Notes on Design: In Praise of Ragged Edges

I am a largely self-trained book designer. I hope to someday have the time to take formal courses in design, but for now I do my learning by studying the books I read. This means that often I will come across a convention in book design that I simply do not understand. These conventions are not universal, but they are common. Indie and major presses seem to  agree, for instance, that text should be blocky. In fact, the text of this website is mostly blocky.

What I am talking about is justification. At some point, nearly all the book designers in the US got together and decided that the proper alignment for prose was left-justified. What does a left-justified paragraph look like? Well you are reading one now. The left edge of the paragraph is aligned with the left margin, and the right edge of the paragraph is aligned with the right margin. The last line of the paragraph breaks this rule, because it would require extreme distortion of the text to ensure it met the right edge (the last line might be, after all, just one word long, and we don’t want to see that stretched all the way from left to right). But here’s the thing: essentially every line has to be distorted at least a little to make the edges match up right, and once you see this, it can be very hard to un-see it. The spaces between words and individual characters swell and shrink according to the needs of the line. You may find yourself struggling to read an especially crowded line; you may find yourself wondering why the spaces between the letters in the word “between” are so big. Words that disrupt the shape of the text too much become hyphenated in order to stop them from causing trouble. Sometimes they even split across two facing pages. Sometimes this is not disruptive. But sometimes it gets very ugly.

I don’t understand the necessity of justification. Mostly I practice it in my own designs, except in the case of my magazine, where I decided to indulge my own particular aesthetics (with the exception of two pieces I thought looked better as blocks–one of the other indulgences I allow myself is significant variation in layout and style from piece to piece within a single issue, which is generally considered a bad idea). I justify text in most of my designs because because readers expect it, and because writers do too. It seems to be a mark of the amateur to allow a ragged right edge (i.e., the results you get from simply aligning left in your word processor — i.e., the default setting of every word processing system ever). And there is, to be certain, a beauty to blocky paragraphs: a sense of unity, of intentionality, of care. Full-time professional designers with sufficient time to spend on tweaking the kerning of line after line of prose to achieve graceful justification can often make beautiful books.

But most of the time, justification is not actually beautiful except at the most superficial level. When you aren’t reading the words on the page, it almost always looks nice. Once you are reading those words, it tends to break down. And I would argue that it actually reduces readability.

There are, as I’ve said, the distortions that justification requires in essentially every line of text. These are not just ugly; sometimes they cause small-but-real problems with legibility.

There are also advantages to the visual variation of a ragged right edge. The most perilous part of the reading experience is the journey from the right edge of a paragraph, at the end of the line, to the left edge of the line below. You know you’re reading a book or a website with incompetent design when you frequently get lost within a paragraph because the text is too crowded or the lines are too wide. My experience suggests that this journey from right edge to left, from one line to the next, is also facilitated by variation in line length. I personally have an easier time making this transition when the lines look different from one another. I suspect you might also.

Finally, hyphenation at the end of the line becomes significantly more common on a justified page. This isn’t only ugly, it requires us to pause mid-word, and make that perilous journey to the left edge before we can finish that word. This isn’t exactly challenging for experienced readers, but it doesn’t facilitate communication either — and marginal readers do matter.

It seems suggestive to me that absolutely no one I know has ever willingly composed a text with justification switched on. Microsoft Word defaults to ragged right edges — partly because its justification algorithm isn’t all that smart, but also because it’s easier to write that way. When you submit a manuscript to a publisher, you don’t send it to them justified, presumably because they find it easier to read with a ragged right edge. (I certainly do; I hate when submitters send justified documents.) Do the preferences of readers really differ that much from those of writers and publishers?

The primary advantage of justification seems to be that it represents a clear design decision. You have to choose to justify, and then you have to choose to take the time to tweak it enough to make it look good. It signifies competence without necessarily demonstrating anything of the sort.

I’m not saying we should never justify, by the way. Sometimes it genuinely increases beauty and readability — I started thinking about this today because I was doing the text design for a book that benefitted greatly from justification because it had so many small paragraphs and so much white space and was somewhat visually scattered as a matter of necessity. Justifying those paragraphs made the book look less haphazard. Justification can also be a useful aesthetic decision based on content: I use it in Exits Are because it allows me to simulate the somewhat crude, very computery visuals of text adventures without resorting to the ugliness of a more accurate fixed-width font. That’s also why the text is a bit green.

What I mean to argue is that I don’t think it should be the default choice. I think that we should consider alternatives depending on the contents of our designs.

And really, what I want is for someone to explain to me how this became the default in the first place.

Man, you guys think of me as the boring nerd now, don’t you. You have for a while.