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.

I’m switching from QuarkXPress to Adobe InDesign

I typically am fiercely, sometimes irrationally, loyal to brands that have served me well. I am a Mac user, Subaru driver, Whole Foods shopper, and Phillies fan. All of these characteristics essentially boil down to brand loyalty. This is why the decision to switch from QuarkXPress to Adobe InDesign was difficult for me.

I started using QuarkXPress in college in the early 1990s as part of my responsibilities on the school newspaper staff. I have used Quark either recreationally or professionally since then, mostly with satisfaction. Sure, I was frustrated every time I tried to install the software on a new computer (seems they wanted a kidney, first-born, or letter from the family priest to ensure you weren’t pirating their software) or when I had to find plug-ins to do what I thought the software should do in the first place. But Quark is powerful, and more importantly, it’s practically second nature to me after working with it for so long.

So it makes sense that I didn’t notice when Adobe InDesign, which got off to a shaky start in the early 2000s, suddenly zoomed past Quark in terms of elegance and available features, not to mention its ability to integrate with other Adobe products like Illustrator and Photoshop.

The consensus in the design world these days seems to be that Quark has started reacting to innovations that Adobe has already implemented in InDesign, and I have to agree. (One small but important example is that the most recent version of InDesign features tools related to spacing and aligning content that are far more advanced than Quark’s.) Quark seems stuck in eternal catch-up mode. The more I learn about InDesign, I realize the decision to switch was a good one.

NAI members may notice some changes in the May/June issue of Legacy magazine, which is the first laid out in Adobe InDesign. (See last week’s post for more on that.)

I’ll never stop rooting for the Phillies, though.

A Legacy of Change

If you are a member of NAI, you may have already received the May/June issue of Legacy magazine. If you are not a member of NAI, what are you, some sort of freeloader? Visit the NAI website and join right now.

legacy-mayjune2009Legacy readers may notice that there have been some design changes. I explain in the magazine’s editorial that the content itself has changed (visit Online Legacy for more on that), which made it seem an appropriate time to change the actual look of the magazine.

The most obvious change is in the magazine’s flag, which is now set in our modernist friend, Helvetica, instead of the pseudo-serif Baker Signet, which is what I inherited when I started with NAI in 2002.

The advantage of the Helvetica typeface is that it offers the flexibility of using its many fonts (bold, oblique, light, and even narrow, though I usually avoid the latter). This means that I can use Helvetica throughout the magazine in various capacities, which was more difficult with Baker Signet. Helvetica is now the only sans serif typeface used in the magazine (excepting advertisements, of course), replacing Avenir.  (Check out Shea’s post on Helvetica from a few weeks ago.)

I recently switched from QuarkXPress 6.5 to Adobe InDesign CS3—not a fair competition, I admit, since Quark 6.5 is so much older than InDesign CS3. (Check back a week from this post for more on why I switched to InDesign.) That said, I am finally confident in the technology for professional printers to use transparencies in page layout software, so I use them for the first time in this issue. You’ll notice in the cover image here that the fields of color behind the flag at the top and the contents at the bottom are partially transparent (set at 60%, if you’re scoring at home).

In the interior of the magazine I’ve tried to reinforce the grid I use in all NAI publications (again a challenge because of advertising) and increase the contrast between the serif and sans serif typefaces.

Magazines frequently make a big deal out of updating their layout and design (just last month, an issue of Sports Illustrated included an editorial announcing minor layout changes). I imagine this feels like a bigger deal to the folks whose livelihoods depend on the magazine than it does to the casual reader who may spend an hour a week reading a publication, but I always like to know what designers are thinking when they make changes to formats that haven’t changed for years.