To justify or not to justify: alignment in document copy

March 31, 2015 - 19 minutes read

I was recently asked about my thoughts on justifying copy and general text alignment.

Unbeknownst to some who are used to reading newspapers and certain magazines, justified text is not a best practice. Hold on, though. It’s not necessarily the opposite, either! In some rare cases, it comes down to the personal preference of the intended audience. For example, some readers may be used to reading newspapers and certain magazines all of their life, while other users like tech-savvy people may be used to viewing on the web where justifying copy is generally discouraged for many reasons. What the choice of alignment depends on is the context it’s being used in and the audience consuming it.

Justified text


What is justified text?

Justified text is when the sides of the column of copy align vertically to form straight edges on both sides.

Justification can be created by doing the following until the edges of the columns form a straight line:

  • Force space between individual letters
  • Force space between individual words
  • Allow hyphenation so that lines that run long will just be hyphenated and break
  • Or a combination of these things: many design/layout programs have settings you can tweak to adjust how many hyphens are allowed in each paragraph, maximum space between letters or words, etc.


Why would I use it?

A publisher, like a newspaper, may be providing a lot of information all at once and without a lot of supporting elements like photos to break that information up. They may also be providing that information in multiple columned formats, where there is a lot of copy across many columns, with the space between those columns (the gutter) at a minimum so they can fit a lot more content into a tight space. In this type of instance, we would normally justify the copy.

Since there’s so much information packed tightly together, the strong verticals of the justified copy help the newspaper reader keep track of which column they’re on without accidentally hopping over to another one, maintaining the flow in their reading. This strong alignment creates a perceived grid, giving the material more structure so the reader can easily follow what’s going on amidst a lot of dense material. There may not be real lines between columns (though some newspapers add these as well), but the alignment makes you feel like there’s a vertical line there guiding you along.

Aside from this type of instance where the publisher has a lot of content to provide all in one tight place, I discourage people from the “I need to fit as much in here as possible” approach. I will generally encourage clients to say what they need to say more succinctly, or add more space to the document so that justifying the text isn’t necessary, whether that be with more pages or a longer canvas, or whatever is necessary.

Finally though, some people simply just feel that justification looks neater. Perhaps the more OCD of designers may want their copy to make a perfect shape so they have a more cooperative design element to work with. General neat freaks and people who appreciate order in their lives may just find those hard edges to be neat and tidy. Some even say they feel justified text feels more professional. I find many of these surface values attributed to justified copy to only be skin deep, however. When we take a closer look at justified copy when it isn’t necessary to be used, it can actually hinder the reading experience for some people.

 

Justified text alignment in a newspaper

 

Issues with justification

Depending on your route of creating justification in your copy– forced space between letters or words, hyphenation, etc– you are most likely creating other issues.

Forcing the space between letters or words can cause something called a river to form in the copy block. This is when the large spaces between words or letters coincidentally stack on top of or near each other, vertically, across lines of copy. If this happens across multiple lines of copy a person’s eye is drawn to the line negative space, or river, that is formed, distracting from the intended purpose which is reading the text. Forcing this space between letters or words can also harm readability in general or make it feel awkward when that space becomes too large, for obvious reasons. Large spaces between letters or words has also shown evidence of affecting dyslexic people in a more negative way as well.

To reduce these spacing issues you could add in hyphenation as well. Many people suggest that mixing hyphenation into justified text is mandatory because the spacing issues described before are just too much. Hyphenation however also bothers many readers, myself included. Having to jump to the next line to finish reading multiple words can be annoying, especially if it happens multiple times in the same paragraph. It can also be confusing if a compound word or term that’s been used has naturally occurring hyphens and is also forced to break onto another line.

Probably one of the more significant issues with justification of text is that spending time adjusting spaces and hyphenated breaks so that they are less jarring (though spacing oddities in justification will be impossible to eliminate altogether) can be costly in design/writing/layout time and dollars. The investment doesn’t really seem justified (har har) when it may just be a client’s personal preference to have justified text, and it may be a better design solution or cheaper and occasionally a better cost/value ratio to go the alternate route.

 

Ragged edges: when justification isn’t needed


What is ragged aligned text?

The alternative to justification, which some people know as simply aligned left or right, is what we might refer to as “ragleft (text aligned right) or rag right (text aligned left). The rag term is referring to the undulating shapes created by the whitespace along the opposite side of text alignment.

When to use it

If you only have one column of text, or your columns of text have large enough gutters (the space between them), the text can breathe more, and the user probably won’t mistakenly jump from one column to the next, lose their place, or otherwise require those strong vertical guides formed by justification to keep them moving down the composition. There isn’t a strong case to justify the text, it would create unnecessary spacing and hyphenation in the writing, and a more natural writing and reading style can be applied.

