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Finding and applying a good line length

From: Typography for Web Designers

Video: Finding and applying a good line length

Line length and alignment affect readability. People scan across lines of text and down lines of text at the same time. If line length is too long, our eyes and brain have to work harder to follow the whole line of text. We have to fight against the natural inclination treat down at the same time. It's also harder to keep our place in the text. Long lines of text often result in something called doubling. That is, it results the reading the same line of text over and over again, because the reader can't keep track of where they are in the text.

Finding and applying a good line length

Line length and alignment affect readability. People scan across lines of text and down lines of text at the same time. If line length is too long, our eyes and brain have to work harder to follow the whole line of text. We have to fight against the natural inclination treat down at the same time. It's also harder to keep our place in the text. Long lines of text often result in something called doubling. That is, it results the reading the same line of text over and over again, because the reader can't keep track of where they are in the text.

If you've ever how to read handouts for class or work, you may have had the experience of reading a single column handout versus a two-column handout. Two column handouts feel much easier to read even if they have the same content, because the shorter line lengths are easier for our eyes and brain to handle. If line length is to short on the other hand, it can feel choppy and undermine the rhythm of the text. Short line lengths can also create really jagged ragged edges on the text.

These ragged edges, also called the rag, can standout and create awkward shapes. The trick is to find the right line length for the text. A recommended line length is about 75 to 85 characters per line. This is a recommended range. This text is set at 76 characters per line, which works for the single paragraph of text. Notice line length is not given in a measurement unit like a pixel. That's because fonts are different.

A 76 character line in a font like PT Sans which has a narrower bold will take up less room then a 76 character line in a font with a wider bold like Georgia. A 76-character line and the exact same font set at two slightly different sizes will take up different amounts of room. So a good line length is a factor of the font being used and size it's being used at, not a set measurement. If you're familiar with setting type for print, you'll notice the line length is a little longer than we're used to.

You've probably learned to set line lengths at about 65 characters per line, but longer line lengths work on the web, whether it's a factor of increased font size or simply a matter of reading best what we read most-- that is, we're used to longer lines of text on the web-- is unclear. Either way 75 to 85 characters per line works well on the screen. If you're not familiar with thinking of line length in terms of characters, let's take a look at how we find the character count.

Count all characters, punctuation, and spaces. Here I've marked every 10 characters. I recommend counting three lines of text: the shortest line but not the last line, the longest line, and the line that falls somewhere between the two. Add the counts from the three lines and divide by 3 and you'll have your average character count per line. If the number falls within the 75 to 85 character per line range you're good.

At the same time, it's important to remember this is a range. You may find it's appropriate or necessary to deviate from the range, but keep in mind, too long and it will get harder for people to read your text. Too short and the text will get choppy. In fact, the list of resources is a list. Each item doesn't have a lot of text in it, so we might end up needing a shorter line length to make each paragraph feel more substantial. Here we're using Georgia 15 pixels.

This looks to be a comfortable line length. The character count is 76, so we're right within range. Again line length can vary for headlines, captions, and pull quotes. You'll often find yourself using a shorter line length for smaller blurbs of text. Well, let's apply the chosen line length to our exercise file. You can see we haven't set a line length yet. It's pretty long. We'll set our line length by setting the div containing our text in our CSS file to the proper length. But wait! How do we know how wide the div should be? We can't set it to a width of 76 characters.

Our browser won't recognize that. We need a measurement in units that CSS will understand and our browsers will recognize. So we'll open up the mockup in Photoshop,. Get your Ruler tool, which is under the Eyedropper tool, and you see I've done this before, so my measurement is there. Click the left end of the longest line of text and you drag and release. It will give you a measurement up here. My Width is 492 pixels, so I know that my div needs to be 492 pixels wide.

Let's go change that in our CSS. My text is contained in a div that I've called content_container. I'm going to add a width a 492 pixels, save this, and I can refresh it in my browser and I can see that I have a new line length on my text. It looks good. Let's scroll down and take a look. And I see that I've got a problem in the very last text on my page and this is text that I did not test earlier. Look what's happening. My last URL is coming down in its own line and it's creating sort of a weird space here.

So my ragged right edge is not the way I'd like it to be. So even though I tested this and found where I thought was the perfect line length, I'm going to try changing it and see if I can improve this ragged edge. I'm already at the low end of the range for recommended character count. So I'm going to try making it a little bit bigger. Let's go into our CSS and I'm going to try using a width of 530 pixels. I already tested this and this is the smallest longer line length that would work.

We will save this, review it in the browser, and you can see that fixes my ragged right edge here, but I'm still not happy with it. As a typographer, I'm looking at this text and it's starting to look like horizontal bands of texture and I know on the final page there's going to be a lot of these and I don't want them to look so horizontal. I want them to look more substantial and more like paragraphs of text. So instead of going for a longer line length, let's try a shorter line length, even though it will be shorter than the recommended length.

Go back to our CSS and again I've already tested this and I have found that 444 pixels works well. We save that, review it. I'll refresh, okay. The ragged right edge is better here and the text doesn't feel so much like horizontal bands. This line length is shorter than I would use for prose like in an essay or an article and it's shorter than the recommended line length, but it works well with our list of single short paragraphs.

