Why 8 and S are Always Lopsided in Print

Copyright by Timothy Sexton

Pick up a book or magazine in direct proximity to you right now. Okay, got it? Now I want you to find a capital “S” and an “8.” Or, if you want, pretzel yourself into an upside down position, or I guess you could hold your laptop computer upside down, and look at the following.

88888888888 and SSSSSSS. Or, you know, look at the attached image there to the right.

Notice something when you look at those numbers and letters upside down. When you look at an “8” or an “S” inside a book or on the computer straight on, the top and bottom appear to be equal. But upside down the lower part of the 8 or S suddenly looks smaller than the top. What gives? This is what is known as an optical illusion that printers have known about years and years. What you usually see is entirely an optical illusion; printers have been printing the number 8 and the capital S using this trick for years. When you pick up a book and flip through an find an 8 or S you don’t normally notice that they are bottom heavy. Printers use this trick of the eye to keep people from noticing that they are lopsided.

Don’t think this is universally recognized? Go ahead, pick up a book printed in the 1700’s. If you are lucky enough to own a first edition of Jonathan Swift’s timeless satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels, then reach for it and open it as with the care and loving attention of something that is as rare as a statement of truth from Donald Trump. Or, failing to have that classic of classics, pick up a more contemporary classic piece of literature. Like Katherine Hepburn’s Me. Pick up an old Newsweek magazine still laying around in the basement or grab from secret stash of Playboys from youth. You will see those uneven 8’s an S’s. The thing is, nobody seems to know exactly why this optical illusion was chosen. I did the research after discovering the fact of this optical illusion in a book dedicated to optical illusions lying on a table in a doctor’s office. The fact that is in my research I could not find any answer as to why printers have chosen for centuries to print their “8” and “S” in such a lopsided manner. Perhaps this number and letter was originally printed without the benefit of the bottom heavy association and just didn’t look right. Perhaps it even actually turned out looking lopsided when printed in a totally symmetrical matter.

Like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop, the world may never know exactly why printers chose to engage in this optical illusion. As for why we can look at a lopsided 8 or S and not see that it is lopsided, well, that’s a question for a more spatially advanced mind than mine.