Better standard paper sizes for North America

As an American, one thing that makes me a little jealous of Europeans is their ISO 216 system for paper sizes. Not because I think it has some unique aesthetic quality to it, but because, unlike North American paper sizes, it doesn’t seem completely arbitrary.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the ISO system, each standard size is obtained by taking the largest size, A0, and dividing it in half until the desired size is reached. The system has the unique property of keeping the same aspect ratio for every standard size. The “magic” ratio which allows this is 1:√2, or roughly 1:1.414.

A while back, I was experimenting with different numbers to see if I could come up with a practical system that had this benefit but would work on North American office printing equipment without requiring a massive upgrade. When I multiplied 8.5″ by 1.414, I discovered that the length came to almost exactly 12″. This made me wonder if it would be practical to switch our paper size from 8.5″ × 11″, the current de facto standard, to 8.5″ × 12″. I can think of several advantages, and hardly any disadvantages:

  • The 8.5:12 ratio is only about 1/72″ (or 1 point) off from 1.414, which means that it could be halved or doubled without perceptibly changing its aspect ratio. This is technically within the same tolerance as the ISO system, which rounds to the nearest millimeter.
  • Any printer capable of printing legal size, and most that can print letter size would work fine without any adjustment necessary.
  • Every paper size has a dimension that is a multiple or factor of 12, a convenient number to work with, allowing us to easily divide a page into thirds, quarters, etc. Also, since we know a sheet is exactly a foot, a sheet of paper becomes a convenient tool for measuring things, simply by folding it to the appropriate fraction of a foot.
  • International companies wouldn’t need separate document templates for their North American branches.
  • Need to print old documents without changing the format? Just take your whole stack of paper and chop off exactly an inch to get the traditional letter size.

Assuming paper cost is based on area, the price of a sheet would go up about 9%, but this is somewhat compensated for by the additional text we can fit on a page.

Has anyone else thought about a similar system? What important objections did I miss? Is it even feasible to make such a major change, and what would that process look like? Would the first step involve convincing ANSI to revise their standard? I would enjoy hearing others’ thoughts about this.

Why not just lobby for the US to adopt ISO 216? I mean, it has about as much chance of success as the metric system. Still, I’ve found that seemingly quixotic arguments can nudge public discourse in helpful ways. It just takes 25 or 30 years of repetition.

You reminded me of 2322.