Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph?

It has been a while since I have taken a firm stance on some bit of typographic minutia that most normal people don’t care about, so today, I’m writing about whether you should indent the first line of the first paragraph when laying out narrative text. Get ready for a wild ride, similar to previous posts on drop caps, double spacing after a period, and the serial comma. (For those of you who are really into this sort of thing, I have created a category called “Typographic Minutiae” in our sidebar. Tell your friends!)

Not long ago, I was in a meeting with a freelance client whom I had not worked with before. I was nodding at comments and suggestions while going over the first draft of a newsletter: “Take all of the text from this Russian novel and put it on page 3.” Nod nod nod. “And in all the leftover space make this 50-pixel-wide photo huge.” Nod nod nod. “And use 17 different styles for these headlines.” Nod nod nod. “And indent the first line of the first paragraph in these blocks of text.” Screeching record-scratch sound.

To give you a visual of what I’m talking about, see the examples above. (Thanks to Bleacher Report for the text.) I have always set the first paragraph of a block of text, either at the very beginning of a passage or after a subhead, flush left, including the first line, as with the example on the left.

I remember a graduate school professor explaining it like this: You indent to indicate a new paragraph. There’s no reason to indent the first paragraph because it’s obvious that it’s a new paragraph since it’s the first one. Now go design a ball that is really a mask that will save the world. (Grad school was weird.)

Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, which many designers consider the Bible of typography, says it like this:

The function of a paragraph indent is to mark a pause, setting the paragraph apart from what precedes it. If a paragraph is preceded by a title or subhead, the indent is superfluous and can therefore be omitted.

If Robert Bringhurst is not an authoritative enough source for you, Wikipedia says this: “Professionally printed material typically does not indent the first paragraph, but indents those that follow.”

As with all typographic styles, if you follow a specific style guide, you should defer to it. (And whatever style you follow, be sure to follow it consistently rather than mixing and matching.) There are some style guides that say you should indent the first line of all paragraphs, including the first one. For instance, most newspapers follow the Associated Press style guide, which calls for indenting the first line of all paragraphs. That said, I have always hated AP style because 98 percent of its guidelines are intended more for saving money on ink than actual clarity of language. (Most newspapers also fully justify (on the right and the left) narrow columns of text, which looks ridiculous, so if that’s your model for good design, best of luck to you.)

Ultimately, it’s not incorrect to indent the first line of the first paragraph of narrative text. People aren’t going to point and laugh if you do it. But in my estimation, left justifying the entire first paragraph is one of those subtle nuances that sets professional design apart from amateur design.

The Great Space Debate: To Single- or Double-Space After a Period

A while back, I declared my allegiance to the serial comma, and I am ready to take another stand.

I believe that double-spacing after a period at the end of a sentence is outdated, clunky, and typographically unsound. (While I’m at it, I also believe that college football’s postseason format is fraudulent, the designated hitter rule is silly, Conan O’Brien was treated unfairly, and Arrested Development was taken off the air way too soon.)

This is not exactly a cutting-edge opinion, but there are still plenty of people out there using the antiquated post-period double space. This is fine if you’re writing e-mails or crafting ransom notes from magazine clippings, but if you’re creating professional-quality printed materials, the single space is the way to go.

monospace-1The double space after periods was a standard in the days of typewriters, which used monospaced typefaces in which each letter or grammatical mark, whether a capital M or an apostrophe, is given the same amount of space. The typeface Courier, pictured here with ugly, gaping double-space holes after the periods, mimics a typewriter and is an example of a monospaced typeface. (Note the way the characters line up in columns, delineated here with pinstripes, because of the monospacing.) The thinking at the time was that the double space helped provide a visual break between sentences, but when the computer came along and allowed for more subtle variations in spacing, the double space became obsolete.

proportional-1Since the advent of the computer, most typefaces are proportional, allotting the appropriate amount of space for each typographic character, including spaces after periods. See the typeface Minion, set with elegant, contemporary single spaces, in the example here.

These days, most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press, call for the single space. Another proponent of the single space is Robin Williams (the not-funny female graphic designer and author, not the not-funny male actor), who has written several books on technology and graphic design, such as The Mac is Not a Typewriter, The PC is Not a Typewriter, and The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

You’ll notice that nearly all professionally designed printed materials (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) utilize the single space. The double space after a period looks especially silly if you are using justified type, which already skews word- and letterspacing to force lines of text into a certain amount of space.

The proponents of two spaces after a period seem to harp on the same point: I was taught that way. Many are trying to stop but can’t. Others refuse to hear reason, desperately clinging to their Sholes & Glidden typewriter in one hand, waving the jagged end of a broken moonshine bottle at you with the other.

In the end, there is technically no right or wrong when it comes to spacing after periods, unless you are obligated to follow one of the many style guides out there that call for the single space. But then again, there’s technically no right or wrong when it comes to wearing tapered jeans and paisley shirts, and people do that, too.

Designers Are Jerks

Picture-1

Designers are pompous, arrogant jerks—real loudmouths who feel they’re always right and that everyone else is an idiot. Well, luckily for everybody, there’s a website out there, www.design-police.org, that has taken it upon itself to formalize all of the hang-ups and attitudes that make people think this about us. Friend of IBD Brian Trosko turned us on to Design Police, which offers a free pdf for download with five pages of red tags meant to be cut out and applied to other people’s work. Each of the tags represents a common criticism in the design world.

Clearly, the folks responsible for this site have been through graduate school critiques and are lashing out at the world in response. I’ve included a few of my favorites with comments below.

align_this

grid

When we present Interpretation By Design workshops, participants frequently bring projects for us to review. Almost without fail, the first step to improving a project is implementing some sort of grid.

helvetica

comic_sans

First, this is funny because these tags themselves are set in Helvetica. Second, any chance we get to take a jab at Comic Sans, we take. Shea will have to make his own “Papyrus Does Not Communicate What You Think It Communicates” tags, as the Design Police make no mention of it.

overload

copywriter

Interpreters love words. Lots and lots of words. One of the hardest things for any writer to do is be concise, but it’s particularly important at interpretive sites, where visitors’ attention spans are limited.

double_space

This one is just for Shea, who is trying to shake the habit of double-spacing after periods, a practice that became obsolete with the advent of the personal computer. The reason that we no longer need to double space after periods is that most typographic character sets have that spacing built in already.

microsoft

word_art

If Microsoft Word is to page layout what the microwave is to gourmet cooking, then Word Art is sugar-free, caramel-cheddar popcorn that was overcooked by about a minute. Word processors should not be used for page layout because they’re not designed for that purpose. Word Art should not be used for anything because pretty much every one of its features violates some tenet of good typography.

photoshop

Sometimes you just can’t resist that last drop shadow, inner glow, blur more, craquelure, and ocean ripple effect. And if you can’t, you need some jerk designer to let you know that you’ve gone too far.

bad_logo

over-designed

And finally, every once in a while, you get one of those criticisms that just cuts right to the bone. If you get a comment like “Bad logo” or “Over-designed,” all you can do is shake it off or start over. Designers really are jerks.