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So what is the difference between landscape and portrait? Should we know? Why those terms? What orientation should a document be?

Recently someone was requesting a change to a graphic page. It had already been set up as a cover which would be printed on paper slightly larger than A3 to be a wraparound cover for an A4 portrait presentation. But now someone wanted to split the front and back into separate files so that they would be printed separately onto card, but he requested them to be landscape.

So then there was a query as to what did he really want, for the covers to be portrait (as they were previously) or landscape (as he wrote in his request)?

A quick discussion with the requestor and it was determined that he really did mean portrait. So here was someone who could not tell the difference between landscape and portrait.

These terms are used a lot in the graphics and photographic industries, in desktop publishing and in things like Word and Powerpoint. You can set up your page to be either landscape or portrait. The best way to remember what is what is look at the actual words used. It goes back to the days of painting, even before photography existed.

The term portrait comes from painting a portrait of a person, and as such the painting would be taller than it was wide. If an artist was painting a scenic view, such as of a landscape, then to make it look good he would turn the canvas 90 degrees round from the portrait canvas so that it was wider than it was tall.

Hence the terms portrait and landscape. Today we are not artists painting a great masterpiece, but the terms are still used so that we have a way to describe the different orientation of our pages.

So the requestor who did not know landscape from portrait may well have been a new person who was still trying to orient his way around the work and terminology.

The lesson is that we should always be clear about what we want when asking someone to do a job, and it helps the person doing the job if the correct instructions are given and clearly understood. If there is any confusion, then a quick chat/phone call/email can sometimes clear it up so that things proceed as planned.

So what orientation should you choose for your documents? A lot depends on how it will eventually be used. A printed book will mostly be portrait, but some are landscape. Most magazines are portrait, as are newspapers. But if you were formatting for a landscape screen, like a Powerpoint presentation, then a landscape format would be preferable.

So if you submit any work for pages to be created, please ensure you know the difference between portrait and landscape and specify the correct orientation, as changing it later can create much more work and problems.


David King, MD, Avoura Ltd.

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