1

From Typographic alignment - Wikipedia, it seems that there are two main disadvantages of justified text: large spaces between words in narrow columns, and higher likelihood to have river of white spaces spanning across lines. Assuming river doesn't occur and wide column is in used, then these disadvantages disappear. We are thus left with texts whose word-spacing and letter-spacing are uneven. This is noticeable if the readers pay attention to it, but it isn't really obvious.

In my opinion, I don't see how this should be a problem at all. However, given that word-processing programs still set flush left as default, I wonder if there is still any advantages of it that I'm not aware? How does unobviously uneven spacing affect reading*? How is the advantage of flush left compared to the advantage of having the text aligned beautifully at both the left and right ends?

*I guess the correct term here is legibility, though I'm not sure

14
  • 1
    Problem is that even if you set those values, they are just the preferred spacing. Depending on the actual words it might not be possible for the application to achieve this spacing.
    – Wolff
    Mar 15 at 20:14
  • 3
    @Ooker Web design typesetting is still quite limited in terms of what you can do (e.g. setting min./max. letterspacing) and unlike paper, it's responsive so hyphens will move around, columns width might change... There is a lot of care that goes into properly typesetting a text, ragged or justified.
    – curious
    Mar 15 at 21:24
  • 1
    To me, yes. The visual "block" is much less inviting, makes tracking next lines more difficult, and I feel sacrifices readability for visual uniformity... Form v function. For copy text, function is imperative and the form of visual uniformity detracts from the function. I utilize tweaking spacing/soft returns to ensure the ragged right lines all have the general same length within 3 to 5 characters. This is, of course, merely my opinion. I've never heard anyone complain about ragged right text not looking like a "box".. whereas regarding the readability of justified text... well.....
    – Scott
    Mar 16 at 6:53
  • 1
    I'd also point out that the text, either way, is equally legible.. I'm referring to readability.. ragged right is easier to read, but both rr and justified are clearly understandable (legible).
    – Scott
    Mar 16 at 7:26
  • 1
    I'll see if I can formulate some sort of an answer tomorrow (really late here right now) .. There are a couple sources I can cite....
    – Scott
    Mar 16 at 10:49
5

It's not really about legibility. The text can be understood whether it's justified or not. The issue, as I see it, is about readability - how easy it is to read the text, how much effort must the viewer expend in order to ingest the copy.

The overall problem with full justification is accessibility. People with cognitive disabilities, or older audiences, can have considerable trouble reading justified text.

You mention "rivers of white" in the question. So, I know you're aware. However, merely because you don't perceive this problem does not mean others will not perceive a problem.

While these are geared towards web viewing, the overall theory holds strong for printed text as well. Fully justified text is simply harder to read for some.

Many readers can have difficulty tracking the next line in justified text. And, as with anyone, if tracking the next line is too difficult there's a probability reading will stop unless its mandated for some reason.

In addition, my opinion is that blocks of fully justified text are much less interesting and subsequently less intriguing in terms of visuals.

enter image description here

Same text, utilizing the same space.... but I find the right image much more visually interesting.

I feel this comes down to form v function. Which is more important...
form - readability is sacrificed in favor of the the visual uniformity created by justified text, or...
function - better/easier readability for the viewer

Humans see words as shapes. In the grand scheme of things this can be expanded somewhat to paragraphs. One can often recognize a paragraph they've read by the shape of the paragraph itself. This is admittedly a bit of conjecture, but looking at the image above, it would be easier to determine where you left off reading in the right image merely by the shapes.

My preference for body copy is to use ragged right text whenever possible and avoid full justification for all the reasons above. At times that means one needs to adjust word/letter spacing slightly or insert a couple key soft returns. I attempt to keep the ragged right within 3 to 5 or 7 characters if at all possible, and no hyphenation.

In my personal experience, I've never experienced anyone complaining that a block of body copy is set ragged right. However, I've often heard how difficult text is to read and ultimately determined it was the full justification. I avoid full justification as much as possible and really only use it when it is specifically requested by a client.

