Whether or not justified or unjustified type works best is a perennial question. The term refers to the practice of padding out lines with extra space to achieve a straight right-hand edge.
It’s less of an issue that it used to be – owing largely to thirty years or so of modernist-influenced design education, and the displacement of compositors (printers who used to set metal type) by graphic designers, unjustified type is the default option these days. Newspapers and printed books are the only genres where justified type is still more or less compulsory – at least for certain types of content. Textbooks are more likely to be unjustified than novels, and newspapers use justification as a marker of formality – The Times uses justified type for news stories and the main editorial, but unjustified type for features and commentary.
Defenders of justified type have not found much support in reading research – psychologists looking for an effect on reading speed or accuracy have found it makes little difference. But typography isn’t just about making reading easy, or providing an efficient channel for words to pass from page to brain – it’s also about articulating meaning. It is part of the language resource that we use to communicate relationships between parts of a text. In particular, it is what makes written language more than just a secondary form, a transcription of speech. Looked at in this way, is there a role for justification?
I think there is a clue in the names we use. Unjustified type is often known under other names, ‘ranged left’ and ‘ragged right’ being the most common. The names didn’t just happen, but were a form of spin by modernist designers who were uncomfortable that the term ‘unjustified’ seemed to imply a lack of quality. In linguistic terms, ‘unjustified’ is the marked form that implies it is the exception not the rule, whereas ‘ranged left’ is a simple neutral description of the way the type is set. The very term ‘justified’ implies something correct, and properly finished, and in an age of symmetry and ornament anything else would have been seen as unfinished – like unplaned timber, or a garment with no hem.
As descriptive terms, ‘ranged left’ and ‘ragged right’ do quite different jobs, and the difference is instructive. ‘Ranged left’ refers to what is going on inside the column of type – the letters are ranged evenly from the left-hand margin – and makes no reference to the space outside the column. ‘Ragged right’, though, draws attention to the resulting untidy column edge.
In the ‘ranged left’ world view, then, the even texture of type in the column is the most important thing. The column of type is where reading happens, in isolation from other elements on the page.
‘Ragged right’, on the other hand, focuses us on the column edge and, in my view, the term implies a case for justified type.
Edges are critical in graphic design. Pages are made up of different elements, usually aligned in deliberate ways to contribute to the reading experience, whether through meaning, navigation or a simple sense of visual order. The space to the right of a column of type may have a job to do – a job of separating elements, of framing the text, of linking though the continuity of white space. This job can often be done better by a well defined rectangle.
For example, in multi-column layouts, ragged right is fine, so long as the lefthand columns are straight – too much indented type (of the kind you get with legal text) creates a ragged left effect, and the intercolumn space is a less effective visual element.
Here’s a simple demonstration of what I mean.
1: Ranged left is fine so long as you have a straight lefthand column to define the column (most of the time, in fact).
2: Where you have frequent multilevel indention in multicolumn text, it effectively creates a ragged left edge and the intercolumn space no longer forms a clear shape.
3: Justified type restores the vertical alignment.
This note was inspired by a recent discussion on the Infodesign Café. The most thorough and insightful account of the debate is Paul Stiff's 1996 paper: Stiff P (1996) 'The end of the line: a survey of unjustified typography', Information Design Journal, vol 8: 125-152