Things I learned about design from hoarding foreign stationery (Part I)

by | Jan 26, 2012 | Blog, We Make...

I love to collect paper, envelopes and stamps from other countries. This post is the first in the series in which I’ll discuss everything from paper size and weight, to the appeal of layered media, to the pictures inside airmail envelopes.

1. Almost every other paper size is better than letter and legal.

My first encounter with International ISO standard paper sizes occurred when I had to photocopy my professor’s transcripts from an Italian archive. It was only remarkable to me in that I had to pay extra for copying on legal-size paper to accommodate the additional 0.7 inches of the A4’s length. I had a thing for paper bags and tickets and other two-dimensional traveling paraphernalia which I amassed one summer overseas, but the items were more memorabilia than creative stimulation. It was only when I went to graduate school and was forced to interact with paper material ad nauseum that I began to realize how paper size — especially national standard sizes — influence design and use.

ISO standard sizes, those A series and B series you see in the MUJI catalogue, are derived from official German paper standards. (Yes, the Germans actually have an entire government department for that — the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), or German Institute for Standardization. Check out the German standard font; it’s a lovely multipurpose sans.)

Anyway, the best thing about ISO sizes is that they are derived using a single aspect ratio. The A series paper are based on an area sized 1m x 1m (A0), which is divided in half to get A1, and in half again to get A2, and so on to A8, which is 74mm x 52mm. This system means that you can start with any size paper and simply tear it in half to get the next standard size down. A4 is the most used size and is slightly longer and narrower than our letter size. Second most used is A5 (half of an A4), which is a very useful notebook size because it gives a more generous page than half-letter size.

B series paper, seen more often in Asia than Europe, use the same 1m x 1m base, but the sizes are the geometric mean between each A size: for example, if A4 is 210mm x 297 mm and A5 is 148mm x 210mm, B5 is sized at the average between them, at 176mm x 250 mm. C series are use for envelope sizes and correspond to each A/B size sheets.

In terms of design, the ISO sizes are simply more attractive to design upon. The longer, slimmer A4 page gives a feeling of activity, dynamism to a layout, whereas the broader, shorter, squarer letter size feels sluggish and lazy in comparison. When creating a set of print materials, ISO sizes are so much easier to deal with because graphics can be sized up and down proportionally. A logo and layout remain relatively cohesive and simple to adjust for an A3 poster, an A4 letterhead, a B5 invoice, an A5 postcard and an A8 business card, and there is much less confusion when it comes to printing.

B5 is my favourite. It is so perfect for so many things. It’s the most beautiful size, for when A4 or letter size are too large and A5 and half-letter are too small — and there are so many occasions for it! It is a travesty that ISO standard sizes are not available in Halifax. I’m so obsessed with B5 that, when I designed my Forest Friend stationary, I bought paper in rolls and cut my own B5 and A4 sheets and made envelopes to match.

But ISO standard sizes aren’t just more visually appealing or cohesive for designers. They are also more environmentally efficient. Why use a whole letter size or A4 when you could use something smaller? We all know that everyone in every office over the age of 35 prints out their emails. (Why?! Why do you all do this? Do you suffer from chronic email losses? Have you not discovered the literal gigs of free space available on Gmail? Or do you just not know how to use “Search”?)

You know how much space an email usually takes?






You know what’s perfect for that? Anything but an entire sheet of letter-size paper. There is not and will never be such a thing as a “paperless office” (unless we go all Captain Picard and carry around iPads all the time — which actually might really be happening), so maybe we should all just get used to using, printing, sending, mailing and filing smaller pieces of paper.

Now, we Canadians are usually behind pretty much all the balls on the billiards table, but you know which other countries have adopted the ISO standard? Every other one in the entire world, except the United States. And I’m not exactly into sharing a lifeboat with them (because they would totally hit us over the head with an oar and eat us first).

My point — besides the obvious fact that not adopting ISO sizes leads to cannibalism — is that there is a huge letter-size box over the heads of us North Americans. Heeding the siren’s call of the aspect ratio will book you onto the first flight of fancy into Idea Town. And probably drive your co-workers and clients crazy when they try to print out that A4 pdf you sent them.

Hey, I’m Christel

Aquarius rising / Aries sun / Libra moon

Continually transforming under Pluto’s mysterious tutelage. Uncovering long-lost gifts of divination. Exploring the unknown, unconscious and unacknowledged.

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