Michael Bierut | Essays

Eight-and-a-Half by Eleven

Installation view, MFA Thesis Show, Yale School of Art Graphic Design Program, 2006. Photo: Dylan Fracareta

8 1/2 x 11 inches. I've been avoiding this format all my life. At my first job in New York, we used European-sized stationery. It caused no end of complications, but my (European-born) boss was dedicated to it. "Don't you see?" he asked. "It's so much more elegant." And logical, too: the ISO system is modular, all based on consistent ratios, the square root of two, the Golden Section. Our 8 1/2 x 11 size is based on...well, what, exactly?

I came to see A4 stationery — 210 x 297 millimeters, or very roughly 8 1/4 x 11 1/2 — as sleek, refined, designed. 8 1/2 x 11, on the other hand, started to look lumpy, banal and bureaucratic. It was like the difference between a Lamborghini and a Ford Pinto. And how many times did I get briefs from clients that included that horrible specification? Sales brochures, art catalogues, magazines, newsletters. We're planning to make this 8 1/2 x 11, okay? Sigh. I would do anything to sidestep the inevitable: a little taller, a little shorter, a little skinnier, a little wider.

Now I see I was wrong all along. The student designers of the 2006 MFA Thesis Show of the Yale School of Art Graphic Design Program have covered the three floors of their exhibition space at 1156 Chapel Street in New Haven with images of their work tiled on 8 1/2 x 11 paper. Over 10,000 pieces of it, all lovingly taped together on the floors, the walls, and up to the ceilings. Yale faculty advisor Dan Michaelson describes the 8 1/2 x 11 format as "a metaphor for the comp, the rough draft, the transmitted document, the electronic screen and the time-based process of the installation."

You may accept 10,000 pieces of tiled 8 1/2 x 11 sheets as metaphor. Or, perhaps, mania. Either way, between now and May 24, an unpreposessing bit player in our every day graphic lives is experiencing its apotheosis, and — in my eyes at least — its unexpected redemption. I love 8 1/2 x 11!

Posted in: Education , Media, Technology

Comments [43]

Pardon me for being thick, but which paper size is more closely related to the golden section? Our American 8 1/2 x 11 or the more "metric" system of A4?

I'm too tired to get out my measuring tape and do algorithms right now. Surely, someone in the audience knows this answer off the top of their head. (And I'm willing to wait.)


The Lazy American...
Joe Moran

I'm just starting to embrace the 8.5x11 format.
It still feels about as elegant as a one-size-fits-all sharkskin suit though.
Theodore Rosendorf

DIN is based on the ratio of sqrt(2):1, roughly 1.414. This is not the golden section, (sqrt(5)+1)/2:1, which works out to roughly 1.618. This is explained in the ISO system link - they're both consistent ratios, but they're different consistent ratios.
dan visel

Joe, the relationship of the height to width of A4 stationery (which is actually constant for all sizes in the ISO system) is one to the square root of two, or 1.4142 : 1. This ratio defines what is known as a dynamic rectangle, confused sometimes with the Golden Rectangle.

If there is a similar story behind the derivation of 8 1/2 x 11, I've never heard it.

Michael Bierut

On FreeHand (we used FreeHand back in Turkey), a default empty page opens letter size. So every time you start a new page, you get to compare letter & A4 sizes. I always had a personal interest in the letter size, even though it looked chubby compared to A4.
Since last september (when i moved to U.S.) I have been using Letter format and I have been enjoying it. But it is a fact that "the cat always wants to be on the other side of the door." so now that I don't get to use A4 i kind of miss it too.
I am not favoring any of them, I enjoy both for seperate reasons, yet i think the metric system is less complicated.
So instead of calling it 8 1/2 x 11, i might prefer 215.9 x 279.4 millimeters.
I know it looks more complicated but we used to pay 850.000 Turkish Lira for a can of coke in Turkey 2 years ago (now it changed), so I think I have my reasons.

One day, oh one day, might the USA finally move forward into the metric system?

