A4 report

geraintf's picture

Dear Typophiles,

In September I have to typeset a big report (about 120,000 words). It's one I wrote incidentally, and the subject is post-war school buildings in England. c.100 copies will be digitally printed, but most people will read the doc in pdf format as it will be available online.

The documents has to comply with the house style and the report series format of my organisation (info below), which severely limits my options. But I want to do everything I can, within these limits, to ease the typographical pain! So any suggestions welcome, particularly in relation to:

1.Point size/leading. I wondered what people point size /leading people would recommend for extended text in Gill Sans Light on a text block which is about 150x230mm. 11/13 seems to give around 16 words/line --is this ok?

2. Each chapter consists of a main text, followed by a gazetteer which describes a series of case studies. I would expect most readers to read the main text but only 'dip into' the gazetteer. So I was thinking of putting the latter into two columns and small type, say 9/11. Any thoughts?

3. My references will be in endnotes at the end of each chapter (again, part of the house style). I was thinking of putting them into 9 or 8 points in two columns. Is this going test Gill Light or my readers eyes?

Format: Soft-bound A4 report, double-sided.
Margins: L&R 30mm; top 35mm, bottom 45mm
Typeface: Gill sans light.

I will try out a few mockups tomorrow, and may post a few pdfs. Meanwhile, any advice welcome!

Thanks in advance,


hrant's picture

120,000 words .... in Gill Sans Light

Shirley you can't be serious.


Karl Stange's picture

I just tried formatting your post in Gill Sans Light and it was barely readable. Does anyone in your organisation actually read these things, or is the house style a reflection of reading habits?

geraintf's picture

So Gill Sans Light for extended text is a no-no? Or just at smaller sizes? I read quite a bit of it at 11pt and always found it comfortable.

Here's a previous report in similar format

Karl Stange's picture

The report you linked to is fascinating but having just skimmed through it on my iPhone, the extensive text in Gill Sans Light is off putting. Granted, the iPhone is a restrictive medium for extended reading but one that I use for that purpose and following a recent download of Instapaper and a recommendation from someone with considerably more experience in such matters, I have been enjoying reading text in Elena.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

The spacing is far too tight.

geraintf's picture

Thanks for the feedback--sobering stuff. Clearly I've two options available to me:
1. To go with the stipulated typeface (Gill Sans Light) but set it as carefully as I can for extended reading(open up the spacing as Andreas suggests, maybe slightly larger point size and/or more leading).
2. To make a case to break withthe house style and go for a face which performs better both on screen and in print. (Typographically of course this is preferable; logistically might not be easy, but that's my problem I suppose). Options might be Charter, which I think we use in other applications, or perhaps something like Constantia.

Please keep the comments coming!

mjr's picture

Gill Sans Light is not meant for body text. My suggestion is your second option, but keep GSL for illustration captions, and perhaps page numbers. The other weights of Gill Sans are still acceptable for headings, chapter titles, etc. As for the text, my first choice would be Gentium, which I have found to be a good pairing with Gill Sans headers. It is not excessively "round" (as Gill Sans is), and does not have very sharp serifs which would be a distraction in this case. Of the two you mentioned. Constantia also has those characteristics.

It's a lot like pairing food and wine.

hrant's picture

You need to fight for #2 tooth and nail. It shouldn't even be a sans. But if they insist on that, go for Legato.


John Hudson's picture

I'll second Hrant's suggestion of Legato. It is one of very few sans serifs that works well for extended text (in large part due to being properly spaced for such use).

Also, if your report contains anything like the number of dates as the one to which you linked, you should definitely use a font that has oldstyle numerals available.

Nick Shinn's picture

There’s nothing wrong with Gill Sans Light for body text.
The spec here meets accessibility standards.
However, I don’t like the way the font in the pdf is spaced; too tight, too much kerning—this is especially an issue for screen reading.
Why is the spacing so ghastly? Is it the font or Adobe’s “Optical” kerning?
The typeface was not designed to be spaced this way.

Disclaimer: I was acclimatized to it at an early age, it was the typeface used in my Meccano manuals.

geraintf's picture

Thanks Hrant, John and Nick for your sage comments. I must admit Nick that I've never had a problem with reading Monotype 262. I can't remember whether the spacing and kerning were 'out of the box' or Indy'd optical. I can remember making a character style for thickened fake small caps which looks predictably dreadful onscreen--(& seem a big small on paper).

