This
is included when you measure the font height. Think of small caps
fonts, for example, in which none of the letters takes up the full
height. (A common exception is large wooden type used for printing
The next complication is differencing between type founders. They
modify the letter heights and proportions to suit themselves, sometimes
for improvement, other times for less savoury reasons. So you SHOULD
expect different fonts with the same name to look slightly different,
though in many cases the differences can be hard to spot. You could
compare Arial with Helvetica and Swiss, or Book Antiqua with Palermo and
Palatino. I remember when Arial first appeared in the 80s. It was so
clumsily proportioned that it looked conspicuously like a cheap rip-off.
It also had a name that didn't seem to relate to what it mimicked.
But it was cheap, and the mass market didn't know any better, so it took
off strongly in the low-budget Windows world while Adobe Helvetica and
Bitstream Swiss went more to Macs and graphics designers. Arial has
been improved since then.
Are you using the same Times New Roman for LaTEX as you are for Word?
Or are you using a Microsoft version for one, and an Adobe or Metafont
or other version for the other?
You might also compare titling (or display) fonts with body fonts of the
same face and size.
How to measure the font size:
If you know the specifications of a font, you can deduce its type size
from the x-height, which is the height of the lower-case x. The
required knowledge includes the place where and time when the face was
designed, because units of measure, including the point, have a history
all of their own.
You cannot deduce the point size from inter-baseline spacing on a
printed page, because you can't tell how much leading is in there.
Leading is flat strips of metal that lie between the lines of type.
The point size matters for spacing.
A quad is a square space, as wide as it is high. So in a 12-pt font,
one quad is 12 points wide. That distance is called an 'em'. It has
less to do with the width of the lower case m than is popularly claimed.
This is especially obvious if you consider expanded and condensed
faces where the quads do not change even though the letter m does.
Standard spaces are one third of an em (which can be selectively
exchanged for quarters and fifths of ems for justification and other
If you look at what happens when you turn a space on its side (e.g. a
60pt en becomes a 30pt double quad) you'll start to get some inkling of
why the type in a manual print shop comes in only certain sizes.
Computer typesetting has moved on from much of this, and there are many
typefaces that deliberately break the 'rules'. But there are also a
great many computer typesetters and graphic designers who insist that
the best way to get good layout is to learn the conventions of manual
typesetting, which had several centuries to rid itself of bad design.
You could have a look at lulu.com if you want to see some examples of
books typeset by people who aren't all that interested in this kind of
thing, but who have had immense power put into their hands by the new
technology. In the old days, you had to go through an apprenticeship at
the very least before you could freely produce hardcopy output, and a
printing press with type cost much more than a computer and laser
printer do now. Early Mac users did the same sort of thing by including
a dozen fonts per page.
Systems like Metafont can try to draw upon the accumulated knowledge of
ages, but when you come across Knuth's claim that point sizes are
arbitrary, one has to wonder what kinds of sources he was learning his
typography from at the time. It strikes me as odd to get the niceties
of re-proportioning the opticals, and yet to miss the absolute basics of
type size. Then again, his Computer Modern strikes me as one of the
most peculiar typefaces in common use. Like Courier, it is clear, but
also so grossly mannered as to draw so much attention to itself that it
detracts from the text that it's meant to be conveying. But this is
just opinion. Each to his own. And if you're exposed to enough of it,
you will get used to it, as with most aesthetic things.