As a Canadian, this is a constant thorn in my side, as we are officially metric but continually have to use the old Imperial units as we are so closely linked with our southern neighbours.

And that includes paper sizes.
Arvana Robinson


I've always thought of the metric system as the Starbucks of measurement systems. Elegant, tasteful, convenient, but God forbid it comes to my town. I like regional dialects, local coffee shops, and oddly shaped paper. Shared idiosyncrasies are what makes a culture. Wish I could be in New Haven to see the homage to letter size. (Still, can't complain: there are Texan accents here.)

I don't know, Tim. I agree with you that differences between one another make our lives more meaningful and interesting, but perhaps there are some that just aren't worth keeping—imagine doing your taxes with Roman numerals, or finding your timekeeping device worthless as soon as you crossed a state border. In matters related to numbers—science, medicine and health, economy, and so forth—idiosyncrasies such as in measurement systems wouldn't make our lives more quaint and charming; they would merely lead to hurtful miscommunication.

I'm finding it hard to believe that using A4 in the states can go through with "no end complications." Does this really imagine the final recipient, reader, and user?

Zach, rather "no-end complications" (complications with no end). :)
Pierre-Luc Auclair


The values go like this:
210mm:297mm = 1:1.41421 = 1:sqrt(2)
8.5":11" = 1:1.29411

golden ratio = 1:1.61803 = 1:phi

So the closest to the golden ratio is the ISO/DIN ratio, but it is far from being equal.

(I hope my maths are good.)

Hugo L. Casanova

More than a "rough comp," I see the 8.5 x 11, or any "desktop" size as the building block of economical rapid prototyping. Seeing that Experimental Jetset and Yale graduate students have applied this kit of parts to create impressive scale economically, I fully expect to soon see dimensional forms. While true, both large format printing and rapid prototyping equipment are quickly dropping in price, nothing can beat a desktop laser printer at convenience or affordability. Armed with some simple computation, could one not print templates on the desktop and assemble layers of material to creat three-dimensional form? I too, love 8.5 x 11.
Randy J. Hunt

Dan, Michael & Hugo: Thanks for your comments. Very much appreciated. Michael: Thanks especially for the link to Mr. Detrie's comments. Very very good stuff.

So I guess this begs the question -- If we could all pick our ideal paper size based on personal esthetics and/or the "golden rule" what would you pick?

I personally have always liked the half-size of 8 & 1/2 x 11, or 5 & 1/2 x 8 & 1/2, vertically. Which opens up to 8 & 1/2 x 11. I have also dabbled with 6 x 9 vertical, which opens to 12 x 9. Seems very easy to handle and intimate.

So ... What say you observers? What is your "fantasy" size for paper? Or what sizes have you used that seemed most successful or fun?
Joe Moran

I'm sure there is a point being made about 8 1/2 x 11 paper, but if you are tiling letter-sized paper into larger images, what's the point? It certainly doesn't look like anyone is sticking to the letter-sized proportions. They are really just using the pages like pixels to make up a bigger design.

To me, it would seem like a real feat of design would have been to have them create designs that were restrained to just a 8 1/2 x 11 size.

It's easy to grab people's attention with giant murals and crazy sizes, but how creative can you get when you are constrained to the typical page size?

Perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way. Once they get out of school and join the paying workforce they will be probably be forced to do PLENTY of typical page-sized design.
Chris Murphy

Perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way. Once they get out of school and join the paying workforce they will be probably be forced to do PLENTY of typical page-sized design.

Then it depends on how you manage that typical page size. I'm in England and I prefer A4, but a short while ago I found a narrow envelope in the post, it was a letter on 11/8.5 folded down the centre. Turned out to be a very coservative solicitors letter. An odd idea, but somehow they pulled it off.

AF&PA : The US Standard Paper Size

There's a (very) brief history of the paper size in the US at the link. It apparently goes back to the Dutch in the 1600's.
Russell Nakamura

I'm in the UK, so have always worked with A4 size paper. However, I rather like the broader width of US Letter (as it's referred to in the UK) over the taller, more narrow width of A4.