The main thing is that I don't really have a free hand. I believe our house style contains Carter's ITC Charter--I will find out tomorrow. Using Charter here--perhaps with the Gill for headings as mjr suggests--would bend not break the rules. I've been asked to come up with some recommendations for revising this report format in the coming months, and would like to treat this report as a 'prototype' format for extended reports that would be available to others. That therefore gives weight to using a face which is already 'in place' and for which we possess a licence--ie. Charter. I don't know how well Charter stands up to onscreen use but should imagine such a sturdy face should be ok?

Joshua Langman's picture

If you're going to futz with the format, try using two columns as well. The line length is much too long in the sample. Letter-sized paper was meant to hold one column of double-spaced typewritten text (manuscript format) and was never intended to hold a single column of properly typeset text.

On second thought, you could do something fun like create a single, preferably off-center, narrower column of text, and use the margins for headings and/or footnotes. Maybe in Gill Sans.

Nick Shinn's picture

Letter-sized paper was meant to hold one column of double-spaced typewritten text (manuscript format) and was never intended to hold a single column of properly typeset text.

A4 is just a size between A3 and A5.

hrant's picture

Indeed, either economy or readability has to suffer when you want one column on Letter/A4 paper. It's dumb to have standardized such a size.


geraintf's picture

Well, I've made my case for Charter, just need to wait for the response. If I *have* to use GS, then the fallback option is to get hold of the book weight (between light and regular), which has small caps and LC numerals at least. Setting that in two cols, with careful spacing and kerning should make the best of a bad job.

Let's see. I'm away for the next couple of weeks and will post some pdfs on my return.



Nick Shinn's picture

It's dumb to have standardized such a size.

It’s a practical paper and printing size for many kinds of office and job printing, with many kinds of printing/reproduction devices standardized to it; sheet-fed, it may be trimmed, and/or folded and collated to other sizes.
Business cards may be ganged up and printed on card stock this size by small printers.

I've designed many different kinds of commercial document that have been printed on this size paper.

It’s a size used for printing all kinds of documents, not just single-column typesetting and letters.

riccard0's picture

Multi-column layouts on A4 format magazines (thus A3 spreads) are pretty common in my experience.

JamesM's picture

> It’s a size used for printing all kinds of documents

Yes indeed, and it's a size that fits well into standard file folders, which is an important consideration for business documents that need to be filed and saved. Also that size works well in standard pocket folders and 3-ring binders.

But generally I don't like to have one column span the width of letter-sized paper; 2 or 3 columns usually work better. Sometimes flipping the page to a horizontal (landscape) orientation and binding on the short edge is a nice way to make the letter-sized format look a little different.

hrant's picture

So I guess to me the question becomes: who messed up first?

Sadly it's no surprise that the actual purpose of something gets sacrificed for some short-sighted expedient.


riccard0's picture

it's a size that fits well into standard file folders

I would have said it’s the other way around…

William Berkson's picture

I do suspect that A4 and US 'Letter' size (8 1/2" x 11") became widely used in offices because of the typewriter, and were perhaps chosen because of it. Does anyone know the history?

JamesM's picture

> I would have said it’s the other way around…

You're right; file folders are sized to fit letter-size paper; not the other way around.

lapata017's picture

i like this report

Joshua Langman's picture

If A4 or 8.5 x 11 was a reasonable size page for continuous text, it wouldn't be impossible to find a novel printed at this size.

Té Rowan's picture

It night have something to do with novels rarely being office supplies.

Nick Shinn's picture

Letters were often smaller.
It depends how much you had to say.
Typewriters could type on many sizes, even envelopes and very very long pieces of paper.

hrant's picture

But it's the width that's the problem. And to save on carriage returns people would naturally have used the widest paper that would fit in a typewriter. So: I wonder how/when such a width was standardized. I'm guessing it had to do with what width of object humans are comfortable moving around.


JamesM's picture

Here's an article by the American Forest and Paper Association on why 8.5 x 11 became standard in the U.S.


According to the article, the origins were in the 1600's when it was a convenient size for Dutch paper maker. By the early 1900s there were 2 common sizes in the U.S. — 8.5 x 11 and 8.5 x 10.5. It wasn't until the 1980's that the U.S. government declared 8.5 x 11 to be the standard size here for government printing.

hrant's picture

From the article:

The average maximum stretch of an experienced vatman's arms was 44". Many molds at that time were around 17" front to back because the laid lines and watermarks had to run from left to right. Sounds big?...well to maximize the efficiency of paper making, a sheet this big was made, and then quartered, forming four 8.5" x 11" pieces.

