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The Subtle Complexity of Communicating Word or Phrase Size

May 19, 2021

We humans like to keep things simple. When we go to Subway and order the “foot-long”, we expect our sandwich to be 12″ long. At the hardware store if we purchase a 2″ wood screw, we expect it to be exactly two inches. We know the size we want, we ask for it, and we get it. This arrangement works well for so many simple things in our lives. In fact it works so well that we sometimes try to apply this same efficient concept to more complex situations with the unfortunate result being miscommunication, confusion, and disappointment.

Such is the case with the deceptively tricky subject of “word size” or “phrase size”. Let’s start with a simple request that we might hear from a customer. Suppose she says “I want the phrase ‘Love is all you need’ in a 3 inch letter height”. It sounds pretty straightforward right? But consider that this phrase is made up of 16 letters which display in a variety of sizes:

Going back to our customer’s request for a “3 inch letter height”, since the letters are different sizes only one of the letters can be 3″ tall. The rest of the letters will be proportional to the 3″ letter, but they will be their own unique sizes. Add to that the complicating factor that the overall phrase height will be taller than 3″ due to the “ll” and “y”. Without thinking about it too deeply, our customer might have assumed that by asking for a 3″ letter height the entire phrase itself would also be 3″ tall. However as illustrated above this can’t be. We point these facts out to show that terms like “letter size” or “letter height” are inherently intended to describe the size of a single character. When we use these terms to describe an entire word or phrase we run into problems. Taken literally, the following shows “Love is all you need” at a 3 inch letter height:

shows all letters at exactly 3" tall

You can’t deny that every letter is exactly 3″ tall, but it’s probably not what was imagined or wanted.

The Problems with Word or Phrase Size in All-Caps

We can see that using “letter size” or “letter height” isn’t the best way to describe a word or phrase with mixed character sizes. But what if we use those same terms to describe a word or phrase in all-caps? At first glance it seems like this might work out better. Consider “LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED” in the Arial font at 3 inches tall:
Love is all you need in the Arial font
It looks great! All the letters are 3 inches tall. But wait, there’s still a problem. If we look at the entire alphabet in Arial all-caps we see we have an outlier…the letter “Q”. “Q” is a little taller than all the rest of the letters. With the Times font we have the same problem with the “Q”, but it’s even taller than the rest of the letters. With script fonts like Corsiva and Vibes the problem is worse because there are multiple letters that are taller than the rest.

Multiple fonts in all-caps

Let’s circle back to our same customer who has a new request. She says “I need the phrases LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED and THE QUEEN IS DEAD in the Times font at 3 inches tall”. If we take her request literally this is what she would receive:

In this case our customer would likely be disappointed. In making her request we can safely assume she expects all the letters will be 3″ tall. However the letter “Q” complicates things. For all the letters to be 3″ tall the “Q” needs to be taller than 3″. Or if we make the “Q” 3″ tall, the rest of the letters are smaller when keeping everything proportional. This illustrates that as long as there are any differences in the sizes of letters (even if it’s just one letter), referring to “letter size” or “letter height” can present problems. It’s unreliable, meaning it might work some of the time but not all the time. For this reason these terms should be avoided unless you’re specifically trying to describe the size of only a single letter.

Better Terms for Communicating Word or Phrase Size

The terms we find most useful when communicating about word or phrase size are “capital letter height“, “phrase height” and “phrase width“. Let’s start with “capital letter height”. Suppose our customer’s request were reworded so it read, “I need the phrases “LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED” and “THE QUEEN IS DEAD” in the Times font based on a 3 inch capital letter L”. The following would be the result:

For all the letters to be proportional in size to a 3 inch capital letter “L”, we can see the “Q” needs to be 3.78 inches tall. This is ok because there was never any specification as to what size the “Q” should be. The only specification was what size the “L” should be. By setting the terms of only what size the “L” should be, it allows all the other letters to be the size they need to be in order to be proportional.

This difference in communication is subtle but it has big implications. If a customer says she wants the phrases “in a 3 inch lettering height” she’s making a request for something that’s often impossible to fulfill due to the inherent differences in the sizes of individual letters. Most of the time all the letters can’t be 3 inches tall. On the other hand if she says she wants the phrases “based on a 3 inch capital letter L” it’s simple to fulfill because it speaks to setting the size of a particular letter as a reference point while making everything else proportional to it.

While communicating in capital letter height helps to reduce miscommunication and missed expectations, there are two other terms that will help to clarify things even further: phrase width and phrase height. Phrase width and phrase height are the exact “footprint” of the phrase taking into account all the characters.

Notice that we measure phrase height from the highest point in the phrase to the lowest point. In this example we’re measuring from the top of the “ll” and the “d” to the bottom of the “y”. We measure Phrase width from the leftmost part of the first letter to the rightmost part of the last letter (or character). In considering phrase height it’s good to keep in mind that when a phrase has descenders (letters with a tail like “g”, “y”, “j”, etc) it is common that none of the letters will be the phrase height. This is clearly illustrated above. We see that while the phrase is 3″ tall none of the individual letters are 3″ tall. A common mistake we hear when communicating about text size is to equate phrase height with letter height.

Summary

The main goal of this post is to get you thinking about some of the hidden complexities regarding lettering size. If you don’t work in the world of fonts and lettering full-time, it may seem sensible to say, for example, that you want a phrase in a 3″ letter height. However, due to the variance in letter size in standard sentence-case (and sometimes all-caps) using the terms “letter size”or “letter height” is an imprecise and unreliable way to describe word or phrase height. These ambiguities make it difficult for us to know how to produce such a phrase to meet a customer’s expectations. They also make it hard to know for certain what those expectations are.

We’ve found the very best way to communicate sizing is to reference capital letter height, phrase height, and phrase width. In the Words Anywhere design centers we never reference “letter height” due to the ambiguities just described. You’ll find in the Basic Design Center we reference phrase height and phrase width. And in the Advanced Design Center we reference phrase height, phrase width, and capital letter height. Understanding these terms can help you to better plan the lettering size that will work for your specific situation and to reduce the risk of missed expectations and disappointment.

One final note, our Advanced Design Center is a powerful visualization tool that will help you determine what lettering size is best for your situation. Instead of just focusing on the specific size of each letter, it allows you to see a word or phrase in context on a virtual wall. You can make the dimensions of the virtual wall match the size of your actual wall. You can also add “sizing objects” like couches, chairs, windows, doors, etc. to enhance the visualization experience. Explore our Advanced Design Center today!

1 thought on “Blog”

  1. Thanks for this info. I have been buying from you for years and struggled with getting the height correct.

    John

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