Design Concepts

Printed elements compose a layout, but they are governed by invisible elements and concepts. It is possible to design layouts without knowing the basics, but the results are unpredictable. Knowing the traditional concepts of publishing helps an in-house designer produce solid documents.

Knowledge of traditional design concepts is essential for in-house designers.

Computer software for entry-level designers sometimes ignores traditional publishing concepts and terms. For example, programs aimed at the mass market default to rulers with measurements in inches. These programs also use terms such as “grid” to mean something different than designers expect. In time, you learn to translate terms and procedures. Software such as InDesign, Quark Xpress, PageMaker, and Ventura Publisher use traditional terminology for procedures and concepts.


Printing measurements are foreign to most in-house publishers. By default, programs such as Corel Draw and Microsoft Publisher use inches for grids and rulers. Only the measurement of type sizes is done traditionally in most “home and office” computer programs.

Picas and Points

Points and picas were coined by the Francois Ambroise Didot in the mid 1700s to ease typesetting. Before the point system, different typeface sizes were named ­– and few fonts were named consistently.

Printers describe large areas in picas. Columns, visual elements, and margins are measured in picas. There are approximately six picas to an inch. Picas are divided into 12 smaller units, known as points. The pica/point system is based on 12.

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Many designers consider the ideal column width to be 12 picas, slightly less than two inches. Most professional designers have a difficult time even thinking about column widths and page layouts in terms other than picas. The metal rulers most printers use are known as pica poles.

A pica is approximately 1/6 of an inch. A point is almost 1/72 of an inch.

Computer users familiar with the Macintosh and Windows operating systems are accustomed to selecting typeface sizes in points. Modern laser printers and typesetting equipment have forced a rounding of the point to 1/72 of an inch. Computer applications, and printing professionals, measure straight lines, type, and small items in points.

6 12 24 36 48 72

Notice that the point size of lettering is not measured from the bottom to the top of numerals. Typefaces are measured from the lowest stroke in a face, such as a letter y’s tail, to the tallest stroke, such as a capital G’s upper curve.

In 1886 American type foundries agreed to fix the size of one point at .013837 of an inch. European foundries agreed to use the Didot system, with a slightly larger point – a whole 1/1000th of an inch larger.

U.S. Point 0.013837 in. 0.0351 cm
European Point 0.014800 in. 0.0376 cm
Italian Cicero 12.791667 U.S. Points

Em and En Spaces

Designers measure blank spaces as either em or en spaces. An em space is almost square. It is the width of the letter M. An em space within a line of 10-point type is 8 to 10 points wide. An en space is one-half of an em — the width of the letter N. These are imprecise measures, since they depend on the size of a line of type.

Most fonts’ M and N do not correspond precisely to the width in points of the size of the font. A 12-point Times Roman letter M is close to 8 points wide. Roughly, an em space is two-thirds to three-fourths the points of a font.

The Inch

Designers measure photos, ads, and artwork in inches.

The common inch is used in American print shops – but not often. Newspaper and print advertising professionals measure the depth of advertisements and articles in inches. Often, column inches are used to describe ads. A column inch is a vague measure: any width column, one inch deep. As with most things international, metric measures are used in an increasing number of print shops.


Designers have names for the various actions they perform while assembling a document. You may or may not adopt these terms while describing your own actions, but you need to understand them.


Any time you print a page, consider it typesetting. While you are not moving metal type or adjusting a photo belt (don’t even worry about what a photo belt is), publishing snobs refer to the process as typesetting. Do not be put-off by the term.

Layout and Design

A layout is the result of an implemented design.

While it seems obvious, we think we should tell you that layout is a noun and a verb in page design. You design a layout. The design is the plan for the document. It’s a minor point, but important. Old-fashioned designers do not use “layout” to describe the “paste up” process. More than once we have heard, “Let’s layout the newsletter.” It sounds like placing the newsletter somewhere. Now, some more experienced desingers talk of “laying out” a document. In fact, what they are describing is the act of pasting a document together or paginating a document.


Long ago – and to this day at many publications – compositors would cut out stories and paste them onto a sturdy layout sheet. Plates for printing were created using these paste-up boards. You don’t need to worry about how things were done before paste-up. Most high-end publishing software still refers to the design screen as a paste-up board.

Cropping and Scaling

Cropping and scaling are used to make visual elements fit into a grid well.

Cropping and scaling art and photos is a breeze using computers. In the not-so-good-old days, photos and art had to be manually trimmed using knives or altered in a darkroom. Picture editing applications still use a picture of a knife to represent cropping, or trimming, images. Scaling images using a computer can often make cropping less of a headache. Later, we will discuss when to use one or both of these techniques.


The act of creating pages from stored text and art is known as pagination. This differs from what a word processor does when it paginates. In publishing, pagination is the last step in creating a layout. Once frames are created, text or art is placed into the reserved spaces. This placing of text or art in frames is pagination. Pagination describes the final step of paste-up procedures.

Summary & Tips

  • Traditional terms are still used in computerized layout.
  • Picas and points are used by designers to measure layout elements.
  • You should always sketch a layout before beginning paste-up.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 21-Oct-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach