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.

Let’s Talk Politics

Being raised in the South, I was taught never to talk openly about religion, race, or politics in mixed company. Talking about cars, caliber, and cured meats, though, is perfectly acceptable at any given moment and in mixed company. After writing this blog for the last year and a half and taking the time to get to know our readers, I think it is safe for me to take on politics today. Mid-term elections were held on Tuesday, and regardless of where you stand on the issues or the candidates, the one outcome that I am pleased about is that the political ads will come to an end and the yard signs can come down.

If I were to run a political campaign (don’t laugh, it is possible when Paul runs to replace McDonalds long-standing Mayor McCheese, I know he will ask me to run his campaign based on my knowledge of Chicken McNuggets alone), I would apply interpretive principles to the communication approach and would use interpretive design principles in the creation of any supportive non-personal approaches. Just by writing this blog I’m expecting to be contacted by hundreds of potential candidates who will come to woo me with possible political appointments (or promises of Big Macs and McRibs) just so that I can help improve their chances of being elected.

The television and radio advertisements continue to become worse with each election. I would rather hear the candidates’ position on an issue rather than all of the mudslinging. My mother was a strong southern woman who helped shape me as a person. One thing that I learned from her was that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all—or at the very least preface the comment with something like “well shut my mouth” or follow it with a statement like “bless his/her heart.” It all comes back to the fact that it is not what you say but how you say it, and interpreters excel at taking difficult information, topics, or concepts and presenting in a way that is not offensive and facilitates the person receiving the information to make up their own mind or decide if they want learn more about the topic.

When I worked at City of Rocks National Reserve in Almo, Idaho, the park dealt with unique audiences, with specific needs of the resource, in a very non-controversial way. Rock climbers (who want to climb on the granite spires), trail enthusiasts (each with their own view of trail use from hiking, biking, horseback riding to motocross and ATV use), traditional ranchers (who use the reserve for grazing), solitude seekers (who want to see the historic landscape as it was at the time of the California Trail), and park managers all seek to meet their own interests. Interpretation and interpretive communication is the key to their success. Developing an understanding amongst all of the users of interpretive themes and mission of the Idaho Department of Recreation and Parks and the National Park Service is of utmost importance. There’s no room for mudslinging between groups, well unless you are on horseback crossing a creek in the reserve.

Oh yeah, and for the record the illicit use of Photoshop in those television ads should be banned.

Speaking of banned, if I were running a campaign starbursts, swooshes, clipart, and color palettes of red and blue would be banned in all signage.  I also personally take offense to being categorized as an elephant and a donkey which, is directly related to the fact that I have cankles (where your calf muscles meet your ankles at the same location) and that my wife often refers to my son’s unusually large ears as “having daddy’s ears.”

Based on the signs that I have recently, seen it seems as if political sign designers all went to a meeting with Taco Bell executives to explore how you can take the same 7 elements, manipulate, and transform them into something that is remotely recognizable as a sign (or Mexican food). They are all basically the same (and taste the same) but are presented differently. Somewhere in that process the candidate has a sign that is not discernible from the one next to it and still tastes like a taco (okay, maybe I took that analogy too far).

These signs are a touchy subject for me.  My wife and I have been searching for a new home to purchase. While driving through prospective neighborhoods, we would see a sign (placed in the spot where you place political signs or realty signs), drive past it and say “What did that sign say?” In the process of creating these signs the first and most important rule in design was broken. If no one can read it (especially at 35 miles per hour) the value or investment in the sign is lost. Of course while my wife was taking detailed notes about the neighborhood I was critiquing the signs and making statements like “I wouldn’t vote for him since he used a clipart thumbs up.” or “That use of Comic Sans by that candidate may the first effective use of that typeface.” We still haven’t found a house.

If I were designing those signs I would remember the principles of interpretation and try to relate to the reader. Of course you have to include the key elements that are required of the sign (name, party affiliation, slogan, position, and sour cream) but I would also break the mold. I would work hard to provoke the audience to learn more about my candidate. Perhaps create a series of signs that asks questions so that the reader is inspired to get involved in the process and hopefully become a better person simply through being a part of the whole. I would have to use a different color palette besides blue or red. Not to say they couldn’t be included but would be expanded upon. We know the power of colors—in fact Paul has entire series of posts on getting to know a color with several more to come. I’m not even going to write about swooshes, starbursts, and clipart. But I can’t help it.  Swooshes are for Nike, Starbursts are delicious, and clipart is evil. What I’m trying to say is that instead of working hard to make a sign look political the effort should be placed in make the sign interpretive.

Oh yeah, I would also work hard to change election day to sometime in July when it would be acceptable to wear seersucker suits. That way you could tell which candidates have a sensible style about them. At least we have two years until the next election.