Short Length Justified Textblocks

Gershon's picture

I was asked to clean up a booklet for my company, but unfortunately its design is justified text with a fairly short line length. I'd love to redesign the whole thing, but it needs to be done and published in a couple weeks, so I'm left doing damage control.

I've twiddled with the justification and even the hyphenation in hope of fixing the letter and word spacing with some success, but it's not good enough yet. I was wondering if anyone here has any suggestions for possible typefaces that handle justification better, or even settings I haven't thought of. Thanks in advance.

kentlew's picture

You may have to post examples in order to get useful suggestions. There’s only so much you can do with justified text and a short line length. It’s going to be a matter of all factors, but the typeface itself is probably the least of them.

The words themselves often dictate the viability. With a short measure, if they don’t fall right, there may not be a lot you can do, short of rewriting.

Gershon's picture

I was afraid of that. The crux of the problem is the long words. On the shorter lines its giving us ugly rivers.

William Berkson's picture

Well, a narrow typeface can help you, and more hyphenation. Another way to get up letter and word count in the line is to go with a smaller type size. How much leeway you have to get a decent result depends on what already have: the measure of your line, the length of the lower case alphabet in your font, and the size of type, among other things. As Kent wrote, you have to get into the details to see what can be done.

riccard0's picture

Or you could just do like Businessweek:
(please don't)

Birdseeding's picture

You need to do a lot of manual work with your paragraphs, not automatic stuff from a menu. At newspapers (which is where I've got my Indesign training) we've practically only got short line length justified text to work with, and we do a whole bunch of stuff to alleviate rivers. Some of these may be unacceptable in more complex settings, but here are some tricks anyway:

* Rehyphenate manually. A lot of rivers can be made to disappear if you just switch hyphenation one syllable forward or backward.

* Ever so slightly fiddle with tracking. Up to 15/1000 of an em (some say 30/1000) is basically not noticeable for the naked eye unless you're really looking for it. You'd be amazed how much difference those little changes make. Absolutely don't overdo this, though, going over the limit it starts to be really visible. Oh, and only do it to whole paragraphs at once.

* As a last resort, Rewrite! No writer in the world (except possibly Giles Coren) is going to remember which particular word order they used, or exactly what adjectives went where. If you're reasonably stylistically confident you should be able to pull this off on the sly.

Nick Shinn's picture

…or even settings I haven't thought of…

A mix of justification and rag right.
Basically, the idea is it's rag right, but if the set text is close to the full measure, justify it.

From the 1840s:

From the 1970s:

eliason's picture

No writer in the world (except possibly Giles Coren) is going to remember which particular word order they used

I think the exceptions list would be much longer than that, actually.

Birdseeding's picture

Well, yes, you're right. Columnists, poets, proper authors - don't touch 'em.

Writers of information leaflets, technical writers, regular journos - should expect, as part of a team, to be constantly changed, shortened, filled out, copyedited, whatever.

William Berkson's picture

Nick, 1840 stuff—cool. The Royal Caribbean stuff—heinous.

Té Rowan's picture

There's something... well... steerage-class about that ad.

Nick Shinn's picture


Bill, you would have done the same if you were an AD thirty years ago and that was your account.

William Berkson's picture

Well, in the mid-70s I was teaching philosophy, but now and then talking to my Uncle Ben Lieberman about type. He said that this new "tight but not touching" fashion was a terrible idea. I agreed.

JamesM's picture

> Writers of information leaflets, technical writers, regular
> journos - should expect, as part of a team, to be constantly
> changed, shortened, filled out, copyedited, whatever.

It would be a good idea to consult the writer first, unless you're their boss or have their prior approval to make edits.

Just as you, the designer, would want to be consulted if a team member decided to change your design.

Now if you're part of a team that, as standard operating procedure, permits the designer to change the text without consulting the writer, then that's different. Perhaps newspapers operate that way due to the extreme deadlines, for example. But your original comment mentioned doing it "on the sly", which implies that the writer would would not regard it as s.o.p and would be upset.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

A slight horisontal scaling can work wonders. Make some test prints though!

Gershon's picture

Thanks guys. I appreciate all the feedback and the great suggestions.

paragraph's picture

The Royal Caribbean stuff—heinous.
There's something... well... steerage-class about that ad.

Isn't hindsight marvellous, as Nick says? What about sideburns and flares and platform shoes and shirts with tiny waists and enormous lapels?

William Berkson's picture

Well, paragraph, you are right that there is a phenomenon that the excitement of novelty may temporarily blind people to something that really doesn't work aesthetically. But often the practiced eye will see through novelty alone, and that something is not well done.

The tight-but-not-touching fashion came into being because it was possible for the first time with photo typesetting. I'm sure that for a lot of people, in addition to Ben Lieberman, the badness of things like that Royal Carribean ad—which has a lot of touching by the way—was also obvious at the time.

Of course it may have worked OK at the time for the intended audience. But still, there were people who knew better.

A more recent version of this was all the layering that went on in the 90s, with the grunge and other fashions.

Both tight display type and layering can be done effectively, but now we can see the difference between good and bad examples.

By the way, I thought at the time that platform shoes were idiotic, as they are both ugly and impractical. Now Lady Gaga is wearing them. Bell bottoms, wide lapels, and side burns I still don't see any inherent problem with...

Nick Shinn's picture

I'm sure that for a lot of people … the badness of things like that Royal Carribean ad … was also obvious at the time.

…but now we can see the difference between good and bad examples …

Make your mind up!
Is the Royal Caribbean ad just a poorly-executed example of the super-tight style, or is the style itself bad?

William Berkson's picture

Ok, you're right I wasn't clear, so let me clarify. In general very tight letter spacing disrupts the balance of white space between letters with white space within counters. So evenness of color is hurt. And as a result I think readability is hurt and the texture of long or multiple lines of type get ugly.

However with display type of a few words, I think all bets are off as far as "rules", because it depends on the setting and the goal. In logos and advertising, the visual interest of the image of a few words becomes more important than readability, and you can sometimes get a more interesting or punchy image by tight, touching, unusual ligatures, rotated or woven together letters, distorting letters, etc. etc. With a few words, and even more so with a few letters, you can get an interesting image that coheres with all kinds of visual play. And tightening spacing is one of the simplest things you can do to increase liveliness and punch. But it often looks ungainly, and is still overused today, IMHO. But it certainly can be effective, and I'm sure you can find many good examples, with a few letters and words. Not with extended text.

charles ellertson's picture

To the OP: you need a compositor, not a type designer . . .

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