I can see how A4 is more practical in some respects (particularly when scaling or shrinking documents) and there is a logic behind it's size as this interesting article explains:

A4 vs US Letter

To me it doesn't really have much to do with which is the more "golden rule"-ish or which appeals to me aesthetically.
I just believe in the power of standardization and that's where the US has always annoyed me (more even than their foreign policies) with their way of forcing their own standards on the rest of the world (be it unintentionally).


What were your impressions of the graduate work?

I saw the show (very hurriedly) on Saturday and have to say, I'm pretty puzzled as to the intention of the Yale program. My best guess would be that it is geared toward getting students "to think," which seems awfully vague as a cirriculum. Why does so much of the work look the same? They design a lot of typefaces, but I don't think I saw a single logo or basic package design. (Too prosaic, perhaps.) Is this some new kind of graphic design I'm just not aware of (entirely possible)?

I went there shamelessly looking to steal some ideas and with luck rub up against some inspiring new thinking. I left disappointed all in all. Next year's grads will be better, I am sure.
Sam Potts

I always had the notion that as 8.5 x 11 was half of 11 x 17, and as both 11 & 17 attractive since they are prime, the sum of the integer of 11, also prime, is the cube of the sum of the integers of 17, but after that who really cares, paper size is hypothetical, full bleeds require trimming, peprbacks, folders and binders do not fit the equation.


Like a lot of spectacularly overdesigned settings, the MFA installation worked better as a thing unto itself than as an environment for displaying the work of individual students.

The Yale program is highly individualistic, and many of the students in this year's class did work that I thought was inventive, intelligent and enviable. You will not find, however, many (or any) examples of packaging or logo design, except those intended as ironic meta-commentary on consumer culture or global branding.

Still, that's one heck of an installation.

Jessica discusses the current state of graduate design education here.
Michael Bierut

good comparison with starbucks.
wonderful, popular, but too expensive.
A4 might be better, but you have to conform, no matter how horrible it is.

Mr. Nakamura,

Great site. Another example of the real golden rule, i.e. the human form dictating a useful mechanicical form --- even in 1600. Form follows function. Eh? Oy? or What's all this, then?

Heh, heh!
Joe Moran

I harbor a serious bias toward 8.5 x 11. The loyalty is left over from my DIY period before college, when show flyers had to be standard letter size to facilitate copying. I love the kind of artwork that's still compelling, even after a ton of cutting and photocopying. It's actually gotten me in trouble at my current job... designing a full-page ad assuming a magazine was 8.5 x 11, and then having to shrink it down when I discovered it was a non-standard size.

This makes me aware of a funny dialectic going on in design... we accept a limitation (i.e. needing to use a standard paper size) as a challenge, so it stimulates us, in a way. However, once that limitation shapes our habits (i.e. thinking everything should fit on a standard size), THEN it becomes an obstacle to creativity.

dug through my old manuals. found the following although not definitive: 8.5x11 first appeared in 1940. military specification for old underwood typewriters. was based around file sizes. file sizes to fit then portable cases(think briefcases); so typewriter sized to fit files, paper to fit typewriter, and, much like the size of our road lanes(two horses width in harness), based on old military specs.

Let's no conflate the merits of ISO ratios with those of metric lengths. The Imperial units for temperature, weight, and distance strike me as more natural. An inch is about the width of an average thumb and the foot corresponds roughly to the ancient cubit, the length of a forearm. A meter on the other hand was supposed to represent one ten-thousandth the distance of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator—so it's just as anthropocentric than traditional measures, yet far less human.

Only 24 hours have passed since my MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery. While I can appreciate the experimental quality of the Yale graduate work, most, if not all of it, would never fly for thesis material in the design department at the UW. The focus here has always been on design as a practical, problem solving discipline. And while I think we would have been served well by more encouragement toward experimentation by the faculty here, I'm really, really glad that my two years were not solely engaged in what I consider mostly meaningless navel-gazing. In my opinion, the Yale work is more closely aligned with fine art than design.
Callie Neylan

Where to begin?

