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Web Type, Meet Size Calculator ∙ An A List Apart Blog Post

At yesterday’s Ampersand New York web typography conference in the Times Center at The New York Times, Font Bureau designer/technologist (and A List Apart columnist) Nick Sherman demo’d Size Calculator, a web application created to bring screen design a capability that print design has enjoyed for 500 years.

It is trivial for a designer to set type (or any artwork) to appear at a specific size in centimeters or inches on the printed page. But it is impossible to do so when designing for screens. Here’s how Zen it gets: if I use CSS to set a line of type at 65cm, it will most certainly not be 65cm tall—nor does the W3C expect it to be. Actual size will depend on the dimensions and resolution of the screen. (Perceived size will of course depend on viewing distance, but that is true for print as well.)

Likewise, if I want an image or a line of type to appear to be exactly the same size when viewed on different screens—say, on a smartphone and a desktop monitor—there’s no way to achieve that, either.

Size Calculator solves these problems by using JavaScript to do the math.

What it is good for: if you know the dimensions and resolution of your device (be it a wall screen at a conference, a digital billboard, or a specific model phone held in a specific orientation), you can finally do the things I mentioned in the paragraphs above. Same size type on different screens viewed at different distances? Achievement unlocked. Another thing Nick did in his demo was to “print” an exact size dollar bill on the screen in the Times Center auditorium. He proved that it worked by walking to the screen and holding the actual dollar in front of the projected dollar. He then printed a life-size image of himself. Fun!

What it is not good for: although Size Calculator is exciting, it would not be good for responsive web design, because RWD is about designing for a universe of unknown devices, resolutions, and capabilities.

But if you are designing for a limited set of known screens, the sky’s the limit—literally: your design can take miles or km into account. If you’ve always wanted to make a ten thousand foot letter display at 12pt when viewed from a helicopter, now’s your chance.

What will you do with Size Calculator?