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In our app (a CAD type app for the casual computer user) we allow users to choose from a number of preset font sizes. These defaults are picked pretty arbitrarily from what OS X offers in their default Font Picker dialog, e.g.

  • 12
  • 14
  • 18
  • 24
  • ..

all the way up to 144. Now we'd like to add more default sizes for bigger fonts and wonder what reasonable defaults could be.

I guess in the first place we'd like to understand if there's any reasoning behind the existing defaults in OS X, e.g. why 24/26/../144?

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I don't really get what the question is. You want to provide more options ? Or you want to refine the list ? I think there's too much options at the moment. Not sure if it's relevant. It'd be better to have a list like "small, medium, large, x-large" and that's all. – Gabin Mar 26 '14 at 13:21
Expand the list to more 'default' sizes, or rather looking for reasonable extension to the magic 14/18/24/.. list up to at least 500(ish) – cacau Mar 26 '14 at 13:31
Probably a question for GraphicDesign.SE, actually. – Andrew Leach Mar 26 '14 at 13:57
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Just so it's explicit, the full list of default point sizes for type in OS X is as follows:

9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 24, 36, 48, 64, 72, 96, 144, 288

There are two competing historical reasons why this set was probably chosen.

Before System 7 (released in 1997), all fonts on the Mac were bitmap fonts, rather than TrueType outline fonts (chiefly because the latter didn't yet exist).

That meant each font had to be carefully drawn as a specific combination of pixels at each supported point size, and therefore point sizes other than those specifically defined in the system could not be used.

In the original MacWrite, then, the available font sizes were 9, 10, 12, 14, 18 and 24 point (as shown below):

The original MacWrite interface showing the available font sizes
Image from TechCrunch

The original Mac's display was 72 pixels per inch, so 9pt type was rendered exactly 9 pixels tall. Any sizes below 9pt couldn't be reasonably supported on the low-resolution display:

How classic Mac OS renders type at 9pt and below
Image from ScotConnect

In the physical realm before desktop publishing or phototypesetting, type also had to be hand-crafted at each specific size that the typographer wanted to support, and it too had its own list of traditional movable type font sizes:

  • 3 pt: Excelsior (US), Minikin (Brit.)
  • 4 pt: Brilliant
  • 4.5 pt: Diamond
  • 5 pt: Pearl
  • 5½ pt: Agate (US), Ruby (Brit.)
  • 6 pt: Nonpareille
  • 6½ pt: Minionette (US), Emerald (Brit.)
  • 7 pt: Minion
  • 8 pt: Brevier, Petit or small text
  • 9 pt: Bourgeois or Galliard
  • 10 pt: Long Primer, Corpus or Garamond (c.f. Garamond)
  • 11 pt: Small Pica or Philosophy
  • 12 pt: Pica
  • 14 pt: English, Mittel or Augustin
  • 16 pt: Columbian (US), Two-line Brevier (Brit.)
  • 18 pt: Great Primer
  • 20 pt: Paragon
  • 21 pt: Double Small Pica
  • 22 pt: Double Small Pica (US), Double Pica (Brit.)
  • 24 pt: Double Pica (US) Two-line Pica (Brit.)
  • 28 pt: Double English (US), Two-line English (Brit.)
  • 30 pt: Five-line Nonpareil (US)
  • 32 pt: Four-line Brevier (US)
  • 36 pt: Double Great Primer (US), Two-line Great Primer (Brit.)
  • 44 pt: Meridian (US), Two-line Double Pica (Brit.), or Trafalgar
  • 48 pt: Canon or four-line
  • 60 pt: Five-line Pica
  • 72 pt: inch

In both cases, point sizes are so-named because they're measured in points (which originally varied in size by country, but is now standardised at 1/72 of an inch).

It's probably fairly obvious that it makes sense for these sizes to be multiples of some small text size (so columns of text can share a common baseline grid relatively easily). Depending on the country, that small size would vary, but 12pt (1 pica) was a fairly common size, and so therefore were its multiples, especially in the US where 1 inch was made up of 72pt (or 6 pica), so very large sizes can be referred to in inches (which is why the OS X standard sizes have 144pt, or 1 inch, then 288pt, or 2 inches).

The only sizes in this set that aren't really a traditional size are 13pt and 64pt. Both are multiples of standard sizes, though (13pt is twice as tall as "Minionette" type and 64pt is eight-line Brevier). As far as why they're included in the list by Apple but not in traditional sets, it's probably a safe bet (though I can't find any evidence) that they were considered too similar in size to other similar font sizes.

It's also worth noting the list still starts at 9pt, and probably will at least until Apple rolls out its high-resolution "Retina" displays across its entire range.

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Thanks, awesome answer - should be in Wikipedia :-) – cacau Feb 27 '15 at 9:59

The simplest is to use a formula like n + 2. So you'll have values like 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, and so on.

This formula is way too simple and provide too much options. You'll probably have to find the right mathematical function which decrease options when numbers are getting higher.

Anyway, user will confront a very large list if you provide sizes from 12 to 500. It'd be hard to design such a list to make it efficient and accessible. I'd suggest to use the usual method and allow user to directly enter the value he wants. This way, he could access to a short default list (12-144) and for higher numbers he'll just have to type what he wants (or use controls like sliders).

You could also try an auto suggest/auto complete system, suggest some values to the user when he's typing.

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