Flush Left, Ragged Right: Getting the Perfect Edge

Have you ever asked yourself, Are my paragraphs the right shape? If not, fasten your seatbelts, folks. It’s typographic minutia time again!

When you’re dealing with blocks of text in an exhibit or on a sign, it’s worth taking the time to make sure your type looks as attractive as possible. One of the things some new designers overlook is the actual shapes of their blocks of text. (They’re probably too busy thinking about young people things, like texting and eating paste.)

I like to set my type flush left, ragged right (or left-justified, in Microsoft Word parlance). Flush-left, ragged-right type creates a straight line on the left, and an organic, ragged edge on the right. I prefer to set my type this way (as opposed to fully justified) in part because it maintains even word- and letter-spacing.

But here’s the thing: There’s a specific shape that you should strive to create with that ragged right edge. You don’t want to leave it to chance.

The text below (James Earl Jones’s baseball speech from Field of Dreams) was flowed into a text box in Adobe InDesign with no attempts at tweaking.

I have traced the paragraph and represented its shape to the right. (If my wife is reading this, she is just now realizing that she is married to the sort of person who traces the shapes of paragraphs.) You can see that it creates a haphazard shape. To my eyes, the short first line and the subsequent ski-jump slope shape are particularly unattractive. (Speaking of James Earl Jones, I’m just noticing that the shape above looks like a profile of Darth Vader’s head.)

Below, I have altered the text (through minor adjustments to letter spacing and a few hard returns) to create a more desirable saw-edge shape. The first line is longer than the second, then subsequent lines roughly alternate.

You can see that the right edge of the type still has an organic feeling to it, but it has a more pleasing, consistent look than the original, unmodified version.

Obviously, it’s not pragmatic to do this with every paragraph in a book or a magazine, but if you have three or four blocks of text on an interpretive panel or wayside, attention to this level of detail will make your work that much more attractive.

And speaking of trying to be attractive to people, I think I need to stop having my wife read these posts.

16 thoughts on “Flush Left, Ragged Right: Getting the Perfect Edge

  1. I was a student journalist for many years before moving into interp, and this post brought back fond memories of late nights in front of the layout computers in our newsroom, tweaking every headline and deck to look juuuuuuust right. You’re spot on – attention to small details can have a big impact.

  2. This is just one of the many graphic standards we use here at Taylor. Good advice! I also can’t stand it when a one, two, or three letter word is at the end of a protruding line. Boy, we sure are trained to be picky! For good reason, of course. Hello legibility!

  3. Just today, as I sat reading my Kindle, I noticed that the text is justified. It makes a pretty left and right border, but the font spacing is somewhat distracting. I too prefer a left alignment. However, the right edge is of little consequence to me. I guess Paul, you truly are a font guru.

  4. Congratulations on the new look for the blog. Nice and clean, and the banner changes, which appeals to my short attention span. I do think the comments count is somewhat buried in the tags. OTOH, that did make me look at the tags. I wonder what other entries would pop up for your ‘sniffing glue’ tag? Will they all be about your wife? Or will they be about Shea? I can’t wait to find out.

  5. Thanks, Joan. We’re still tweaking the new theme—just moments ago removed the tags. (Probably best that readers don’t pay too much attention to the tags, for the reasons you demonstrate.)

  6. Agreed—with a qualifier: Pay attention to the phrases too, when discerning the best place to split to the next text line. The helps the thoughts flow much more nicely.

  7. As someone who’s dealing with many angry visitors from ‘changes’ to a place over a few decades…I think this new design leans a little too much on white and other space. There was a compactness in the old site, as well as a toning-down of the color/shading of the old background, that was, for lack of a better word, soothing. It reminds me of Honda: their cars kept getting incrementally bigger, until we woke up one day to find they had all gone up one step in size class. (random non-sequitur, from PJ O’Rourke: Honda’s lineup sounds like a city council meeting: does the Civic Insight Fit? We’re in Accord.)

  8. I think Matt hit the target on why this new layout is hard for me to read, it is to white and does not have the soothing background that I found easier on my eyes.

    I find Matt’s Honda analogy disturbing though. Years ago I had a Honda Civic, then a Prelude, then a Acura Intergra (Honda product), then an Accord and now I drive a CR-V. Very interesting.

  9. Rats. Tags are fun. I like an easy way to see how many comments there are, so putting them together doesn’t work for me, but getting rid of the tags makes me sad. Ah, well.

    Now that Matt mentions the white thing, I realize that the new look is suspiciously like a Mac brochure. Does Shea know about this not-so-subtle plan for world Mac domination?

  10. Matt and Jeff, I’ve added some warm neutral tones to the background. Does that help?

    Joan, Shea won’t know anything until it’s too late.

  11. World domination by Mac? I look forward to fewer crashes.
    Yes, mixing in the warmer tones helps.

  12. What are your opinions on how the names were laid out for the Flight 93 Wall of Names Memorial?

    Ever since seeing it a few days ago, it’s been bugging me. The strange layout is especially noticeable on longer names. Is it supposed to bug me? I don’t know if each name centered on each panel would be better but the jagged layout bugs me.

  13. Hi Paul,

    As in your post, you have said that the saw-edge shape is the better one but is it the ideal one? By the way, what method/tool/software do you use to achieve it? You just don’t manually adjust space and return with large document as it not very efficient, isn’t it?

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