Resolving InDesign’s Justification Problems

I was inspired to write this article after seeing yet another (otherwise very professional looking) brochure that must have been printed using InDesign’s default justification settings. Although I mention this issue in my article on Indesign’s problematic defaults, it’s a serious enough issue that I’ve decided to write specifically on the topic.

Here is a picture of some placeholder text, justified using InDesign’s default settings, in a 2.5″ column:

Lorem Ipsum: Default Justification

I expect you will agree with me that this looks terrible, with huge gaps between words. What is the reason for this? For some inexplicable reason, the default settings for justification in InDesign allow the word spacing to spread, but not the character spacing. This has the unfortunate consequence of the development of awkward gaps between words, as shown above. The unsuspecting InDesign user “clicks the button” to justify their text and the damage is done. If they notice the problem at all, they don’t know what to do to fix it.

Fortunately, you can control the settings in InDesign. It is best to do so via Paragraph Styles. Below is a snapshot of the Paragraph Styles editor dialog, showing the Justification options:

Screen shot 2013-01-25 at 10.57.30 AM

And the same paragraph as before, formatted using these justification settings:

Screen shot 2013-01-25 at 10.59.18 AM

Notice the much more even spacing of type. Those awkward gaps are gone.

It is important to point out that there are no absolute right or wrong values for word and letter spacing. If I have decided to justify my type, then I experiment with the values until a representative sample of the type looks good to me. Different fonts, column widths, hyphenation settings, kerning method (optical vs. metric) and word lengths will all have an effect on the values you use. I will say that I don’t believe I have ever exceeded a range of -5% to 5% for letter spacing for regular body text scenarios, and I often use word spacing of 90% min, 110% desired,130% max for certain fonts to allow a bit more space between words. However, each time I set up a new document I do some tests using its fonts, sizes, and grids and determine what works best for that document.

Some additional things to consider when working with justification settings:

  • If you are NOT justifying (flush left, flush right, or centered), the minimum and maximum justification settings are ignored, but the desired settings are still honored.
  • By changing the desired settings you can change the default spacing between words, which is very useful with some fonts that look like the default space is too narrow or too wide. (While you could possibly change the desired letter space or glyph scaling, I would not recommend it in most situations.)
  • In extreme situations, such as catalogs in which text must absolutely fit inside a box at all costs, it is possible to use extreme values and even glyph scaling to avoid manually tracking/resizing type to fit. (note that glyph scaling affect the horizontal scale of the type only).
  • Justification works hand in hand with hyphenation. Just like InDesign’s default justification settings have problems, I would never recommend using InDesign’s default hyphenation settings. Simply turning off hyphenation might be a solution, but with narrow column widths combining with justified text and long words, sometimes you’re going to have to hyphenate or live with horrible typography. See my recommendations for hyphenation settings here.
  • Never justify fonts that are intended to connect to each other, such as script fonts.
  • In my experience, often when justifying Optical Kerning will look better than Metric Kerning, especially if you are using more extreme letter spacing values.

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5 Responses to Resolving InDesign’s Justification Problems

  1. Pablo October 26, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    Thank you Paul, I changed the “Letter Spacing” in my text and looks good now. I couldn’t solved it without you, there is a lot of similar information but this is the only entry where I found an accurate solution.

  2. Ruth October 29, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Just the information I needed. Made a huge difference in my text. Thanks!

  3. mtlbxr July 16, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    Thank you so much for this.
    Really fixed my issue.

    I love learning these tricks.

  4. Nate May 13, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

    Those awful gaps are called “rivers” by the way. Nerdy type terminology ftw.

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