left alignment versus centred

design-ed's picture


I'm fighting a battle at the moment! I've designed some guidelines for a client in which the prevailing style is left-aligned, un-justified type.

The cleint's company have just been introduced to the new style and they are moaning about not being able to justify or centre-align text with the new guidelines!

Does anyone know of or have some concrete material that I can use to convince them that left-alignment is both more elegant and more legible than a centred or right-aligned column? Also interested in any benefits of un-justified type (although I know this is debatable!)

Something like a case-study would be ideal. Anything that concentrates on legibility benefits is really the key thing!

pattyfab's picture

If you ask me FL/RR vs justified is a matter of taste and also can depend on the usage. For narrow column measures justified type can be problematic because you end up with word spacing issues as you sometimes see in newspapers or mags. Justified type is cleaner though and you don't have to deal with rag issues.

What is the job? And why are you resistant to justified type?

Centered type is fine for heads or for short bits of text like captions, callouts, or blurbs but can be very annoying to read in longer paragraphs.

Right aligned type can be effective for heads perhaps but not for running text.

Also with either centered or right aligned text it can be hard to distinguish paragraph breaks.

Grot Esqué's picture

If the lines are long enough and the words not too long (depends on language, I’d say ‘scottish’ words are pretty short), there’s nothing wrong with full justification.

On the other hand, if you’ve designed the templates, the non-design people should have no reason to complain, they don’t have to worry about design if it’s already designed. Especially ragged left text requires some eye.

The benefits of un-justified type come visible when there’s a very narrow column or when the language is something like German or Finnish, with long words.

Norbert Florendo's picture

You probably need some simply stated and not too academic approach to explaining the advantages/disadvantages of justification, rags, centering, etc.

Ilene Strizver does a good job following the "KISS" principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) in explaining the issues to non-type readers.

> Rags, Widows and Orphans
> Justified Type

The same articles are available as downloadable PDFs on her TypeStudio site.

hrant's picture

Where's that good thread we once had about justification, and why not to?


pattyfab's picture

Mr. Vignelli would say FL/RR I'm sure. No margins and very tight leading.

I'd still like to know what sort of project the guidelines are for and why the client resists them?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Semi-sorta related, "Don't give in to feature demands," via Creating Passionate Users.

Don McCahill's picture

One reason for not using centered or ragged right text is that it is harder to read. When the eye gets to the end of a line, it needs to travel back a distance (hopefully not too far) to get to the start of the next line. If that starting point is always at the same position on the x-axis, it speeds up reading. Ragged right and centered text mean the eye must return to that position, and then work across to where the text eventually starts.

Non-justified type, as has been mentioned, should not be a problem in good typesetting. But in word processed documents, where hyphenation programs may be suspect, and users often double space after a period, you can easily wind up with a space between words, or at the end of a sentence, that is much wider than the eye expects. When it hits this, it acts like a brick wall. The reader stops reading, wondering if something should be in this space, as it looks big enough to contain something. Eventually the eye starts up again, and continues, but the delay from bad spacing can be significant.

hrant's picture

Except we don't apply some sort of fixed "return distance" picked up from the first line (?) of a paragraph (?) when we do a line return on a given line; we use the boundary between the whitespace and the left side of the text block, which is clearly visible in the parafovea.* So yes, centered throws that off (unless the leading is ridiculous) but ragged-right does not.

* And when a measure is too wide and it overshoots the parafovea,
that's when we have trouble returning (ragged-right on justified).

> Non-justified type, as has been mentioned,
> should not be a problem in good typesetting.

As has also been mentioned*, justified type ruins spacing.
That is a problem.

* Somebody find that thread please! It was quite useful.


It's harder to pull off good rag-right. That's why the
Modernist false comfort of Das Blok is welcomed by some.


typofoto's picture

Here's that old thread:


Dan Weaver's picture

Your client has a point if they have multiple usages. Could you imagine an invitation only Flush left rag right, no, that is a place where centered type is appropriate. Justified is a matter of taste but point out the down side is rivers of white space in each paragraph. No don't make hard fast rules but make rules that fit the needs of each kind of communication project your client has. In a way you could make more money because this is a lot more work in explaining how and when to use a certain style.

pattyfab's picture

From Dictionary.com:

Main Entry: para·fo·vea
Pronunciation: -'fO-vE-&
Function: noun
Inflected Form: plural para·fo·ve·ae /-'fO-vE-"E, -vE-"I/
: the area surrounding the fovea

anyone want to explain this?

hrant's picture

At your service:

The acuity of the retina is like Devil's Tower:
http://www.gpc.edu/~janderso/images/volcano/v00005.jpg _
But you can still pick up any gross features (like the left
boundary of a paragraph block) quite a distance into the
parafovea. Also, the parafovea is better than the fovea
at picking up movement. For example, to see the flicker
in an interlaced computer monitor, look away from it.

