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By Kevin Groome on May 04, 2010

Justifying Justified Type

Every few weeks, I get a hankering for a really nice piece of justified type. You know what I mean: that beautiful block of (hopefully) beautifully written text, set so well that you re-read the paragraph just for the pleasure of witnessing a job permanently well done.

You won't find that--at least not easily--on the web. Newspapers had to abandon it a long time ago. Book publishers? They've got other issues kindling, if you know what I mean. And the magazine guys seem to have decided that visual violence is a good substitute for design. (Catty, but too often true.)

So where do I go to get my fully justified mojo? I go into my wife's office, perch on a three-foot stack of art historical tomes, and open a catalogue raisonne, preferably one published before 1960.

I call it embracing my inner Luddite.

Because there, on those big generous sheets, I see page after page of handcrafted, painstaking, fully-damn-justified type and I marvel at the sheer work of it.

And I know as I sit there, that we at Pica9 have not reached this level in our treatment of type.

Oh, we're working on it, don't get me wrong. Our system architect just showed me a new line-wrapping algorithm that could make our long-form copy more graceful. And I know we'll try it next week, or some variant of it, and I'll go and get geeky with the guys when we automagically make a river in a long column of text disappear.

As I sit there, looking down at the work of that 1930s typesetter, I think of the other techniques we're using today.

Client-specific kerning pairs.

Context-sensitive type-sizing.

And I know that someday we're going to get all the way there.

But in the meantime, we have to keep the appreciation of truly beautiful type alive--or else, when we finally summit the same peaks that those anonymous artists of last century climbed with such diligence, there won't be anybody with an eye for type to appreciate what we've managed to do.

So if you ever hear somebody mourning the demise of great typesetting, take a moment to listen. Ask him or her to show you what they mean.

And remember: their sense of loss is, well, justified.


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Published by Kevin Groome May 4, 2010
Kevin Groome