Book Design: Points and Picas Primer

by | Mar 21, 2012

One of the enjoyable parts of learning a new field is finding out what all the insider language of that field is all about.

When I got started in mountain biking, for instance, I was surprised to learn that the pedals I used, which were made specifically to clip onto cleats on the bottom of my bike shoes, were called “clipless” pedals.

In baking I found out that there’s a big difference between “active dry yeast” and “instant yeast.” Who knew? But if you mistake one for the other, your recipe could crash and burn.

But I also learned lots of terms from the specialized vocabularies that are used in those fields. Terms like “chain suck,” “downtube” and “granny gear” in biking. In baking, I learned what a “french pin” is and how to “dock” my pastry and where to find “ramekins.”

It’s the same with the world of books. Just in the area of book design you run into terms like “gutter margin” and “folio” and “face trim.” (In fact, you can find a brief glossary of some of this book design terminology here.)

One term that causes a lot of confusion is “pica.”

Printers Measure Different

Instead of writing this up, here’s a video [11:24] that I hope will explain what this “pica” thing is, why we use it, and how it can help you deal with your book layouts more easily.

(If the video doesn’t load at first, please refresh your screen.)

Discussed in this video:

  • What is a pica, anyway, and why should you care?
  • How our reluctance to change saved the pica
  • The pica and the point
  • The problem with inches
  • Book page layouts in picas
  • The truth about type point sizes

Did this video help you understand the idea of printer’s measurements? Would you like to see more videos like this one? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for watching.

Want to know more? Here’s a Wikipedia article on the Pica System

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. James

    Joel, I’ll say it again–these tutorial/explanatory videos are a great idea, and really suit your style.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, James, that means a lot. I admit I’ve started to have a lot of fun making these videos, although it took months to get the whole process set up properly.

      This video, in fact, was created as kind of a sample of the videos that are in the training course I’m planning to launch in a couple of weeks, The Self-Publishing Roadmap.

    • Dylan

      Elizabeth Almenar de Garcia – Gracias por estar al alcance de los veanzolenos que estamos fuera de nuestro hermoso pais. Un restaurant y unas paginas hermosas las que tienes!!!Aprovecho para hacer una acotacion. Cuando hablas del Anafre (hornillo portatil) es correcto porque es una derivacion de la palabra Anafe . Asi se dice en Mexico, por ejemplo. Pero para nosotros los veanzolenos, tal y como decia mi abuela se debe decir tal como lo indico: anafe.(Del e1r. hisp. anne1fiẖ, y este del e1r. cle1s. nāfiẖ, soplador). Gracias de nuevo!!!December 21, 2011 5:36 am

  2. Christopher Wills

    Great video and interesting discussion going on. We Brits do use the metric system but not exclusively. You can still buy a pound of potatoes, but also a kilo of ptatoes and as an older person I still talk of inches, feet and yards. The mile race is still run, as is the ten mile road race (e.g. the Great South Run); road speed limits are in miles per hour but car speedos are in both miles per hour and kilometres per hour. Petrol is sold in litres but beer is sold in pints. I’m not sure but I think milk is sold in both pints and litres. It’s confusing and highly illogical but who cares; it’s fun.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, I’ve never lived in Britain but it sounds a lot more confused than what we’ve ended up with here. We buy gas in gallons, potatoes in pounds, distance in miles, speed limits in MPH and speedometers in MPH too. Beer is sold in ounces, but in recent years soft drinks have been sold in liters. Go figure.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Regardless of the measurement system, one big advantage of buying beer or soda on the west side of the big pond is that it’s available COLD.

  3. Edwin Tipple

    Hi Joel,
    A very interesting video, especially the bit about point sizes being the overall height of ascenders & descenders. Be interesting to learn what happens to letter horizontal spacing – is this Pica too? – as font types grow or shrink.

    One small point, we Brits do use the metric system now for most things, though we still travel in miles and fill our cars with litres of petrol. Thank goodness we ditched imperial monitory measurement for metric in the 70’s!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Edwin, thanks for the info. As you can see, I don’t keep up with measurement system developments but I hope the video is useful anyway.

      As far as horizontal spacing, this is known as set width and each type designer creates their own letterforms in whatever proportions they like.

      Horizontal spacing is also influenced by kerning which adjusts the distance between some letter combinations and tracking which can expand or contract the spacing between all letters.

      In modern computer typesetting systems the measurements used to control kerning and tracking are “units” determined by the software engineers and may not have much to do with the point system.

  4. London Crockett

    As an old Quark/Illustrator/InDesign hand (and even some Fontographer), I was familiar with the terminology, but it was still fun to watch. One correction: Didot is pronounced “DEE-doe.” One of those crazy French things, like Fresnel, which is pronounced “Frennel.”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, London, I think I knew that once, appreciate the correction.

  5. Robin Moore

    Excellent video, Joel! Thanks for sharing.
    I had often wondered about the pts and picas how those measurements work.

  6. Joe Voutour

    Hey Joel I’m always interested in things I know little to nothing about but use on a regular basis. Years ago the US and Canada both decided to change to the metric system, but the US did not and Canada did. Too bad we cannot agree more on some of these basics. Not sure how I will use your pica info but I now know more when using my type sizes. Thanks

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the update Joe, and sorry for my woeful lack of info on Canadian measurements systems, we are very backward here.

  7. Mchael N. Marcus

    As someone who has worked in publishing and also sold shoes, I’ve long found it fascinating that both the pica and the shoe half-size increment are 1/6 of an inch.

    Apparently the shoe size is related to the ancient English use of the barleycorn as a unit of measurement, equal to 1/3 of an inch. They also used poppyseeds, which measure about 1/4 of a barleycorn. Poppyseeds are fine in rye bread, but I prefer onion on my bagels. Pica is also a weird eating disorder. I’ll stop now.

    Michael N. Marcus (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:

    — New: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”



  1. Writing Links: Best of the Web 3/19- 3/2330 Day Books | 30 Day Books - [...] 7.       Book Design: Points and Picas Primer – The Book Designer [...]

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