Better Than Letter — A4 Paper

As an ex-pat Brit (though I hate the term “Brit”), there are many things I hanker for from the old country: cozy pubs without TVs and Katy Perry shoved down my auditory canal; a decent bacon sarnie (with brown sauce, thankyew); the misguided sense that the world generally gives a hoot about some little ex-imperious island bobbing around in the North Sea. You know, the little things. Prime amongst these is good old A4. No, I didn’t leave an Audi behind in a London lock-up, but rather another German invention — the international paper size standard, otherwise known as ISO 216.

A4 is the most common paper size in the world, and is the standard for documents in every country in the world, with the exception of the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, the Philippines and, of course, Canada.

Why should I miss a paper size (other than because I’m a fanatical nerd)? What are the intrinsic benefits? What makes A4 better than letter?

The beauty of the A system lies in its proportions. All A sizes have an aspect ratio of the square root of 2 — or 1:41, if you prefer — meaning that if a sheet is divided in two, the proportions remain the same.

A sheet of A4 is derived from a master sheet known as A0, which measures 1189 x 841 mm, which equates to roughly 1m2 (one square metre). Since each of the A sizes is half the previous one, a sheet of A4 is therefore 1/16 of 1m2.   

Since the proportions always remain the same, scaling any artwork from, for instance, A4 to A3 (double the size of A4) is proportional also. Put simply, the size can change, but the shape will not.

So far, so handy. But wait, there’s more. Metric paper sizes are weighed in grams per square metre, or GSM for short. The standard weight for common or garden-variety A4 is 80 GSM. Since all the sizes are divisible from the square metre, we can easily ascertain that one sheet of A4 equals 5 grams. (1/16 of 80 GSM).

Canada, like Britain, has a weird relationship with the metric system. Both nations half embrace it, albeit for different applications. For instance, distance and speed in Britain are measured in miles, whereas volume is measured in litres, barring the quintessential pint, of course. No one in Britain wants a warm half-litre of ale of an evening. It’s as if we can’t let go of the past.

Which brings us to the main point of the ISO 216 standardization: it’s not arbitrary or arcane, it’s based on mathematics. The U.S. paper sizes are, much like the rest of the imperial system of measure, based on traditions of “human scale.” An inch, for instance, is derived from the distance from the thumb’s knuckle to its tip.

However, human scale changes. U.S. paper sizes are said to be derived from the days when all paper was handmade. Indeed, the U.S. letter size was still being disputed up to the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed 8.5 x 11 the standard. On the other hand, A4, based on mathematics, has remained unchanged since becoming the German standard in 1922.

Canada is officially a metric country, so why no metric paper sizes? Well, Canada’s ties to the once-imperial UK can be blamed, as well as its proximity to its biggest trading partner, the U.S. The real question is, why doesn’t everyone embrace the logical, practical and, dare I say, sexy A4 paper size? That’s probably beyond the scope of this little rant.

Until that day, I will continue my lament: Let’s all get on the same page.

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