This blog is about Graphic Design, Vector Art, and Cartoon Illustration

Teaching how to read a ruler to adults

When you design for print, the first thing you have to know is what size the printed piece will be. And so when I first told a group of students to take a look at the rulers on their computer screen, I was surprised by their lack of enthusiasm. It didn't take long for me to realize that there is an embarrassing secret - many people don't know how to read a ruler, especially art students.

Being able to read a ruler is not a measure of how smart or how stupid someone is, it's just something that is learned. And for the vast majority of the students in my classes, it wasn't something that had been part of their experience. And before you jump to conclusions, thinking that I was asking them to divide 7 3/16th into thirds, stop. I was just giving a measurement and asking them to find it.

When the classes were small, I could help people individually. I would go over to their computer and point where exactly 3 3/4" was. But as the classes grew, this got too time-consuming, and I knew that I needed a solution. But teaching a group of adults how to read a ruler was an invitation to humiliation, and I don't like that. So this is what I did:

I created a handout ruler with all of the measurements marked on it, down to 1/8". I trimmed them to size and handed them out. Then I drew a ruler on the board, showing only the tick marks. I announced that we were going to take a look at rulers. I prefaced it with some trivia about an inch being the width of the King's thumb, etc. and everyone just shrank back in their chairs. And then the magic happened. Remember, these are adults. This is college. No one wanted to be humiliated in front of the others.

I had people come up to the board to show what they knew. And the slowness of the response was the best thing for most people to see. I had them find things on the ruler and mark it on the board. I asked, "do you want an easy one or a hard one?" and I would say, "find 2 1/2 inches or 3 7/8 inches. When the game was over, everyone knew what I already knew - that they weren't the only one. Problem solved - and we went on to design for print.