When in doubt, align left

Strangely enough, the most heated discussions I found myself having with my coworkers have been all about typography principles.

It may seem as such an insignificant detail to disagree about, but the power and effect of good typography is often overlooked.

There’s one specific canon of typography that I like to protect with my teeth: typographic alignment (or text alignment).

There are four main typographic alignments:

  • Justified
  • Centred
  • Flush right
  • Flush left
Graphic examples of typographic alignments.

Justified

Justified text is used mainly for print media such as books, leaflets and newspapers. It creates straight lines on both sides and makes the long read easier and more enjoyable. The eyes automatically know where to find the next line and where the next line ends.

One significant anti-aesthetic feature of justified text to be aware of is that the spacing between words is often uneven, even when hyphenating paragraphs (hyphenate = split words with a short horizontal line called hyphen).

Centred

We use centred text for short headings, for lapidary intro paragraphs, for the address at the bottom of a letterhead or for a short colophon or website footer. Centred text creates rugged profiles on both sides and therefore shouldn’t be used for long paragraphs.

My rule of thumb is: never use centred text if the sentence goes over more than three lines.

Photo of an in-flight food menu for Emirates. Left aligned English text on the left and right-aligned Arabic text on the right, creating a pleasing symmetrical layout.

If you’re a designer, you need to control your symmetry quest instinct. Too many times I’ve seen design drafts with long centred paragraphs. It loads our eyes and brain of the unnecessary micro-workload of finding the start of the next line, since they’re all rugged.

I keep thinking about the person that designed the in-flight food menu for Emirates. That designer was blessed with an opportunity for symmetry: left-aligned English menu on the left, right-aligned Arabic menu on the right. Clean, clear and user-friendly for both languages and cultures. A small win-win for symmetry and typography.

Flush right

Use flush right for any language that reads right-to-left (such as Arabic or Hebrew), occasionally for small quotes or captions under right-aligned images or for numbers in tables.

When setting up a table: left-align text, right-align numbers and align headings with data.

Flush left

Use flush left for all left-to-right languages such as English and most European languages. It creates a straight vertical line on the left-hand side and a ragged right side.

It makes sense to use flush left for our culture because it’s better for the eye to go to the next line, but — as Massimo Vignelli reminds us in his Canon:“It is important to control the shape of the rugged side by shifting sometimes the text from line to line to obtain a better profile. This may be time consuming but aesthetically rewarding.”

Flush left is the default alignment for websites and my personal favourite one for most applications. It doesn’t create uneven spacing between words and it reads well with minimal effort of the eye.

It’s aesthetically pleasing, reader-friendly and never wrong for western languages.

When in doubt, align left.

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