The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

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All the Print That Fits

I have criticized law reviews for their poor typefaces and for their poor small caps. But all is not wrong in law review-ville, because law reviews as a rule get something else right: page dimensions. 8.5″ × 11″ is a difficult size for a typeset single-column printed page, and law reviews mostly avoid its traps. The problem arises from the interaction of three constraints:

  • A line of text should be between 45 and 75 characters for optimal readability, at least according to conventional wisdom.

  • The human eye can comfortably read printed text with a font size down to about 9 or 10 points, depending on the typeface.

  • A font’s point size and its characters per inch are inversely proportional. A typical 12-point body font will have about 12 to 13 characters per inch.

In a nutshell, the problem is that an 8.5″ page is too wide. The designer needs to fill the space with something: large fonts, long lines, large margins, or multiple columns. None of these options is ideal

  • Large fonts. A single-column 8.5″ page with 1″ left and right margins has a textblock 6.5″ wide. A 14-point font will fit a comfortable 65 to 70 characters per line, But a 14-point font is big and unsubtle; a brief at 14 points stops looking like a legal document and starts looking like a Reader’s Digest Large Print legal document. It’s also profligate with paper because it fits so little text on a page–a large point size means not just fewer characters per line but also fewer lines per page. A high page count also forces readers to flip between pages more often.

  • Long lines. The obvious solution to large fonts is to bump the point size down. But the math is unforgiving. A 6.5″ line in a 10-point font will have 100 or more characters per line, far above the comfort zone. Readers will find it harder to jump from the end of one line to the start of the next without losing their place. Even a 12-point font will yield 80 characters per line, still on the high end of the comfort zone, still bumping up the page count, and often still visibly “large” to the eye.

  • Large margins. It is possible to compensate for long lines by increasing the margins rather than the font size. For example, the same 8.5″ page with 1.5″ margins will have a 5.5″ textblock. That 10-point font now yields a line closer t0 80 characters per line than 100. The page as a whole also looks better: the large margins are good for notes and give the page a more restful feel. But that empty space is still wasted on the reader who isn’t scribbling marginalia everywhere.

  • Multiple columns. At this point, the obvious typographic solution is to give up on a single column and go instead to a page with more but narrower columns and smaller margins. When magazines and scientific journals print 8.5″ × 11″, this is what they do. The resulting page is elegant, readable, and efficient. But it comes at a cost: reading on a computer is now harder. A reader without a screen large enough to show the entire page comfortably–which rules out most laptops and many tablets–will have to scroll down and then back up and to the side at each jump between columns.

Law reviews cut this Gordian knot by using smaller pages. Here are a few examples:

  • Harvard: 5.99″ × 9.02″ (1.51 : 1)

  • Michigan: 6.33″ × 9.78″ (1.55 : 1)

  • Minnesota: 6.13″ × 9.86″ (1.61 : 1)

  • Ohio State: 6.22″ × 9.82″ (1.58 : 1)

  • Penn: 5.75″ × 9.25″ (1.61 : 1)

  • Yale: 6.34″ × 9.83″ (1.55 : 1)

At these dimensions, a single-column textblock in a reasonable font size with reasonable margins easily lands within the ideal line length range. Law reviews’ fidelity to their historic page dimensions means that their page designs are often decent. This is not to say that a multi-tracked multi-page stream of text above and footnotes below is the only or best solution to the design challenge created by the content of a typical law-review article. But given that decision, law reviews generally implement it with appropriate page dimensions.

Unfortunately, the world is moving on from the printed law review: most people now read law review articles as PDFs or as printouts from PDFs. A law review that posts 8.5″ × 11″ PDFs to its website drops its carefully crafted pages in a sea of whitespace. In effect, it publishes large-margin 8.5″ × 11″ pages, but the margins are no longer designed with the textblock in mind. The reader who prefers to scroll down through a PDF now must skip several inches every time she reaches the end of a page. The reader who uses an iPad to read one page at a time must double-tap to zoom in on every page. The reader who prints out the PDF uses several dozen extra square inches of paper for each page.

Hein Online gets this one right. When you download a PDF, you get it in the size it came from the law review. Penn comes to you on a 5.75″ × 9.25″ page; Ohio State on a 6.22″ × 9.82″ page. What difference does it make, you may ask? After all, you probably don’t have 6.22″ × 9.82″ paper lying around in your office printer. But you do have another option: you can print 2-up, with two law-review pages next to each other on each physical 8.5″ × 11″ page (and thus four law-review pages per sheet of letter paper). The results aren’t perfect, but most law reviews print close enough to 5.5″ × 8.5″ (half the size of letter paper) that the pages only need to be scaled down by 10% to 15%. That’s still readable. As a result, readers who prefer to print out their PDFs have a choice of much paper to use, based on their particular needs. Readers who use digital devices have more convenient pages.

There’s a general principle here. When you have a choice, target a PDF page size that corresponds to your actual page design. You should do you best to ensure that when the resulting PDF is printed on 8.5″ × 11″, what results is still attractive and readable (just as you would ensure that when a full-color PDF is printed black-and white, what results is still attractive and readable). But by distributing a PDF that matches your physical pages, you make it easier for digital readers to experience your work as it was meant to be experienced, and you give readers who prefer to print more options.

Oh, and by the way, don’t read law review articles by downloading them from Lexis or Westlaw. Just don’t.

Third in an occasional series on typography and legal academic writing.