The Article About Paper Sizes You Didn’t Know You Needed

This is the story of a global tug of war between ‘A4’ and ‘letter’

Leon Wu
Leon Wu
Oct 4, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

You can crumple it, fold it, print on it, and write on it. In short, a piece of paper can do it all. But not everyone agrees about what size it should be.

When I moved to the U.S. for college, I found out that they did not use A4-sized paper. It was a catastrophe. My first college essay came out of the printer cut off at the top and bottom. It reminded me of my teenage self every time I outgrew pants. I had an essay without a heading and a final sentence, which was no good for getting my point across about Dickens and Modernism.

It didn’t occur to me that the paper was the issue. I printed out my essay a dozen more times (apologies, trees). I thought there must be something wrong with the printer or the connection or even the feng shui of the room. I scrambled to different printing stations across campus. These were my college years, which meant it was only customary that I do all of this an hour before the deadline. I panicked. I started thinking that if I didn’t print this out in time, the school would kick me out, which meant I would have to leave the country, which meant I had to pack my bags, which I had only just finished unpacking that morning. Oh well. At least I achieved my main goal, which was not to get fat while I was there.

Eventually I found an I.T. person who checked my Microsoft Word settings. He quickly identified the problem.

“What’s this? You need to set your page to ‘letter.’”

“Letter? I’m not writing a letter, this is an essay.”

“I don’t have time to joke around. Set it to letter and you’re good. Then run a virus scan because I think your computer might be infected. It’s set to something called A4?”

Although I was confused (and understandably so — why would I print out a letter?), I changed the setting and presto, my essay came out of the printer in its correct shape and structure. Dickens was safe. For now.

A4 is the most common paper size in the world. You have likely encountered an A4 sheet of paper at some point in your life. The 210 millimeter by 297 millimeter shape has graced documents, reports, and exercise books. It has held the entirety of human history on its surface, which is not something you can say about most office stationary.

The exception is if you live in North America, in which case you may have never experienced the joys of A4 at all. You will be familiar with “letter” sized paper, which is slightly fatter and shorter and much less sexy. As far as paper goes, anyway. Occasionally, you may have used its even more awkward cousin, “legal,” which as far as I’m aware has nothing legal about it.

The U.S. does not like other countries telling it how to handle its paper. While the “A-series” was adopted to globally throughout the 20th century, the U.S. stuck with its own system. This occurred in the midst of World War II and the Cold War, a period known for being “America-first.” How dare those commies try to brainwash us with their well-proportioned documents?! This nationalist line of thinking is also why the U.S. didn’t adopt the metric system, a piece of history that still boggles my mind.

In 1992, the American National Standards Institute officially defined the sizes of letter and legal paper. Thus ended a century-long tug of war over whether the U.S. would switch to the A-series or not. And a healthy dose of nationalism means that in 2019, we are stuck with two different paper standards: one for the U.S. and one for the rest of the world.

Paper sizes are determined by standards agencies. These are diligent men and women who decide on the “correct” ways that things should be done. I can get behind this because as far as I’m concerned, there is always a right way of doing things. Standards agencies answer important questions, like “What is the correct way to abbreviate a country name?” (ISO 3166.) “How do you safely prepare food products?” (ISO 22000.) And, “What should be the ideal specifications of a wheelchair?” (ISO 7176.)

The numbers at the end refer to the protocol, and ISO stands for the International Organization of Standardization. 164 countries are members of this global NGO; as far as standards agencies go, it is the gold standard.

ISO 216 specifies the dimensions of the A-series of paper. It begins at A0 and gets progressively smaller up to A8. Part of the specification is that the ratio between the length and width of each paper size is always √2-to-1. This gives the series a unique characteristic: When you fold a piece of paper width-ways, the halves have the same aspect ratio as the original. That means if you need to shrink a printout to half its size, you can perfectly fit two pages onto the original-sized paper — which as far as paper technology goes, is basically witchcraft.