So remember a recommendation is a recommendation. Always use what works. The trick is to find a line length that is not so long and becomes cumbersome to read, but not so short as to undermine the rhythm of the text. Line length is based on characters per line and depends on the font and font size. Always choose your font and font size first before determining your line length. Good line length also depends on the kind of text you are setting. So always test line length with the actual text you're using.

Show transcript

This video is part of

Image for Typography for Web Designers
Typography for Web Designers

74 video lessons · 13714 viewers

Laura Franz
Author

 
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  1. 6m 18s
    1. Welcome
      1m 9s
    2. Using the exercise files
      1m 57s
    3. Things to consider before starting this course
      3m 12s
  2. 41m 3s
    1. Understanding how good typography promotes reading
      2m 9s
    2. Understanding legibility
      4m 41s
    3. Understanding how fonts convey meaning
      5m 19s
    4. Choosing web-safe fonts to convey meaning
      6m 13s
    5. Using font size, case, style, letter spacing, weight, and color to convey meaning
      6m 22s
    6. Choosing web fonts to convey meaning
      6m 23s
    7. Downloading web fonts
      4m 9s
    8. Applying web fonts in CSS with @font-face
      5m 47s
  3. 38m 0s
    1. Choosing a web-safe font for use in text
      4m 13s
    2. Applying the web-safe font to the text and the heading
      3m 4s
    3. Setting a class for the resource titles in the text
      3m 45s
    4. Choosing a second web-safe font for the heading
      2m 42s
    5. Applying the second font to the heading
      2m 16s
    6. Choosing a web font from the Google Font API for use in text
      5m 44s
    7. Adding and applying the Google Font API syntax
      4m 29s
    8. Choosing a second web font from the Google Font API for the heading
      2m 56s
    9. Adding and applying the second font to the heading
      4m 52s
    10. Analyzing the fonts on some professional sites
      3m 59s
  4. 55m 31s
    1. Understanding how we read
      4m 34s
    2. Finding and applying a good font size and line height
      4m 50s
    3. Finding and applying a good line length
      8m 6s
    4. Understanding ems
      6m 17s
    5. Using ems to set font size
      6m 9s
    6. Using ems to set line length
      3m 40s
    7. Understanding how color affects readability
      3m 58s
    8. Improving a color palette by improving contrast
      5m 39s
    9. Improving a color palette by reducing optical vibration
      4m 59s
    10. Analyzing text readability on the professional sites
      7m 19s
  5. 1h 11m
    1. Understanding how we "chunk" visual elements
      3m 59s
    2. Developing a system of hierarchy
      2m 17s
    3. Applying hierarchy in HTML and CSS
      7m 16s
    4. Developing a system to help chunk text for readers
      6m 1s
    5. Applying the system in the CSS
      4m 19s
    6. Changing an element by creating and applying a class
      5m 0s
    7. Using multiple columns to create hierarchy
      4m 12s
    8. Building a two-column system in HTML and CSS
      10m 56s
    9. Refining the horizontal space in a two-column layout
      6m 1s
    10. Adding rule lines to improve chunking
      5m 50s
    11. Adding emphasis within a heading
      4m 36s
    12. Analyzing the chunking on the professional sites
      11m 18s
  6. 17m 57s
    1. Understanding classic and modernist typographic pages
      7m 3s
    2. Understanding how to create rhythm and tension
      6m 0s
    3. Applying typography skills when making design decisions
      4m 54s
  7. 55m 47s
    1. Designing typographic links for the traditional page
      5m 54s
    2. Adding a list of links to the traditional page
      8m 44s
    3. Describing the link states in CSS
      6m 30s
    4. Returning links to their original "unvisited" style
      2m 38s
    5. Using different CSS for different kinds of links
      7m 28s
    6. Using CSS notation to organize syntax
      5m 34s
    7. Choosing a background color or image
      4m 0s
    8. Applying a repeating background image
      2m 58s
    9. Shaping the traditional page layout
      6m 38s
    10. Analyzing the traditional typographic elements on the professional sites
      5m 23s
  8. 43m 0s
    1. Designing typographic links for the modernist page
      6m 47s
    2. Making a list of links run across the page
      2m 14s
    3. Adding and removing space between the navigation links
      6m 50s
    4. Styling the inline links on the modernist page
      5m 33s
    5. Choosing a background color or image for the modernist bibliography
      4m 4s
    6. Applying a no-repeat background image
      4m 13s
    7. Shaping the modernist page layout
      6m 58s
    8. Analyzing the modernist typographic elements on the professional sites
      6m 21s
  9. 52m 53s
    1. Fixing quotation marks and apostrophes
      6m 59s
    2. Fixing dashes
      6m 33s
    3. Working with lining figures (numbers) and acronyms
      9m 28s
    4. Fixing characters that don't look right
      8m 19s
    5. Hanging punctuation
      2m 54s
    6. Applying typographic accents
      2m 36s
    7. Vertically centering text
      5m 18s
    8. Creating drop caps
      5m 59s
    9. Analyzing the typographic details on the professional sites
      4m 47s
  10. 3m 9s
    1. Additional resources
      3m 9s

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