The term "discipline" encompasses all aspects of a way of thinking and working. In a strong learning environment, a discipline is constantly challenged to re-examine its content, expand its limits and include even more ways of thinking about the world. The benefit of an education at such introspective schools such as Yale, CalArts and Cranbrook (of which I am an alum), is that these schools challenge the discipline by asking questions of it: They ask, "What can graphic design be?"; "How is meaning produced?"

Yale students don't have any problem making the leap from their education into the profession. When they do enter the profession, they do so on their own terms of understanding--they are able to deftly re-invent the terms of the problems put before them. They act--and work--as leaders of the profession.

The discipline encompasses the profession (and much more, such as philosophy, literature, painting, et al.), but the profession does not encompass the discipline. So the statement "design as a practical, problem solving discipline" is actually a non sequitur. A more accurate reflection is to state that Ms. Neylan sees UW "design as a practical, problem solving service." It is a matter of how the students' mind is shaped by their exposure to the asking of questions. Asking questions of the discipline opens up possibilities.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it can unfortunately be a one way street: A student who has been taught to ask questions of the discipline will understand and engage a question from the profession. A student who has been taught that the profession defines the limits of graphic design, will find questions about what graphic design could be pointless. And isn't that a shame.
David Cabianca

Callie, I'm not sure how you can judge whether the Yale work would 'fly' at the UW program, and its quite presumptuous on your part to make the assumption that it wouldn't. Why should Yale students care whether their work would get a passing grade at your institution?

You probably won't design a logo or packaging system while at Yale, but you will start to develop a working method, approach, and attitude about the work you will be doing. Hopefully you will get to the point of questioning what is good, useful, and tasteful design as well, and bring that spirit of questioning and experimentation into the commercial world of practice.

A short roll call of the more well-known alums and teachers of Yale show individuals and groups producing lots of disciplined, problem-solving, and practical work that exist in the world as commissioned designs: Chermayeff and Geismar, Paul Rand, Armin Hoffman, Lorraine Wild, Jessica Helfand, Imaginary Forces, Chris Pullman and Doug Scott of WGBH, 2x4, Omnivore, o-r-g, Barbara Glauber, Allen Hori, Karel Martens, Irma Boom, Paul Elliman, and Armand Mevis and Linda van Deursen. There is also a number of graduates from recent years who are less well known but also making interesting work and questioning the practice and endeavor of graphic design. As the oldest graduate graphic design program in the USA, its also one of the least categorizable, as students are exposed to both a wide array of practitioners of graphic design, exist within a challenging art school environment, and must fulfill general university requirements to receive their degrees.

I'm not saying that the work at Yale is good or bad, wrong or right. Just that for me personally, it has always seemed a little indulgent. And I never questioned whether or not Yale graduates should care about the opinions of anyone at the University of Washington. Why would they? Yale is an Ivy League, the UW is a mere public institution.

My judging whether or not this work would be accepted at the UW is based on spending two years there, talking with faculty, and hearing examples of what they consider thesis worthy. And seeing fellow students struggle to come up with acceptable thesis ideas. It's a matter of different design philosophies, that's all. However, if I'm mistaken in my assumptions, the UW faculty is well aware of this forum and I have no problems standing corrected.
Callie Neylan

I would also add that while I think the exploratory aspect of Yale is enviable to a certain degree (and I really do like the way they chose to exhibit everything on sheets of paper - pretty original), a master's thesis, in my opinion, should take on a more serious, intellectual note.

In looking through their site for last year's graduating MFAs, one of the thesis projects were posters created about the student's favorite object: a cassette tape. I'm sorry, but to me, that's just stupid. Lame even for a senior undergraduate project, let alone a master's thesis. Especially at an Ivy League school, where you would think that more would be expected of culminating work.
Callie Neylan

I would also add that while I think the exploratory aspect of Yale is enviable to a certain degree (and I really do like the way they chose to exhibit everything on sheets of paper - pretty original), a master's thesis, in my opinion, should take on a more serious, intellectual note.

