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.

Going Viral (or “Why We Love Katie Couric”)

We have often talked about our goals for writing this blog: making the world a better place, taking over the world, and eradicating the use of Papyrus, Comic Sans, clip art, and centered type. One goal we’ve never mentioned to our readers—but we have definitely mentioned it to one another—is this: We want to crash the website.

We realize that many of you know most of this story already, but now that it’s in the rear-view mirror, writing about it may help us make some sense of the ordeal. For fear of awakening the beast, I will not mention the name or even the subject of the offending post.

It started innocently, with a silly Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named created solely for the purpose of tweaking Shea. It was posted late in the afternoon on a Friday, not exactly the prime moment to maximize hit counts. Nevertheless, early that evening, Shea texted me, “This could really take off.”

The thing is, to us, “really taking off” means that both Jeff and Pam Miller read a post, instead of just Jeff. For four days, the post accumulated modest stats as friends posted links on various social media outlets, but it hardly seemed like something that would extend beyond a few friends and their friends.

The following Wednesday morning, about 120 hours after it was posted, hits suddenly started pouring in. At first, nearly all of the hits were coming from a site called Reddit, which I had never heard of, though NAI Member Tom Davies told me that Reddit is “what the frog says after the chicken gives her the library book.”

Moments later, my father forwarded me a Google alert that he received with my name and a link to a site call SB Nation (above). He said, “You’re getting some hits.”

What happened next can be summarized with the following updates on the IBD Facebook page. First, mid-Wednesday morning:

No joke: NBC Sports just linked to IBD and said, “Here’s the absolute best [Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named] I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Then, about three hours later:

Our web host shut us down due to high usage! That’s a good thing, I guess. On the phone now trying to get the website back.

Then, moments later, a text from Shea:

Awesome! We [mildly off-color word deleted] crashed the website!

The site was up and down for the rest of the day. I started getting emails from friends who were seeing the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named on their friends’ Facebook pages or on Twitter. A friend in Cork, Ireland, received the link by email from his boss.

For the better part of 24 hours, I worked with our webhost to get us back online. I got to hear a lot of high-quality Muzak and I learned valuable lessons about the difference between a dedicated server and a shared server. On our third attempt to get back online, about 24 hours after the initial onslaught, we were shut down again in less than 30 minutes. I asked our webhost to post a “We’ll be back soon!” message and a link to a Flickr page with an image of the Information Design Example that Shall Not Be Named.

The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named made its rounds online, appearing on sites like Forbes Magazine (above), The Wall Street Journal, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, and many of the surprisingly plentiful sites where depressed fans of the New York Mets go to self flagellate. It ended up translated into Chinese and it inspired this variation in Canada.

Katie Couric Tweeted about it.

Meanwhile, more than a week of silence followed on IBD, punctuated only by the occasional angry text from Shea. Several blogs made note of the fact that IBD had crashed, then helpfully posted a link to our site.

A lot of people took credit (or accepted blame), though the real culprit may have been Flickr user dellajane-alicecruz, who commented, “Sorry about that! My baseball-quilting swap group started it when I put the link on Facebook.” So it was either NBC Sports or Della Jane’s baseball-quilting swap group. I guess we’ll never know.

I’ll admit that it was a thrill to see something I created shared so extensively. Because the Internet mob tends to deal in extremes, the words “genius” and “hilarious” were thrown around next to my name on Twitter and on various blogs (trust me, I have screen captures of all of them). Though some of the nicest comments came from a site that uses both type on a curve and Comic Sans in its banner, so I’m a little conflicted.

For the record, I do not claim to be either a genius or hilarious, and I quickly learned that being called those things in the blogosphere does not get you out of helping out around the house. (“I’m high on Paul Caputo! I have Adonis DNA and tiger blood! I’m not doing dishes!”)

My theory is that the Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named caught the imagination of a segment of the population because it made fun of everyone rather than just a select few. A post about viral marketing on the website NeboWeb says, “Viral memes…spread quickly because they hit a nerve in popular culture. They’re shooting stars. They spread fast and then they disappear.” The Information Design Example That Shall Not Be Named still gets the occasional flurry of hits, but for the most part, it has indeed disappeared.

Before the post faded into obscurity in favor of arguing baby videos, Flickr user GreekGeek said this: “Congrats on the viral meme — don’t you wish you could predict and tap into such things ahead of time?” And that seems to be the take-home message. You never know what’s going to take off like this thing did, and when it does, how do you take advantage?

I’m not sure that I can fully explain the circumstances that led to our little Interpretation By Design getting such widespread attention, and I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin to intentionally recreate those circumstances. Ultimately, I’m glad to have the blog and our comfortable IBD community back. And I promise not to post something that might go viral again any time soon.

Though now that we have a dedicated server (courtesy of our friends at ServInt Managed Hosting Services) I have this idea for a football-based pie chart.