U.S. paper sizes were not designed to follow a mathematical formula. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the country’s paper sizes are a result of industrial process. Paper used to be made by hand, and the molds that it was made from measured 44 inches by 17 inches. This was used to create eight 8.5-inch-by-11-inch pieces, of what became known as “letter.”

The U.S. wasn’t alone in their arbitrary sizes. In the olden days, paper was a free-for-all. Countries made up their own rules and printing practices. The U.K. gave their paper royal names (Kings and Dukes, down to Foolscap). Meanwhile, the French named their paper after the people who crafted them (Roberto, Cloche, and Jesus).

It was only in 1922 that the DIN, Germany’s standards organization, first formalized paper. DIN 476, which ISO 216 is based on, was created by Dr. Walter Porstmann to increase the efficiency of producing office furniture. Can you imagine the difficulty of making desks if you didn’t know the size of the paper used on them? Germany’s furniture industry thrived with this new specification.

When World War II ended, the Western world faced the enormous task of reconstructing Europe. A large amount of housing and infrastructure needed to be rebuilt in a joint international effort. The ISO was formed in 1947 on this premise. If countries could agree to measurements and construction standards, then the whole rebuilding bit would be easier.

In 1921, a bizarre mixup meant that the government formed two separate committees to determine paper sizes.

DIN 476 achieved so much success in German industry that the ISO decided to turn it into a global paper standard. This would help with sharing documents between countries during reconstruction. In the 20th century, ISO 216 was adopted all over the world, not just in Europe. It found fans in Asia, Africa, and Australia, who appreciated the simplicity and design quirks of the standard.

But the U.S. did not adopt the A-series. For one, it already had its own paper disputes. In 1921, a bizarre mixup meant that the government formed two separate committees to determine paper sizes. The Permanent Conference on Printing established the 8-inch-by-10.5-inch as the U.S. government standard. In the same year, the Committee on the Simplification of Paper Sizes came up with 8.5-inch-by-11-inch standards. It wasn’t until over half a century later that President Reagan ended the confusion by declaring 8.5-by-11s as the winner. He made it the government’s official paper size. Then in 1992, the American National Standards Institute named this standard ANSI/ASME Y14.1, which documented the letter and legal sizes.

One of the reasons that the U.S. did not adopt the A-series may have been due to its isolationist stance. During the 20th century, the country took a conservative approach to foreign policy. Until Pearl Harbor, it did not want to be involved in World War II. The country’s large economy also meant that it was self-sufficient enough to not rely on foreign trade. As the U.S. suffered no infrastructure damage during World War II, it did not need to adapt its standards to rebuild the country.

Then there was the cultural battle being fought after the war. The U.S. and Soviet Russia were left as two rival superpowers who couldn’t agree on Capitalism or Communism. It erupted into a geopolitical struggle wherein each nation tried to instill its values across the world. While things like the metric system and paper sizes were not inherently political, they became markers of each country’s cultural identity. Giving up one and adopting the enemy’s meant a conceit in the culture war. After losing Vietnam, the U.S. could not afford to surrender and adopt its rival’s paper standard.

When I moved back to Australia earlier this year, I expected that I would need to adjust to the A-series again. After five years of the letter size, I have to say that I got used to it and its quirks. It was more compact than A4, and something about its short stubby dimensions was unassuming and cute. But the funny thing is, since being back, I haven’t had to think of paper once; everything is now digital. And thankfully, there does not seem to be the same disagreement over screen proportions.

My college printing problem is now just another funny story that serves as a reminder of a past ideological battle, long forgotten in a world headed toward digital globalization and multinational corporations. Maybe it’s time to throw that sheet of paper into the trash. Or if I can get it right, time to fold it into a beautiful, origami swan.

Modus

Helping designers thrive.

Leon Wu

Written by

Leon Wu

Neurotic millennial writer. Culture/Entertainment/Tech. leonwu2705@yahoo.com.au

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Leon Wu

Written by

Leon Wu

Neurotic millennial writer. Culture/Entertainment/Tech. leonwu2705@yahoo.com.au

Modus

Modus

Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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