In looking through their site for last year's graduating MFAs, one of the thesis projects were posters created about the student's favorite object: a cassette tape. I'm sorry, but to me, that's just stupid. Lame even for a senior undergraduate project, let alone a master's thesis. Especially at an Ivy League school, where you would think that more would be expected of culminating work.

I am going to have to stand up for the 8.5x11 paper size.
Yes, the A4 is a more elegant shape, lends itself to balanced visual compositions and is best suited for finished print & publications, however, while the A4 may be elegant, the letter size sheet of paper is ideal for the rough a tumble. Take a large sheet of paper and start trimming it until the ideal paper size has been achieved for general writing and drawing. The longer sheet of paper, though elegant would inevitably be trimmed down to the chunky letter size.
The letter sheet of paper is perfectly sized for general usage and physical properties of paper. Make it to long and is difficult to handle as it flops around, plus storage becomes more of a challenge. Make it shorter and it no longer has the flexibility of different orientations. Call me pragmatic but I am glad the letter is the standard and the A4 is reserved for designed publications/prints.

Callie, what could be more about problem-solving than the problems of adapting your work to an agreed-upon format, and of collaborating on the production of a single volume generated by 15 people? While the big, tiled posters show up most in the photos, the space was also full of letter-size fonts invented or adapted for the occasion, paper datums, room-size gestures, repetitions, patterns, and expressed negotiations.

One statement of yours that I disagree with is the idea that a masters program should be "serious." Sure, serious in the sense that students must be seriously committed to their ideas and to advancing the practice of graphic design. But if part of graphic design's job isn't to make the world a little more fun.. then count me out.
Dan Michaelson

callie, the example you cite and publicly belittle is just one project amongst many, so to base your opinion of work at yale on this one project betrays your lack of investigation of the work. a thesis at yale is an amassing of work and investigation done over two or three years and organized under the rubric of one graphic idea or methodology. singular projects are individual manifestations of this one overarching idea. perhaps its a stretch to get some of it, but its school (even if it is "ivy league school"), where people are allowed to be long-winded, indulge in self-narrative, take risks, fail, succeed, make friends, and have fun. you might not think its serious, but its a very serious amount of work, and a very serious investment of time, energy, and money.

I happened to be in New Haven for my nephews graduation (from the college - I am not even sure if people who go to the graduate schools really go to Yale) and walked up Chapel Street to see the MFA Graphic Design Exhibit. I thought it was pathetic. The idea of using 8.5 X 11 sheets and pasting them together to create an environment is very old, has been done many times over (its a cool advertising concept when done in photoshop), and I did not get the sense that the students at Yale were trying to be nostalgiac much less post modern in the reviving of the tactic. I also quite frankly did not see much work.

I did see alot of political platitudes and what appeared to be a concerted effort by the class as a whole to obscure the work they had done in favor of tiled images of people talking about the work they had done. I got the sense that the students were in fact sending a desperate message to the outside word - please, please, please help us, help us, help us. We have just been told that content does not matter, that form does not matter, that ideas matter but only if they do not have form or content. Please outsiders tell us we're ok cause we ain't sure.

While Callie at UW probably should not be too disparaging of the Yale program and her comparison to her own program is a bit young, her instinct that something is wrong ay Yale is probably right. Not all good schools are good all the time and this exhibit and its sublimation of the individual in favor of some inarticulate group speak does not bode well for for this generation's ability, much less interest in joining our esteemed graphic design profession. On the other hand maybe these recent graduates will be very interested in unpaid design assignments from Bruce Nussbaum.
Bernard Pez

