Using a Typographic Ruler

Measure Font Size, Line Spacing, and Other Typographic Spaces

Young woman using laptop in office
Getty Images/Geber86

Let's say you have a printed newsletter that you want to try to recreate in your favorite desktop publishing software. You could do a little (or a lot of) trial and error to figure out the font point sizes, leading, and other typographic features used. Or, you can save some time by using a typographic ruler. Also called a font ruler or gauge, it is an actual physical thing, not some piece of software.

Usually printed on a clear substrate, the typographic ruler will include font samples and rules of different sizes, and more. Place it over your printed piece and match up the text in your sample with those printed on the ruler to get a close estimation of the font sizes and line spacing and size of any rules in the design. Or, get even closer by using the points and picas measurements.

Some rulers may not give you an exact measurement but you'll get close enough that you can then use incremental sizing (such as 9.5 points or 12.75 points) in your desktop publishing software to zero in on the precise measurements you're attempting to match.  

You can purchase typographic rulers or print your own from images posted online. You can also try these sources below.

Make Your Own Typographic Ruler

The MicroType Typometer is a PDF file. It contains rulers for inches, centimeters, picas, plus size gauges for line spacing from 4 to 24 points, rule weights from .5 to 24 points, font sizes from 5 to 72 points, plus shade and tint boxes from 3% to 100% shading and 100% to 5% tints. Print the ruler on transparent letter size sheets.

This Printable Pica Ruler isn't a typographic ruler exactly but is useful for page layout if you like working in picas. You can also use the points ruler portion for measuring type and line spacing. The PDF contains a 6-sided ruler template with picas, points, agate, centimeters, inches, and decimal inches. There's also a .5 to 12 point rule gauge. Requires legal size paper.

When printing rulers from downloadable printables, be sure to print at the size and resolution specified in the description or on the PDF. Do not use any "fit to page" options are the sizing will be off. These rulers are not for precision work. Use them to get a close estimate. If you need something more exacting, purchase one of the rulers described below.

Buy Typographic Rulers

Galaxy Gauge 18 Imperial is a translucent ruler that packs a massive amount of data onto one 18 inch ruler. A few of the measurements include inches and pica rulers, gauges for font size, leading, rule weights, bullet sizes, and screen densities. Purchase it by itself or as part of the Galaxy Graphic Design Set. They also offer several other typographic rulers: Galaxy Gauge 18 MetricElite, Pocket, and Ultraprecision GaugesPromotional, Science, and Postcard Gauges.

Schaedler Precision Rules were once an indispensable tool for graphic designers in the pre-desktop publishing days. Perhaps not used as much today, they are still available. You can get a translucent rule with Printer's Points & Picas (printing industry standard where six picas are equal to .99576 of an inch) and one with DTP Points & Picas described as "12 points = 1 pica; 6 picas = 1 inch. The scale is cumulatively marked in both points and picas for the entire length of the rule (72 picas or 864 points = 12 inches)." Other scales and gauges include metric, standard inches, bullets, and rule weights. The rulers come in 12" and 18" lengths, in single and double packs.

Rulers and Gauges of the Past Still Used in the Present

Devices for measuring type have been around for many years, often only slightly changed from those in use today. At the Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies you'll find the Haberule Type Gauge described as being "Used in conjunction with an archaic discipline known as "type specifying", commonly referred to as "type specking" (American slang)." The comments to this listing indicate that some designers still use this or a similar tool for estimating copy length before starting work in Adobe InDesign or other desktop publishing software.

Here's another metal type rule "from the hot metal days, compliments of the Rochester Monotype Composition Co. Such items such as type rules, proportion wheels and the like were often given to worthy customers." And here's a multi-part Typometer.

The Star Makeup Rule is a small metal point guide used by printers. A replica version is still available.

All these terms refer to some kind of typographic ruler. Below, see additional examples from the Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies of translucent rulers that are very similar in appearance to the ones you can purchase or print yourself today.

Idea for designers: Use a segment of a typographic ruler as the background or decorative element of your business card or other marketing materials.