In this month’s typography tutorial we take a look at paragraph alignment. While on the surface it may appear that this topic is relatively straightforward, each alignment has its own nuances that contribute to the overall appearance and readability of the design piece.
There are four main ways to align a paragraph including Flush Left, Flush Right, Justified and Centred. Whilst each of these alignments can be achieved in a page layout application with a click of a button or on the web using a straightforward styling rule, the benefits and pitfalls of each are not so simple. When deciding on which alignment to use many factors need to be considered to ensure optimal readability.
Justified Paragraph Alignment
Justified alignment is a very popular choice as many people prefer the neat, straight edge appearance on both sides of the paragraph. This alignment gives the paragraph a formal appearance and the text tends to run shorter (the text takes up less room) than the other alignments—hence its popularity in magazines and newspapers.
However, to create the straight edges on each side of the paragraph requires the words to be unevenly spaced and this is where the main issue lies. When a line within a paragraph contains a number of large words, gaps of white space can appear. Furthermore, when these gaps appear over multiple lines we get what is described as “white rivers” running through the entire paragraph. Not only are these unsightly, they hinder readability.
Rivers can be minimised in a number of ways. Generally, the narrower the paragraph the more rivers will appear. Therefore, wider paragraphs will contain less rivers, but you don’t want to go too wide as your reader will lose their place within the paragraph and end up reading the same line twice—I bet this has happened to you a few times!
The most effective way to eliminate rivers is to use hyphenation. I know what you might be thinking, “I hate hyphenation!” Well, bad luck. The rule goes like this: If you use justified type, you must use hyphenation. If you don’t like hyphenation, don’t use justified type! When you do use justified type, you need to make sure that you don’t have hyphens sitting on top of each other, which means multiple hyphens in a row—these are called ‘stacks’.
Flush Left Paragraph Alignment
With this alignment, the left side of the paragraph is straight (or flush) and the right side is called ragged. The great thing about this alignment is that the word spacing is even and rivers are eliminated. This greatly reduces the need for hyphenation but a small amount may be necessary in some circumstances. This alignment is great for narrow columns.
The trick with this alignment is to ensure the ragged edge looks pleasing and the paragraph does not appear to have large chunks or bites out of the paragraph. I recommend the rag should be between one-fifth and one-seventh the width of the paragraph. This is greatly controlled by the overall width of the paragraph, the typeface choice, the type size and the use of small amounts of hyphenation (for large words only).
Flush Right Paragraph Alignment
This is opposite to the flush left alignment as the ragged edge appears on the left side of the paragraph and the straight (flush) edge on the right. Again, word spacing is even which eliminates rivers, there is a limited need for hyphenation and the ragged edge should look pleasing. However, this alignment is demanding to read as the reader is continually searching for the beginning of each line as this varies throughout the paragraph due to the ragged edge. It should therefore only be used for short amounts of copy such as image captions.
Centred Paragraph Alignment
This alignment gives the type a look of dignity but the line length should be varied to create a pleasing and interesting silhouette—no two lines should be the same, or close to the same length. Centred text should only be used for short amounts of copy such as poems or invitations, as like flush right alignment, it is demanding to read due to the variations in line length. The lines should be broken in a way that makes sense in relation to the content and generous line spacing is also required.
Where to Learn More
If you are looking to learn more about typography I can highly recommend the book Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton.
And that wraps up this month’s typography tutorial on paragraph alignment. I hope you enjoyed it and, more importantly, learnt something!
Other articles you may enjoy:
The Ultimate Guide to Typeface vs Font: When to Use Each Term.