Justified vs. Rag Right
One of the many decisions to be made when designing with type is its alignment. The two most common alignments in Western typography are justified and rag right (also called flush left). Each has different strengths and applications, as well as challenges in making the text look readable and maintaining the intended color and texture of the typeface.
Justified type has a very geometric appearance, created by both the right and left margins being aligned. This is achieved by increasing and/or reducing the spaces between words, characters, and, in some unfortunate instances, even the width of the characters themselves.
Justified type, when done well, can look neat and crisp, and support a design with its more formal, symmetric appearance. It allows for more copy in an allotted space, as characters fill the full line length. But when justification is applied to a narrow column, or to one with too few characters per line to allow the text to flow without undue stretching and/or squeezing, it can compromise the color and texture of the type. This can result in spotty type with rivers of white space (gaps between words that create vertical patterns) and too many hyphens, both of which can reduce readability as well as distract from other design elements.
If the text is for the web – or any medium that does not allow for complete control over size, line breaks, and hyphenation – it is best to avoid justification entirely.
Rag right text is easier to set, more natural to read, and requires less adjustment to finesse. Rag right settings are more informal, such that the reader usually doesn’t even notice the alignment. It generally results in better type texture and color, since the original spacing is not manipulated.
Rag right settings produce fewer hyphenated words than justified settings. This is the better choice when avoiding hyphenation altogether is desired. Rag right is also the best alignment for narrow columns of text which can look especially awkward when their spacing is manipulated. This is not to imply that rag right copy doesn’t need any adjusting at all to look its best. A good rag goes in and out in small increments. Check for and manually correct any deep indents and unplanned organic shapes – either of which can reduce readability and deflect the reader’s attention. When used appropriately, both alignments can look great and help create a strong, effective overall design.
- Editor’s Note:Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.