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.

Insurance Cacciatore

DSC02996Okay, so I’m here again blogging about food. We (Paul, Sheila, Joel, Maya, Sebrena, Gracie, Anna, William, and I) just had an amazing dinner at Giordano’s next to Willis Tower (the tower formerly known as the Sears Tower) and on our walk home we came across a business whose sign sent mixed messages. I usually excel at reading mixed signals, after years of experience receiving them and interpreting them from countless suitors.  Who am I kidding? The only signals that I received come to my radio.

For some reason this real estate business’ signage screams restaurant. A large amount of my problem has to do with the name Cacciatore. I tend to think of a chicken dish that carries the same name. With that aside, the style, shape, and presentation of the type still makes this business look like a restaurant. Instead of smart people in suits, I picture fat guys in pasta sauce-smeared aprons. The word spacing also has a menu-like quality to it. It looks as though it should say ribs, burgers, barbecue, and salads instead of appraisals, real estate, mortgages, and insurance. The shaping of the “Cacciatore” portion of the plate, I mean sign, also lends itself towards a casual invitation to dine.

So if you in the Chicago area and find yourself hankering for some insurance, Cacciatore’s is your place.

Text as Art

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Ryan’s Country Store in Eastern Arkansas is packed with local flavor. It is one of my favorite places to stop when traveling along Highway 64. There are not too many places around where you can pick up a fried pie and a new pair of rubber boots, but you can a Ryan’s. Conversations there revolve around the weather, prices of various items, and local politics.

I have always been intrigued by the store’s sign as well as their fried pies. When I first moved to the area, I had a hard time making out what the sign said. The text in the shape of a largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) was hard to read, though it was recognizable as a bass. I found myself wondering who would design a sign that was that hard to read, regardless of how creative it was.

But after living here for 6 years, I now understand that anyone who needs to know what Ryan’s is already knows. The sign serves more as form than function. Designers and interpreters do not have this luxury. Our work has to function first, then we can work on the form.

Why I don’t use drop caps

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I have yet to see a good reason for using drop caps (unless it is the year 400, you are creating an illuminated manuscript, and you’re just trying to fit in), but they appear everywhere. Drop caps, where the first letter of a text block is enlarged and “dropped” so that it takes the space of three to five lines of text, violate most of the rules of typographic legibility.

First, in the example above, the individual letters in the word “After” are not the same size, which is poor form in body text. Second, the letters in that word do not share a baseline, which forces the reader to mentally piece together the word rather than reading it fluidly. Third, because of the shape of this particular letter, the drop-cap “A” is actually farther from the “fter” to which it supposedly belongs than it is from “days” in line 2 and “phia” in line 3. Because the “A” is closest to and shares a baseline with “phia” in line 3, it looks like the “A” belongs to the word “Aphia” (there’s a prize for the reader with the best suggested definition of “Aphia”). Readers obviously can figure out which letters belong to which words, but they shouldn’t have to work so hard to do so.

Designers are better served to avoid drop caps and use another method of creating graphic contrast, such as setting the first few words of a text block in small caps, bolding or changing the color of the first few words of a text block, or good, old-fashioned white space.

NOTE: The text in the example above was selected randomly online and just happens to be from the October 30, 2008, Philadelphia Inquirer, reset typographically for the purposes of this post.