Re. Left justify and italics?

Subject: Re. Left justify and italics?
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Tue, 21 May 1996 07:51:15 -0500

Marilyn Barrett O'Leary notes that <paraphrase> "left justification is
more visually interesting [than fully justified text], that two
columns are easier to handle than one, and that italics is harder to
read than boldfacing."

Without intending to pick on Marilyin (these statements are commonly
quoted indeed), there are indeed cases where each of these
generalisations is true, but they're too general to accept at face
value. Let's take them one at a time:

1. Left justification can indeed be more effective than full
justification because it can eliminate the distracting rivers (white
space) and hyphenation that often arise in fully justified text.
However, the "ragged right" nature of left-justified text annoys some
(not all) readers every bit as much as fully-justified text annoys
others (I've discovered this from interviewing readers during my own
design work), and can also pose problems with hyphenation. Studies of
typography tend to reveal that neither form of justification has any
significant advantage over the other when the design is carried out
competently (rather than left to the software's defaults to execute).

2. The number of columns is, by itself, a meaningless statistic.
What's important is line length. Typically, a line should be
approximately 2-3 "alphabets" wide... about 50-70 characters. Based on
the font size you've chosen, this may result in one, two or even three
columns. More to the point, a layout with one-column of text and a
companion column of graphics in the margin can be very effective
indeed. My numerical estimate arises from the way the human eye scans
across lines in "saccadic (sp?) leaps" and picks up words during
reading; I haven't seen studies in other languages, particularly
non-Roman alphabets, but I'd guess the actual optimal width would vary
slightly based on average word lengths in those languages.

3. I'd agree that "script" (and other ornamental) fonts are less
legible than boldface, but most italic cuttings of body text differ so
little from the roman version that I expect there is no significant
difference between the two in legibility. Boldface fonts tend to be
quite heavy, and thus less legible; worse yet, overuse of boldface
makes words stand out on the page as if you'd been writing with a
leaky fountain pen. Boldface tends to create a stronger visual
contrast with the body text than is desirable, thus it draws the eye
strongly and distractingly... which is why it's used predominantly for
headings, where the goal is to draw the eye during skimming of the
page. Italics stand out enough to indicate a change in the role of the
word, but not so strongly that they draw the eye unproductively;
that's why they're most commonly used in body text.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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