  • If you only have one column of text you probably don’t need to justify and unnecessarily break words with hyphens or add awkward amounts of space between characters or whole words
  • If you have plenty of space to play with you can increase the gutters and general breathing room around columns and the straight guiding vertical edge of justified text used to differentiate between those columns won’t be necessary

 

Unbalanced rag in typography versus a more balanced one

Ragged has issues too, but they can be easier to fix

We still want to get things as close to a nice uniform column width as we can because ragged-edged columns can have their issues. Unbalanced ragged edges can have too much contrast between long and short lines, forming mountains and crevices with the negative space. We want to fix this but don’t want to do so by forcing the space between letters or words to bloat, or by forcing a lot of word hyphenation. At most, we want a nice, smoothly undulating wave along the right, and no sharp jumps in length.

So, without justifying the text, we fix this by manually adding line breaks, slightly adjusting column widths, adjusting the spacing between only a few characters or words here and there that people won’t notice, or even in rare cases swapping out some of the language for something that works better.

Ultimately the goal is so to help the text of whatever the thing is to be as readable and accessible as possible for whomever the intended audience is. How can your readers and users consume the content in the fastest and most efficient way? How can we minimize visuals that seem distracting?

 

Why we generally don’t justify text on the web

  • On the web, we have almost an infinite canvas to play with, so sticking a lot of items close together seems silly and will cause unnecessary tension between elements.
  • It’s hard to tell what size a user’s screen will be, so we avoid long columns of text anyways, as they would have to scroll down to read one column and then scroll all the way back up to read the next. Annoying!
  • In the age of responsive design, the text block may be changing widths for different screen and device resolutions. To adjust every single one of those for readability is just ludicrous.
  • In other words, when used in print, the designer has more control over how things will come out, versus online and not knowing what browser or operating system people are using, or at what screen resolution.

 

Didn’t you say audience could influence things?

There’s always a challenger to rules, isn’t there? We’ve talked a bit about the origin of justification, when to use it, when ragged aligned copy may be better, and so on. But what if the audience just says otherwise? And when I say audience, I mean the group of people the product is intended for, not the client or stakeholders, unless those are the same thing.

Well, if you’re dealing with a bunch of old businessmen who have read the newspaper and dry, stuffy magazines every single day of their life, they may just be accustomed to reading justified text.

Test out showing your young, tech-savvy teenager that’s been reading responsive websites on their smartphone all day a justified group of copy versus ragged and see which they prefer. If you have a preference for one over the other, it’s probably due to what you’re accustomed to reading most.

 

From a digital User Experience angle

Some of you with e-readers may have noticed the text in your e-books to have a certain alignment by default. This may be dictated by the ebook file itself or by the e-reader. My Kobo sitting in front of me right now had justification of copy turned off by default when I purchased it, though it has the option to turn it on. Kindles have long been scrutinized by their users for not being able to turn justification off. This is a good example of non-web digital copy that causes UI and UX designers to consider and debate features when adding heavy amounts of copy into their software.

In a digital setting, like these eReaders, we don’t know what size of text the reader will like, what amount of leading (space between lines), amount of margin around the page, and so on. To this point, most reading devices and apps allow these options to be customized. They know users with less than 20/20 vision may require larger font sizes, so they let them adjust it. So, what happens when a user makes all of these adjustments– do you know how the reading material is going to look in forced justification? Likely it may not look so great. And do you know what their preference for alignment is? Probably not.

My recommendation for copy-dense software would be to have justification turned off by default unless the context made sense to force it to be otherwise and to consider giving the user the ability to adjust the alignment to their own satisfaction. If the goal is that the user consumes the content, do whatever you can to enable them to do that. If you don’t know them well enough to make judgements on their preferences, give them options with recommendations enabled by default or available to choose from. In the age of digital we don’t have to make broad generalizations about peoples preferences with things like font size as we have in the past with printed books. The beauty of the digital experience for many is that they can finally find, choose or create, an experience that suits them. Why stand in the way of that?

 

Conclusions

Some people think that justified text can appear “professional” at first glance, but I have to agree with numerous other people that it’s a faux-professional that’s coming at the cost of readability and even usability, which should always come first.

Justification is a tool, a tool that’s conventional application is increasingly scarce. How many newspapers do you see these days? Less or more each year than previously?

Personally, I hate reading justified text, whether in a newspaper or anything else. I find the forced spaces and hyphenating distracting to read, not helpful by any means. It reminds me of the double space after a period that no one uses anymore, though it still has its place out there somewhere. How about you, what do you think? If you’re just one of those people that likes it, that’s fine, you like what you like. I have other friends that have strange hobbies or interests and I’ll learn to accept you like I did them.

 

Further reading on justification and text alignment

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