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I'm a designer, not a marketer, and not a writer (at least not professionally). A lot of the work I do involves working with material in a field that can be above my head. Because of that, I'm content to take the text that's given to me and do what I can to make it look great on the page – tighten the kerning to get an orphan on the previous line, adjust size and leading to get it all on the page, play with gutter widths, and so on.

But sometimes, it's tough to avoid the rivers or repetitive words or even orphans sometimes without altering the copy itself. When it's my work I have no trouble doing this, but when it's someone else's work (particularly when they know more than I do and might care less about such issues as I do), it's harder to make a case to change wording simply because it doesn't look ideal when on the page.

Is it a designer's place to try to alter wording on the mere basis that it doesn't look quite right on the page? With apologies to David Carson fans, I believe that form follows function, not the other way around, so the answer would seem to be no. But tweaking just a few things can often make a big difference!

As sort of a side question, would altering text thus be a last resort? I do not like to hyphenate anything, but would it be better to do so than alter copy?

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+1 Great question! So many times, I've read typography textbooks and articles preaching the evils of widows, orphans, rivers, etc, and thought "Great, but what can a designer or typesetter actually do about this, short of hyphenation and hacking the tracking or kerning into less than ideal shape?" –  user568458 Oct 20 '12 at 23:50
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Great question. The answer depends partly on the context, and won't be the same for every job, but here are some general guidelines.

In some situations, there will be someone actually wearing the copy editing hat, and you can refer problem passages to that person. In most settings that's not the case, so the designer either edits the copy or adjusts the typography. It's seldom necessary to change copy just to solve a local typographic problem, but there are occasions when a different choice of adjective or a simpler syntax makes all the difference. Any such changes must be pointed out to the client/author and approved.

There's nothing wrong with hyphens provided they are used sparingly. Nobody wants a page bristling with hyphens down the right edge, but I'll take an occasional hyphen over a bad line break or a river any day, and I think that's true of most typographers. What is far worse is text that has been tracked, squeezed or otherwise over-manipulated just to avoid hyphens. Even text color on the page is the aim.

If you're using InDesign, you have a great many tools that you can bring to bear. The justification settings in ID can be useful in other situations than justified text. For example, it can be more effective to change the "Preferred" word or letter spacing than to adjust tracking. Some fonts work better with a 95% word spacing than the built-in default. Getting a lighter text color by making the preferred letter spacing +3% while leaving word spacing alone gives a different and sometimes preferable result than opening the tracking.

The Adobe Paragraph composer does a great job, but sometimes turning it off for a problem paragraph can improve things. Experiment with this and you'll get a feel for when it might be useful.

For justified text, don't forget that typography on a computer enables an adjustment that was common before Gutenberg but impossible with solid type -- character width. With most serif faces and a few sans (never with geometrics or grotesks), allowing the character width to vary plus or minus 2 or 3 percent can make an astonishing difference to the even flow of text while being indistinguishable to the reader.

So, to sum up: altering the text to solve a typographic problem is a last resort, and it is usually preferable to allow a hyphen in such a case.

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The very thought of varying character width makes me bristle! But I'll have to try that out sometime. Thanks for the range of options you presented overall. –  Brendan Dec 13 '12 at 17:19
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Just my opinion....

Sometimes.

I work with many clients.

Several of my clients utilize copywriters. When a copywriter hands me (or the client) text, I treat that text and written in stone. No change will be made to the text without first consulting the writer. If, for no other reason, this is done as a professional courtesy to allow the writer to control what is written. I would never be pleased if a writer were to take a piece I designed and make changes without my consultation. Building mutually respected working relationships with copywriters is always my goal. I want them to be pleased to be working with me and to trust that I will treat their work with respect. While a hyphen here, a different word there, may mean very little to the designer it can be night and day to the writer. I've never run into any situation where the writer wasn't willing to make a edit if I explained the aesthetic issue with the current text.

If a copywriter has not supplied the text.....

Some of my clients write their own copy. In these cases, I tend to feel a bit more free with editing when needed. But I always point out any specific changes I've made and am never stubborn about reverting to supplied text. Primarily because, as you've pointed out, the writer will understand the context far more than I will in most cases.

Then there are cases where a client supplies copy and it's clear they are lacking basic grammar and spelling skills. In really bad cases I will subcontract a copywriter to correct and clean up the copy.

I don't market myself as a writer and I never take on specific projects where all writing is needed. Instead I pass off contact information for several copywriters I work with and let them iron things out as far as content.

I do disagree though.. Form always follows function. Without function the goal of any design fails, making the entire profession less crucial to any marketing team.

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Couple of quick observations to add to the very thorough preceding answers.

We can all agree that form does follow function. However, where that line falls can be very ambiguous. I've worked for clients where the form was the function. Achieving visual, emotional effect is sometimes the primary end. Not everything is a novel, instruction manual, or text book.

I have rarely actually changed copy without talking with the writer. My preference is to always work with a writer I know and trust -- that's about 90% of the time for me. In that scenario, I expect them to comment if something I do could be improved. On the flip side, I'll do the same for them. Usually I take a soft approach and just make a note off the record. If it's something I think really needs to be visualized, I'm comp it up and send them a screen cap.

In the end, if you and the writer don't see eye to eye on the words, you lose. Same goes for them if they don't like the way you typeset their headline.

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