There you go. Just like typefaces suffer because we still want to believe in handwriting, typography suffers because of what some guys could lug around.


they stuck with the same size so as to keep the hand made paper makers in business.

Yeah, money is more important than reading... Some things never change (these days text taking a back seat to movin' pitchurz).


Nick Shinn's picture

Sheet size has some bearing on trimmed page size, but for your concern, which seems to be immersive reading of longer documents, sheets larger than page size are generally used, then folded and trimmed.

I’ve often designed booklets which were printed on A4/8½ x 11" stock, then folded and trimmed.

It’s unfair to blame a size that is suitable for all-purpose uses in offices and job printing, for being misused in one particular kind of document.

hrant's picture

But that one particular kind of document (a single column of text spanning a large number of pages) constitutes the lion's share of how Letter/A4 paper is used. So maybe 90% of that "all-purpose use" is in fact flawed because the paper is too wide. Because people wanted to save money by maximally accommodating laborers' physical attributes. Torso width + arm length shouldn't have dictated what our reading "firmware" gets to resolve.

Folding? Takes time/effort, so few people do it.


McBain_v1's picture

This has proven extremely illuminating for me, as I often have to deal with large reports (Environmental Statements) from consultants that are always set on A4 paper. The range of fonts is quite restricted and limited to those that come with the standard installation of Office 2003 / 2007 or 2010.

My latest challenge is to prepare a handout that will accompany a 45 minute presentation on "Renewable Energy and the Planning System". I was going to go with the standard portrait alignment, 2 columns. The handout will not be a repeat of the presentation, rather a complimentary mini-document that will expand on some of the points raised.

Without wishing to be detrimental to English Heritage (which was the organisation that appeared on the pages of those excellent close-up photographs of the Gill Sans text), I have to read a lot of that organisation's output and it is turgid stuff! Nice to find out that at least someone has an interest in making the content appear more readable and presentable.

Joshua Langman's picture

With only slightly more effort, you can also fold your A4 paper in half, in the style of playbills or chapbooks, to produce a more reader-friendly single-column layout.

[Edit — I see Nick already mentioned that.]

JamesM's picture

> you can also fold your A4 paper in half

That can be a good option, but for a multipage piece keep in mind that 1) it'll need to be saddle stitched (stapled on the fold) and 2) the pages need to be resequenced prior to printing. For example, on a 20-page saddle-stitched piece, page 4 and page 17 are printed side by side on the same sheet of paper, but appear in the correct sequence after it is bound and folded. A good print shop can take can care of this for you, but a small copy shop might require you to resequence the pages yourself before printing.

Nick Shinn's picture

“Book” faces are best for wide measure, with generous size and leading, because they have the fine detail that mitigates clumsiness at the large size necessary for long lines. However, they look like literature, which is so wrong for corporate/bureaucratic reports.

11 pt. Gills Sans Light is a good response to the problem discussed here, and it meets accessibility requirements, size-wise, even if the execution in the document shown above isn’t ideal.

Can one font work equally well for a printed document, and the PDF version of it, read on screen?

How about an app that changes font according to the medium?
That would be a similar trick to automated optical scaling.
Alternatively, just have two versions of the document, one for print, one for screen.

I guess this will become less of an issue with higher res screens.

Joshua Langman's picture

"For example, on a 20-page saddle-stitched piece, page 4 and page 17 are printed side by side on the same sheet of paper, but appear in the correct sequence after it is bound and folded."

If you're using a real typography program, it will do this for you. And even in a word processing program, it's fairly easy to get this right just by making a blank mockup, numbering the pages, and then pulling it apart to see what pages end up next to each other. The next challenge is getting it to print right on a single-sided office printer. Even that just takes a bit of trial and error.

I have seen, and been responsible for, plenty of playbills etc that were typed up in Word, imposed manually, and printed one side at a time on a desktop printer. I think it's nearly always worth the effort.

JamesM's picture

> If you're using a real typography program, it will do this for you.

Yep, some programs will do that.

> it's fairly easy to get this right just by making
> a blank mockup, numbering the pages...

It's a straightforward process but can be confusing for someone who doesn't do it frequently.

> I think it's nearly always worth the effort.

I agree complete; just want to make sure the original poster realizes there are some extra steps involved.

geraintf's picture

By way of a coda to the thread, here is the final report:

As you can see, I failed to persuade my bosses to let me try Charter or otherwise amend the format. But I did use the book cut of GSL, which has a more sturdy appearance.

Thanks to all who contributed,


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