Thoughts on justified text

23 Feb 2011

I had to come into a conclusion about fully justified text. I noticed that notaries in Greece (an observation from when I was a kid) always use justification, even in the old days of DOS text editors and monospaced fonts (ugly). I think it’s an old rule started from the manuscript writers. It is also correlated to formality. I, myself, instinctively still correlate "justified text" to formal text and I used justify alignment a lot.

Well I changed my mind a bit. Why bother about a sense of formality when text is not pleasant to the reading eye. I am not talking about unjustified - Left-Aligned (Ragged Right) VS justified. Every choice has advantages and disadvantages.

Justified text looks nicely into blocks, it gives a sense of formality and order and it’s being done by the machine. You don’t have to worry about line ending and word breaking. The major problem with justified text is the risk of creating excessive word spacing. The longer the line the less this problem occurs, but the longer the line the more you are tired to read (eye movement).

The biggest advantage of unjustified typesetting is the ability to control static word spacing. It looks better and it's also an important aspect of efficient and legible typography. Tight word spaces speeds up the reading process and allows the reader to absorb thoughts and phrases rather than individual words, which helps to maintain high levels of comprehension (scientifically documented).

The disadvantage of unjustified typesetting is that long lines followed by very short ones can cause awkward shapes that are not inviting to the eye. Ideally, unjustified composition should appear to be optically justified.

In press and printed publications (e.g. books) typographers use unjustified text that appears to be optically justified*. They keep tight word spacing and… they break words (hyphenation). They deal with static page width and that makes their life a lot easier.

All the above advantages, disadvantages and solutions must be seen under the prism of the web publishing practices, website development and design trends.

Back in 1999 there where static html pages, tables (not divs), absent cascade styles (css) and two monitor resolutions, 1024x768 and 800x600. You could act like a print typographer then.

Nowadays, there are mostly database driven* websites with hundred lines css, floated divs and in many cases auto adjusted width text blocks. You cannot break words manually***. Different operating systems and browsers render type differently, which changes how the type falls. Users can resize their browser windows and manually adjust the size of the type.

All of these factors play a large role in deciding. You can’t fix all the large-spaced word in justified text, and you can’t fix all the overly-ragged edges in left or right aligned type. Ragged alignments are really the kings of the web due to the lesser amounts of troubles. Even well structured formal sites such as The New York Times have adopted a ragged approach rather than the traditional justified look of their print counter-parts. I have to add the "A List Apart" too, the website for people who make websites.

* text is an alphanumeric variable that can be used in different design and text blocks.
** by justified text I mean just the justification based only on floating word spacing.
*** nice tips to apply auto-hyphenation on your website content.