A for Alignment. Strohacker Studio A to Z of Design Tips.

Tom Knox - Friday, February 05, 2016

This is the the first in a series of fortnightly blogs giving tips and revealing some of the major concepts in Graphic Design for those eager to gain a greater understanding. Working alphabetically, it is an A to Z after all, this week I’m tasked with talking about Alignment, one of the five key principles of Graphic Design.

Alignment at its most basic or fundamental level involves lining-up type, images and other graphic elements. However, this over simplified explanation fails to capture the true importance of this concept, and how it can improve both the design process and final outcome. Used correctly alignment allows the designer to:

  • Order multiple graphic elements on a page in a rational manner. This simplifies and speeds up the designer’s decision making process, eliminating the random placement of elements and the resulting visual mess that can ensue from a haphazard method.
  • Create clear and strong visual relationships between associated graphic elements within a layout. This provides a cohesive structure increasing the viewer’s ability to see an order within the design and make sense of it. In turn this is comforting to the eye.

Aligned objects produce an invisible line or axis that connects them whether they are spatially close together, or on opposite sides of  a page. There are two major ways the designer can utilise this hidden link.

Edge Alignment

This form of alignment places text or graphic elements in relation to their top, bottom, left or right edges, and often positioning them against the margin of a page or the lines of a grid system. The hard edge produced by this type of alignment gives a strong visual clue to the relationship between the connected elements.

Centre Alignment

This operates on the principle of symmetry and that objects have a central axis along which they can be aligned. The invisible line linking these elements is often less obvious, due to the lack of a hard edge, and can consequently create a weaker overall relationship between them. Central alignment tends to create a more static, formal and less adventurous aesthetic within a layout.

Aligning Type

As a large proportion of a designer’s time will involve placing both display and text type on the page it felt important to include this in this brief overview of alignment.

There are four standard variations of alignment for type, consisting of flush left, flush right, justified and centrally aligned. However, it is worth stating at this point that the convention for reading English, and other languages based on the Latin alphabet, is from the left to right side of the page. Hence, the reader’s eye has become accustomed to a fixed starting point on the left that can be easily located each time a line is completed. Without this consistent spot the eye struggles to locate the beginning of each line, leading to a frustrating reading experience. For this reason, flush left and justified are the only types of alignment really suitable for setting large paragraphs of text type, and as such I will discuss these first.

Flush Left vs Justified

Having mentioned two alignment options available to the designer when setting body copy I would recommend that wherever possible the designer should aim to use flush left type. This is due to three distinct advantages that left aligned type has over justified text blocks.

  • Readability experts state that the ragged right edge of flush left copy helps the reader more readily locate their position within a large body of text. The consistent right edge of justified type, whilst convenient for alignment, does not offer this visual clue thus creating a less fluid reading experience.
  • As justified alignment attempts to keep both a constant flush left edge and right edge to a text block the spacing between words and letters can vary to such a degree that it causes unsightly ‘holes’ or ‘rivers’ within the copy. To correct this issue the designer must adjust the word and letter spacing settings, also considering the use, and frequency, of hyphenation within the text. With these refinements in a professional layout program such as InDesign, and with a decent line length, justified type can work effectively in certain book formats. In a multi-page print format justified text can actually save valuable space. 
  • Outside these print based professional layout programs control over these justification settings is virtually non-existent. With a larger percentage of designers’ work now focussed on digital projects in programs where this refinement is not possible justified type becomes wholly unsuitable.

Flush Right and Centred Alignment 

The remaining two types of alignment are useful in conjunction with smaller amounts of copy. Flush right type is particularly suited to applications such as captions, and can also provide an offbeat or interesting variation to a layout. Centred alignment works well in the construction of type lock-ups used to form aesthetically pleasing attention grabbing design.