Join John McWade for an in-depth discussion in this video How to set perfectly justified type, part of Before & After: How to Set Perfect Text.
- So far we've looked only at type that's aligned to the left. It's also called flush left, or ragged right, because it has a ragged right margin. Now we're going to get more formal, and justify the type. For this chapter we're using new text, book text. This passage is from Herman Melville's famous 1851 book, Moby Dick, including its 19th Century anachronisms. Justified type aligns on both margins. This is what you see in books, in magazines, in newspapers.
I'd say that most formally published print type is justified. It fits columns neatly, it has clean edges. Aligned-left type is less formal, more casual. These are very short lines, they're about 30 characters. Which is a typical width for an iPad magazine layout, or a narrow newspaper column. You'd also see this width on your smartphone at one of the smaller type sizes. Let's pick up the first six lines of this text and have a closer look.
When you set type align to one margin, left, right, or even the center, every word space and every letter space are the same, which you can see here. Those are the word spaces. They're all the same, and the leftover space goes at the end. Same is true for the letter spaces, all the same. We have a single word space, and a single letter space. These are ideal lines.
It's a completely uniform setting. Very smooth, an even tone of gray overall, easy on the eyes, nothing in the spacing to disrupt the reading. And I like it for that reason. We're going to use this spacing as our ideal. The closer we can get our justified type to this spacing, the better it'll be. What happens when justifies, is that all the space that was left over at the ends of the lines, gets distributed throughout the lines.
You can see wider spaces here than we had before, and you can see that each line has somewhat different spacing. That's because each line has a different number of spaces. To justify type, we have three basic tools to work with, and they interact. Word spacing, letter spacing, and hyphenation. For word and letter spacing, we tell our software what we want the ideal space to be. For most type faces most of the time, that'll be 100%.
Then we tell it a maximum amount that the spaces can spread out. For me, most of the time, that's 133% for word spacing, and 3% for letter spacing. We also specify a minimum, which is how far the spaces can compress. For most conditions, my preference is 90% for word spacing, and -2% for letter spacing. An even bigger factor in spacing is hyphenation.
The more we allow words to hyphenate, the more alike every line can be. My general preferences are these. A word can break only after the first three letters, or before the last three, and there can be no more than two hyphens in a row. The Hyphenation Zone setting doesn't apply to justified type. I also don't allow the hyphenation of capitalized words, or the last word of a paragraph. There are exceptions to all of these.
To see this work, let's isolate a single line. This is set flush left. It has uniform spacing, and it stops well short of the right margin. Let's justify this. Now the line is touching both margins, but we've allowed only the word spaces to expand. The letter spaces are unchanged. The result is spotty, instead of a smooth flow, we see it word at a time, kind of staccato.
In this setting, only the letter spaces have changed. The word spaces are unchanged. This isn't good either, but for a different reason: now everything runs together. This line splits the difference, some additional word space, some additional letter space. It's smoother, but still a bit staccato. But this is as good as we can get this line. These words in this size on this line length without allowing hyphenation.
When we allow the line to hyphenate, we now see a big difference. This spacing is almost identical to the spacing of our ideal line. Which you can see here in gray. It can go the other way too. Your word and letter spacing can get too tight. This is normally the result of setting your minimums too low. Allowing your word spacing, for example, to go all the way to 50 instead of 90.
So, generally speaking, the ideal is to set your justified text with as little deviation in word and letter spacing as possible. As close as you can get to that flush left ideal. There are always mitigating circumstances. This block, for example, is as good as we can get without hyphenation. And for being so short, it's really pretty good. But, you can see at the top, that it's more widely spaced than our ideal measure.
So let's allow it to hyphenate. And now we're very close. Compare the light gray text, top and bottom. This is about as even as your average justified paragraph will get on a line this short. And I'm good with this. If it's up to me, the designer, on a line this short I'm going to do everything I can to smooth out the type. But some editors won't like this hyphenation. That's because I've allowed the program to hyphenate words down to two characters.
That's really too few. I'll do it in a pinch like this, but really, three characters are better. When we disallow hyphenating to two characters, this is what we get. Still good, still smooth, a better editorial decision, but now we have more variation from line to line, which you can see here. The top line is tighter than average, the fourth line is looser than average.
But that's it, those are your choices, there is no workaround for this combination of words in this typeface, on this line length. For such a short line, this setting is actually quite good, just fine. Before we go further, let me go back to some earlier copy to point out a detail you may not have noticed. Pay attention to the right margin. Along this margin, we see a prime mark at the top, an italicized, hyphenated name on the second line, and two hyphens later on, all falling on the margin.
