Re: research on justified vs. ragged right

Subject: Re: research on justified vs. ragged right
From: Dick Margulis <margulis -at- fiam -dot- net>
To: Tim Altom <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 27 Nov 1999 22:42:21 -0500

Belatedly chiming in with Tim (yes, it was a lovely holiday with my
family, thanks, but trust me: WebTV is NOT the answer for remote access
to email)--

I've made the same point before when matters of typographic nicety and
readability have come up in this group. All of these studies are skewed
by the lack of control for typographic quality. Academics, in my
experience, want to oversimplify the questions they ask in this area to
the point that the questions become meaningless. _Which_ serif vs.
_which_ sans-serif? Justified with limits on word spacing or without?
With ladders or without? With letterspacing or without? Leaded by how
much? How many characters per em?

I sometimes think there is an active conspiracy to deny the existence of
typography as a craft, let alone support its practitioners. But of
course I realize it is not a conspiracy after all, just an ocean of
ignorance about its value to civilization.

The principal reason for this vast unknowing is likely the high esthetic
value typographers place on invisibility. It is an article of faith
among typographers that if a reader or reviewer makes note of the fine
typography, then the typography is too affected; the best typography is
that which nobody notices. As a strategy for survival of a body of craft
knowledge, this rivals the family planning practices of the Shakers, of


So let me plead the case in this forum: if you don't know what you are
talking about (and this applies to everyone from programmers to tech
writers to academics whose egos tell them they possess knowledge which a
cursory examination of their writing proves they do not possess), try to
refrain from expressing your ignorant opinion on the subject. Consult
with someone knowledgeable instead. PAY someone to help you. Okay?


Please note: the above is my inexcusably rude way of stating my complete
agreement with everything Tim wrote so much more eloquently.


Tim Altom wrote:
> Methinks there are too many variables unaccounted for. It's the same
> argument that springs to life from time to time about serif versus sans
> serif fonts and readability. I suspect that the studies would have to
> control for what the readers are familiar with. Hebrew readers don't find
> their readability impaired by reading right to left. I'd imagine that
> ancient Egyptians weren't bothered by those pesky cartouches. People like me
> who read lots of books with full justification wouldn't be as bothered by it
> as those who don't.
> Horton's book is now ancient history, with a copyright date of 1994. In
> layout software terms, that is. When he wrote that book, PageMaker was a
> dog. That being said, our in-house typographical guru, Jerilynne, weighs in
> with the opinion that while Horton is no longer right about the tools, he's
> still right about the *operators*. Full justification requires more sagacity
> and tool familiarity than 99% of the desktop publishing world can muster.
> Full justification lends a more formal feel to the work, and it's quite
> attractive when done properly, but like all delicate work it takes
> experience, judgment, and finesse. Done incorrectly, it leaves rivers of
> white and unexpectedly stretches out spaces between words and letters, just
> as Horton says. So even if you like full justification, do you want to spend
> your precious time tweaking text for display effect? I'd stick with ragged
> right and concentrate on other readability factors like word choice, color,
> and writing style, things that are far easier to build in and control.
> Tim Altom
> Simply Written, Inc.

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