And do try this, the next time you have to drive out of a
blind alley: instead of flipping your head left and right
a dozen times and moving ahead in fits and starts, stare
straight ahead, drive forward slowly but steadily, with
one foot on the brake pedal, and watch for movement in
your parafovea to brake for.

Bah, then they say this stuff has no practical value. :-)


design-ed's picture

This is all good stuff, but what I'm really wondering is if you have any favourite, quotable references from authoritative sources?

There are two issues here really:

Obviously there are occasions where centred/Left-Rag type are useful but this is for body copy used in reports mostly.

We're not putting down a hard and fast rule but what I want to show is what to avoid and the pros and cons for both options.

hrant's picture

> quotable references from authoritative sources

What is this, network TV?


William Berkson's picture

>Authoritative sources

You could quote what Bringhurst has to say, which I think is pretty sound.

With justification you have the problem of the variation in word spacing, which has to be addressed by the typesetter, using things like the 'paragraph composer', the H & J slider, and his or her own judgment.

With ragged right you have the problem of producing a good rag, which as I believe some in the other thread pointed out is not so easy.

Bringhurst points out that the problems of word spacing become greater with shorter measures, so the argument for ragged right becomes stronger there. But note that newspapers, with narrow columns, still usually have justified type as the norm.

To have a balanced view of what works best when, I think it is important not to buy into ragged right as a modernist dogma, which it has been.

hrant's picture

> ragged right as a modernist dogma

As I've been told before (and I've certainly seen all those examples in typographic history books) Modernism actually professed left-aligned setting. But that was in the early years* (and more prominently applied to titles, not text) and possibly a reactionarism to the "classical" establishment for the sake of a reaction. It should be clear that Modernism's preference for Das Grid naturally leads to a preference for full justification, and that is what we see today, with Modernism's terminal evolution.

* In this case I don't mean Rome. :-)


Nick Shinn's picture

Rag right modernism was primarily post-WW2.
For a long time now, it really doesn't matter.
Modernists can be purists (all ragged), or mix rag with justified.
There's no reader impact one way or the other, except as has been pointed out, when you have long words poorly justified on a short measure. But even then, a spot of "bad" justification can enliven a dull slab of text.

From "Kunstism" (The Isms of Art), designed by El Lissitsky, 1925.

hrant's picture

Nothing exsits in a pure state - individuals will choose
how far to take what which concepts. But the purest
conception of Modernism wants full justification.

> There’s no reader impact one way or the other

And feel free to use Fontesque for a book any day.


timd's picture

Ragged right is easier (cheaper) than justified to set in metal.

>Bah, then they say this stuff has no practical value. :-)
Kickstarts the fight or flight mechanism


Nick Shinn's picture

And feel free to use Fontesque for a book any day.

Yup, Fontesque for titles, and Fontesque Text for, er, text.


But seriously, where's the research that says rag or justified is better?
All you will find is opinion and counter-opinion.
It's a matter of preference and aptitude -- if a client wants justified, they should hire a typographer who does good justified (aptitude, attitude, experience), and not M. Vignelli.

hrant's picture

Dunno. Where's the research that says jumping off a building is bad for you?

Humans make their decisions -especially important ones- based on thought and instinct. Instinct is extremely individual, but thought develops thanks to many things, including intellect, and communication with others, and certainly not only empirical findings (I'm sure you agree). Some people have thought about some things more than others; and the thoughts that lead me to believe that rag-right (when properly done) is better are documented, and seem sound (in that I have yet to hear good counter-arguments).

I guess each of us simply has to decide who to trust.


track and kern's picture

I suppose that I can just chime in here for the sake of contribution. I typically prefer justified texts or well balanced ragged lines, and for a current project, a short newsletter style publication, I chose to go with ragged right. This is something I have not done for a while, and I was reminded as to why. Even though I was writing all the content on my own, which gave me the freedom to edit words, line lengths, paragraphs, and what not to make the proper fit, I felt it was still just as difficult, if not harder to achieve a well balanced rag all the way down the page. Although, at this point, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised with how nicely the columns have come out, and how the publication looks overall. I set with Chapparal Pro for the body copy with variations of Frutiger for section headings and sub-heads. I also intermingled more artistic typography, pertinent to the content and overall design of various other bulky sans serifs.

hrant's picture

> harder to achieve

No argument there.
It's just that when we sacrifice quality for the sake of
expediency, we should at least be aware we're doing so.


Syndicate content Syndicate content