The Current Point System Is Not Necessarily New.

Point systems have been used to measure the size of type bodies. How large a 1-pt body is determined by a point system defining the relative relationship between the point unit and a particular standard measurement system. So far, multiple point systems have been used in the world.

With the following classification methods, you can see how different historical and existing point systems are, and what characteristics they commonly share.

Classification 1: What is to be measured.

  1. Point systems to measure the size of type bodies
  2. Point systems to measure a dimension of glyph shapes (for example, capital height, x-height, etc).

Point systems classified into a. above can be classified again with the following method.

Classification 2: Whether it is based on Fournier’s size division or not.

  1. Point systems with which 1 pt can be equal to 1 / 72 of the size of an existing referential standard measurement unit.
  2. Point systems to which a. above does not apply.

Point systems classified into b. in Classification 1 above includes the point systems proposed by Ernest Hoch and Séamas Ó Brógáin. The proposed method has some advantages over the traditional method classified into a., however, it is not widely used.

Many point systems that have been used traditionally can be classified into a. in Classification 1 and a. in Classification 2. These include Fournier’s point system, Didot’s point, Nelson C. Hawk’s proposal in the 1870s, the American Point System, and the current point system that is used on computers and printers today (thereinafter referred to as “the current point system”). All these systems belong to the class of a. in Classification 1, and a. in Classification 2.

It should be noted that the point system proposed by Nelson C. Hawks was basically the same as the current point system that is used widely on computers and printers today, with which 1 pt is precisely equal to 1 / 72 inch. This is very important.

One of the reasons why the size of 1 pt in the American Point System was different from that which Nelson C. Hawks had proposed originally was that American type founders adopted the size of MacKellar Smiths & Jordan’s pica body, which had been widely used already by many type founders, as the referential size for the new point system, in order to avoid remaking too many type molds. If they had not made this calculation for economy, Nelson C. Hawks’ proposal would have been adopted as the American Point System. In fact, Nelson C. Hawks insisted that 1 pt should be precisely equal to 1 / 72 inch as of 1880 (Hopkins, Richard L. Origin of The American Point System for Printers’ Type Measurement, Hill & Dale Private Press, Terra Alta 1976).

Thinking in this way, I believe the current point system that is basically the same as that proposed by Nelson C. Hawks is not necessarily new. The method to divide a referential size is the same as Fournier’s method, and has a long tradition. The point system applied to the imperial or US inch unit was also proposed in the 1870s.

Related to this, Toshi Omagari says: “Yes, the point is a traditional system, but the DTP point that we are using is only 33 years old and we have experienced the change relatively recently.” Omagari, Toshi. p.18, “What’s the point?”, (quoted from: 365 Typo: 365 stories on type, typography and graphic design, etapes: editions, Paris 2015). However, for the reasons mentioned above, I am skeptical about this idea.

I think that like other systems, the current point system is not necessarily new, and it has a long tradition in the history of the standardization of sizing of type bodies. In addition, it is being used still today.

Will the current point system continue to be used forever? No one can predict it at all. As Omagari pointed out in his article mentioned above, it is true that the metric system is widely adopted and used as the world standard system of measurement. In the sense, using it for measuring type bodies, or using a similar system such as Q or H used in Japanese manual phototypesetting machines, based on the metric system, has advantages. If the advantages are highly evaluated, it is possible that the situation may change in the future. No one can say that there’s no possibility of the metric system being widely used to measure the size of type bodies.

Nontheless, the validity of the currently used point system cannot be denied also. It is difficult to predict our future.

If a new measurement system is introduced, regardless of whether it is the metric system or not, as far as it is designed for the purpose of measuring type bodies, it should be the key factor, whether its advantages can bring greater benefits to the users, than the cost of switching the measurement unit from their old familiar unit to the new one. Whatever new measurement system is adpopted, the historical fact that various methods and units have been used to measure the size of type bodies is unchanged. Still today, multiple point systems are used in the world, and this is the reality. Therefore, I think the idea that every application software handling glyph shapes needs to support various point systems, is itself correct.


11/14/2015 Taro Yamamoto