It's unusual to have this much in such a short space, that's why I'm using this example. There's also an open quote on the left margin. What this does, is make weak margins. Your eye doesn't see nice sharp edges, it sees edges that are more like this. Squint and you can see it better. The way to overcome this illusion, is to hang our punctuation outside the margins. Like this.
Because those marks are tiny, much smaller than full characters, our eye looks right past them and sees nice strong edges. Squint again and you can see it better. In Adobe InDesign, hanging punctuation is done in a Story palette checkbox titled Optical Margin Alignment. And you can have it default to this, I recommend you always do it. Another example, the computer says your margin's aligned, but your eyes are going "I don't think so." That's because letters and punctuation marks have funny shapes.
And when they fall on the margin, they make the edge appear to curve. Optical Margin Alignment will hang that punctuation, which now gives you a nice sharp edge. I was looking online recently at a copy of probably the most important book ever published. The first book ever published on a movable-type printing press. Technology that changed the world. It's the 42-line Bible published by Johannes Gutenberg in 1454, or thereabouts.
And it looks like this. I think they printed maybe 180 of these. This is the Lenox copy in the New York Public Library, and it's fantastic. So important was this book, both for what it was, a bible for the people, as well as the revolutionary technology that it represented, technology that helped usher in The Renaissance. That when this copy came to the U.S. in 1847, Lenox's European agent issued instructions for New York that the officers at the Customs House were to remove their hats on seeing it.
Our interest is a little more prosaic than that. Look at those sharp margins! How do you suppose those were done? By invoking Optical Margin Alignment, of course. Just kidding! To hang the hyphens in the margins, just like we're doing, that's how you get a sharp edge. One key to great justified type. Back to our task. Long lines are easy to justify. They just justify like a dream.
That's because they have lots of spaces to distribute the extra. This example is a 55 character paragraph with one hyphen, and it's smooth as can be. Very good looking. By the way, now that you know about it, you might pay attention to the punctuation hanging in the right margin. There's a comma, a hyphen, even the "f" in the fourth line, hangs in the margin slightly. As do the arms of the "W" and "V" in the left margin.
Tiny, tiny details, completely invisible to the reader, that make a great reading experience. Anyway, long lines of justified type set so smoothly that there's rarely a need to intervene manually. But here are two examples where you should. Typically the last line of a paragraph will end somewhat short of the right margin. How short, of course, depends on the copy. This looks normal and expected.
But sometimes you'll get a line that ends here. Almost at the margin, but not quite. When it's this close, but not there, it just leaves a feeble little dent in the end of the line. The solution to this, is to force the line to justify. InDesign's function for this is called Justify All Lines, and it evens up that edge beautifully. Another example is when you have just one word, or part of a word, or maybe two very short words, alone at the end of a paragraph.
David Blatner, my favorite InDesign guru, calls these leftovers "runts." They're kind of an abrupt way to end a paragraph. You're reading along, zooming side to side, and just kind of, doink! This little spit of a word trips you before you move on. Runts are pretty common, but if you have a choice, don't leave it there. Pull it back into the paragraph. The way to do that, is with the same Justify All Lines function. It'll usually take care of this by resetting the entire paragraph to accommodate that last word.
Medium and short lines take more work to justify well, and I think the quickest way to illustrate the problem is to get extreme. The lines you're seeing here are 20, 21 characters. Extremely short, shorter than you would normally justify. Very narrow newspaper column, about the width you'll see on your smartphone. What makes them tough, is there aren't enough spaces to spread around. You can see some really big gaps here in the first few lines. Remember though, your tools are word spacing, letter spacing, hyphenation.
If we allow hyphenation, we get a reasonably smooth result. On super short lines, it can also help to allow the letter spacing to relax a little more. In this case, 8% instead of our usual 3%. And just like that, we have a good setting. Again, this is extreme. What works on this line, will work even better on any longer line. So it's a set of trade-offs. The good news is that software, particularly Adobe InDesign, has gotten extremely good at intelligent justification.
I find myself intervening only in unusual circumstances: short lines like these, an oddball combination of words, that kind of thing. One example, if you do much book reading on your smartphone, you've certainly seen text that looks like this. This is one of those perfect storms where you have extremely short lines, very long words, inflexible letter spacing, and no hyphenation.
Kindle publishes entire books that look like this. The fix is the same. Word spacing, letter spacing, hyphenation. Set those parameters, that allow hyphens, allow word spacing, allow letter spacing, and this is what you'll get: smooth, evenly set, easy to read justified text in even the narrowest columns.
Along the way, he touches on points small and large: indents, sizing, spacing, line length, punctuation, and the main differences between setting text for screen versus print.