Let's first not forget that each student's thesis was not the show. The show was the collaborative effort of 15 graduating students seeking to push the envelope of what a group exhibition of graphic design could be. This exhibition also contained each student's individual thesis books which were more successful in showcasing how each student went about creating their thesis work and exploring the possibilities of what graphic design can be. To call the show lame or pathetic is a little much. Where better to explore ideas and public reaction to them then a public exhbition? Maybe these types of explorations are successful and maybe they aren't. What this exhibition does show is that Yale students are encouraged to explore and experiment and find their own way in design. In a program like this the students can go out and think their way through and around limitations in the real world of client work and push towards a new breed of design. Graphic design is not all about logos and packages. Each graduating student has made exciting design work, I'm not sure that was made very clear with this type of show. What this means ultimately is when a body of work or show or whatever generates such passionate discussions, then more investigation of the topic and subtopics is necessary by all in order to encourage better understanding and open minds. People are very quick to pass judgement without understanding all the details of the topic.
nicholas rock

Mr. Nakamura's post provides a link to the history of the US Letter size, and we have one person to blame:

"[in the 1980s]...Reagan finally proclaimed that the 8.5" x 11" was the official standard sized paper."

It's the Republican's fault.
Daniel Carter

My comments weren't against the exhibit as a whole. I actually mentioned in an earlier post that I found the way they exhibited their work original and intriguing.

But I still hold the opinion that a master's thesis, regardless of the discipline, should be an intellectually challenging endeavour, one that adds to the body of knowledge of a given field. And of course I shouldn't base my opinion on just one Yale thesis project, but if you look through their archives, there are many more like it. And I still question how some of the work they do really differs from fine art. For is not design inherently about solving a specific problem, rather than sole visual exploration?

I'm not promoting logos and packaging design at the graduate level, either. I think graduate work should be something that delves much deeper and more critically than that. Something exploratory and intellectually critical, ideally requiring original research. This could include work with identity systems, but I digress....

This point on what constitutes an effective design thesis, of course, could be argued until the cows come home.... I would also say that because of my obvious practical-mindedness, I'm leaning more toward industrial design these days, anyway. A field where I feel it's easier to make a direct connection between form and function.

p.s. I forgot to respond to one particular comment:

One statement of yours that I disagree with is the idea that a masters program should be "serious." Sure, serious in the sense that students must be seriously committed to their ideas and to advancing the practice of graphic design. But if part of graphic design's job isn't to make the world a little more fun.. then count me out.

In my opinion, until we do adopt a more serious, intellectual tone, especially in academia, design will never achieve the respect and professional status of architecture, which seems to be what the collective design community aspires to.

But, graphic design is a young field. These heated discussions here are undoubtedly all part of the process toward that end.

Graphic design as a service industry is about problem solving; graphic design as a disciplinary mode of practice and thinking is about visual exploration and problem solving. The responses posted by a number of Yale alumni for this thread make it pretty clear that they have no problem engaging the realms of university exploration and working practice.

I am wise enough to recognize that I would not presume to judge the pedagogical intents and outcomes of another educational program based on what is posted on the web or what is presented in an exhibition. Judging Yale work based on UW experience makes no sense. Rather, a more productive outcome is to evaluate the work based on the intents proposed by each individual project's goals.

As an architectural graduate, I would say that architecture has achieved a state of disciplinary respect precisely because it is open to ALL forms of thought and practice. Some of the best Princeton MArch theses that I have seen were the most humourous: House for a Soap Opera Character, Golfing in Manhattan, and House for a Person Who Can't See the Colour Blue come immediately to mind.

Humour points directly at the taboo fringes of a discipline: it asks us to laugh even when we think we are not supposed to, and in so doing, it causes us to re-evaluate our conditioning and assumptions.
David Cabianca

I LOVED the students work at Yale. Creativity means alot to me and these students are artsy fartsy and I love it. I don't see how some poeple here are pulling out the "art is stupid" card as I would expect that from an engineer but not a designer.

Anyways, I really thought what David Cabianca said in his 1:46 pm post in the last two paragraphs was really stong and is a reminder of why D.O. rocks.
Babak Shadlu

Jobs | July 25