The tyranny of A4: why format matters

Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes writes: Today’s post is based on my experience of working with both corporate and academic clients.

When it comes to writing, the default setting in both sectors is A4.

This applies whether the document is being written on screen or on paper. And it applies through all stages of the process — from planning, through drafting and redrafting, to printing and presentation to reader (for example, in the form of a PDF).

Why does this matter?

A4 can be an optimal format for some documents. The problem comes when it is used as a default, regardless of the characteristics of the document.

The main problem concerns the length of the lines of print. If the default margin settings are used (on Word, 2.54 cms). This produces long lines of print, requiring additional eye movements, which reduces readability.

There are two solutions. First, you can divide the text into two columns. This can work well for print, but it doesn’t work for text read on line, because when readers reaches the bottom of the left-hand column they have to scroll back to the top of the right-hand one.

The alternative is simply to widen the margins. This is an easy way to make your document more readable. I don’t know why more people don’t do this.


Additional problems

There are two further problems with relying on A4 as a default. First, the lack of distinctiveness: using A4 tends to make your documents look much like everyone else’s. In fact, I suggest that the routine use of A4 evinces a sense of ennui.

Second, printed A4 documents are swept up together into bundles — the problem there being that it makes more likely that they will disappear into trays, files, and so on.

Other formats, such as A5, tend to hang around more visibly — on people’s disks, for example. I find people are often attracted to reports in A5 format — they look dinky and manageable.



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