I see full justification similar to using too little or too much leading within a paragraph. There's a threshold that once you pass readability will drop considerably due to next line tracking difficulties for the reader. Too long of a line length can also cause the same visual tracking difficulty. In my opinion, this same difficulty is inherently built into full justification.


I do think full justification can be a necessary evil at times. In situations where there are hundreds of pages of text full justification can be a quick format to use to help avoid widows and orphans. Using ragged right text with a lot of pages can necessitate more manual "massaging" of text. I can see how full justification may appear more presentable given a tight deadline or desire to not visually ensure all pages have good line/paragraph breaks. I would rather put in this work myself. But there's no judgement if others don't.

5
  • 1
    Good answer! I don't "avoid full justification as much as possible" like you, but I totally agree that in many cases it's the wrong choice. It can very easily become a bad habit to just turn full justification on as a quick fix to make everything neat and tidy. The point about how people remember the shape of a paragraph they've read has a lot of truth to it. The same goes for pages as a whole which you, if the pages are varied, remember almost like a physical "place" you've been to.
    – Wolff
    Mar 16 at 20:47
  • The "form vs. function" talk is a bit more complicated imo. You talk about "form" as the visual appearance and "function" as the readability. But "function" can be seen as a wider concept. A "function" of a design is also it's ability to capture the reader's interest and if sacrificing a bit of readability can do that, I still see it as focusing on the "function". Hard to explain in comment length.
    – Wolff
    Mar 16 at 20:51
  • @Wolff I can see your point about f v f.. but...aren't you kind of implying the same thing? Visual interest also a function and I feel RR text is more interesting :) Everything neat, tidy, and boxy doesn't fulfill the function of being interesting at my desk :) So to me, justification is far more about form.
    – Scott
    Mar 16 at 21:40
  • We more or less agree, but I would say that both justified, RR and even right aligned can make a given design look more appealing and can be the right choice even if it decreases readability a little.
    – Wolff
    Mar 16 at 22:03
  • I think your experience may be suited to single page and short pieces. I cannot imagine trying to read a full novel that was set ragged right in a non-monospace font. Jun 9 at 14:23
3

In my opinion it doesn't affect legibility much, but the fully justified text looks unsightly with those large gaps between some words. The unjustified version looks fine, however unjustified text doesn't look so good in narrow columns.

Depending on which software you are using, you probably need to adjust your justification settings to allow some letter spacing, as well as word spacing. This will help avoid such large gaps between words.

Here's an example from Adobe Illustrator.

enter image description here

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curious
    Mar 15 at 20:53
1

There are many valuable discussion in the chat room, so I will make an answer from this. These points are very convincing to me. I edit and rearrange the points to make this answer read smoothy. The name tags don't necessarily indicate that the texts are their exact words; I just put them there to credit the real authors. Thanks everyone for spending your time and effort to make it clear to me.

@Wolff: Here is another example on why full justification should be avoided if possible:

In the right one each of the texts has well defined right edge which you are forced to take into account. It can quickly look messy with all those vertical axes to keep in balance.

Me: There is a quote that I really like: “Always go too far, because that's where you'll find the truth”. In this case, I just want to strip out the reasons to not use justification one by one, so we can find the cases where it is a valid choice. Let's assume that

  1. river doesn't happen,
  2. obvious gap doesn't happen,
  3. there is only one block of text,

then would there be any disadvantage left for using justification?

@mdomino: Your question as it is now basically boils down to "If I ignore all the disadvantages, there are no disadvantages, so why does nobody else see that there are no disadvantages?" The problem is, points (1) and (2) are pretty dangerous to just depend on. A river could happen everytime something small in the text changes, the gaps might not be obvious to you, but to someone else they are. Best example is your example image you posted with your question. You assumed it looks fine, to me the gaps in the justified text block look too obvious to leave it in this condition (though simply turning on hyphenation would have probably solved that issue in this case).

There is a reason on why word editors set left-aligned as default: white space rivers and ugly gaps do happen.

@Wolff: It makes perfectly sense that it's the default setting as it's the simplest method and will make text look "normal" under all circumstances. Headings are often left aligned, narrow columns don't look good with justified text and many designers actually like the ragged look. It's not given that everybody wants justified text.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.