Web design: Five reasons to sacrifice justified text for readability

Justified text is a text block which fits into a square or rectangle shape and it is aligned against both left and right borders of the shape. The text area is filled with irregular empty spaces to make the text perfectly fit into the shape.

This type of text alignment is mainly seen in newspapers, booklets or even in certain books, where the text is organised in columns. The justified alignment serves to guide the reader eyes, when two or more text columns are displayed. In these cases the justified text contributes to increasing readability.

The justified text does not play a similar role on the Web.

I published my first webpages many years ago. I was tempted to employ justified text in my first webpages. Copying paper-based features along with justified, centred and right aligned text on the Web was something taken for granted at the beginning of the Web.

I then came across some research findings where experts proved that the practice of this particular text formatting, be it fully-justified, centred or right aligned, is a poor approach, which should not be applied on the Web.

For a number of years Web publishing was my main hobby. It turned into a full job around 2000. When I moved to this field, my former managers were always tempted to push for justified text on both paper and websites. Despite our recommendations, they tended to favour page beauty by sacrificing readability.

According to research, on the Web, left-aligned text should be favoured against justified text for the following reasons:

  1. Justifying text implies generating uneven spaces, in other words the text is stretched to fit into a square or rectangle shape. The uneven spaces trouble us as readers.
  1. Our eyes move faster within a text with balanced spaces, while uneven spaces may annoy us, since reading is slower and the text meaning could be lost or altered.
  1. In a justified text space, returning at the beginning of the next text line is much slower. Our eyes look for some quick marks, which are hard to spot in a square or rectangular shape, while the irregular ending line spaces better guide us to spot and move to the next text line.
  1. Uneven spaces within a text require not only more effort, but also more time for us, as readers.
  1. In Western cultures we read from left to right, starting from top to down. This is not the case with other cultures. Therefore the text author should write a text that is intended for a known audience. Adapting the text formatting to respond to the audience needs, its reading standards and cultural norms is key.

Another important aspect in the field of the Web design is the optimal text line length. According to experts it should be about 50-70 characters.

More characters on a text line may require more effort to figure out where the beginning and ending points of the text line are.

Fewer characters would require us to move our eyes too often and the reading experience may be tiring as the natural reading speed is affected. The risk in both cases is missing key words and the intended text meaning.

As we all tend to scan content on the Web, ignoring these basic principles in Web design may lead to unpleasant readability experiences. I am sure this is not the intention of both Web designers and publishers.

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