Using Type: Justification

Justified text can be an important stylistic choice, a functional part of your layout, and potentially a time-saver within your overall workflow. Often it doesn’t make sense to justify, but when it does, these general guidelines will help you get the process working for you. This will be mostly theoretical, with a more practice-based piece with InDesign justify settings to follow.


Why should I justify my text?

Justified text is the alignment of the body text to both sides of its containing column or text frame. This is done most commonly by adjusting the word spacing of each line to push or pull the line’s contents to fit its container. Justifying text eliminates the need to tidy ragged edges, but introduces its own problems as well. Up until near the turn of the 20th century, setting body text flush left was very uncommon. Typesetters justified everything. So there’s one good reason right off – if your brief calls for something to look dated to, say, 1930 or before, justify your body. When possible, reading the text you’re setting is my best advice to knowing how it should be presented. Below is set in Frank Hinman Pierpont’s (after Robert Granjon’s) Plantin.


Give yourself adequate room.

Narrow justified columns are more trouble than they’re worth. They’re prone to rivers of whitespace, and odder-than-normal breaks in hyphenated words. Below, Nicole Dotin’s Elena in a narrow column with default justification to the left, and with better but still less than ideal justification on the right. (It’s less than ideal because it’s so over-hyphenated.) Sometimes that’s the trade-off one must make, but I say avoid it when possible.

Hyphenate, copyfit.

Be careful with this one though, since too much hyphenation is an easy pitfall. Also, make sure you’re hyphenating from a dictionary of the same language. I’ll go into more depth on this next week as well. In addition to knowing the language you typeset so you can double check its hyphenation, since the first printed books, typographers and some writers have also altered the content to fit the layout. Copyfitting may sound dangerous, and it certainly can be, so take care if rewording a client’s phrasing and seek approval of any alterations if you’ve not been expressly authorized to make them.

Lastly, know your limits and the limits of the technology. E-readers and webpages utterly fail at present to render well-justified text.

Continue to How to Justify Type.

One Comment

  1. Jane Pellicciotto
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:14 AM | Permalink

    I suspect that because people are so familiar with full justified text in newspapers and magazines that they think it’s the way text must be set, as if flush left were inferior.

    Sometimes clients request justified text, or else they change text styles from flush left to justified in a template I designed for their in-house use. I try to talk them out of using justified text. They don’t take into account the challenges in getting the spacing and hyphenation settings right, and can’t be bothered to copyfit.

    It remains a mystery to me why big rivers of white flowing through body copy doesn’t sound any alarm bells for the person setting type. Perhaps it’s because we forget that the reader doesn’t have the same intimacy with our content as we do.

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