Type How-To: A River Runs Through It
The principal goal of typography is to create text that’s easy and pleasant to read. That sounds simple, but it’s a tall order; reading is complex task, and stumbling blocks to concentration and comprehension abound. This column looks at one of what could be characterized as distractions: eye-catching typographic events that momentarily draw the reader’s attention away from the text and toward the form of the text itself. The distraction in question is the river, a series of word spaces on consecutive lines of type that align more or less one over the other to create the appearance of a crack in the text. Rivers can be vertical, diagonal, or even curved. They can be hard to ignore. This column was inspired by a sign in a provincial Thai museum that contains what has to be counted as one of the great rivers of the world. My apologies for the quality of the snapshot in Figure 1, but I think you get the idea. Figure 1: This river is so long—it straddles three paragraphs!—that it has the momentum to jump a word in the second line that you’d think would interrupt it. Instead, the river appears to run from the first line on down the page. It almost appears that the text is set in two columns. Click the image above to see a larger version. Rivers just happen. They are the creations of chance. But that’s not to say there are no measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of their happening. Likewise, there are typographic situations that make them more apt to appear. In the Thai museum label, for example, the fact of the river was made more dramatic by the text being in all caps, which gives the words rectangular blocky shapes, making the “mortar” between these “bricks” more visible than they would be in u/lc text. Clearly, the wider that word spaces are allowed to become, the more likely they are to overlap, one over the other, on successive lines. Using justified margins without allowing character spaces to be altered in your H&J (hyphenation and justification) settings is one way to exaggerate word spaces like this. Another is to prohibit or severely restrict hyphenation. Narrow measures, because they make justification more difficult, complicate the problem by often forcing your software to stretch spaces beyond what you’ve specified in your H&J settings. From this perspective, rivers may actually be a symptom of fundamental composition problems. The occasional river is normal; a flood of them is not. A contributing factor is typeface choice. Rivers are prone to be more obvious when using sans serif faces because the characters’ clean geometry sharpens the break between character and word space. Serifs soften this transition. Condensed sans serifs amplify this effect because words set in them appear grayer and denser, making them more brick-like, which emphasizes by contrast the white spaces between them. Whatever draws attention to the word spaces will make mild rivers more obvious and bad rivers even worse. Although the classic river is composed of stacked or corbelled word spaces, the same effect can be created by any graphically weak character that encompasses a lot of white space. Figure 2, from a recent issue of The New Yorker, shows how two stacked em dashes can cut an eye-catching notch out of a paragraph. Figure 2: The stacked em dashes along the right margin create a distracting white gap along the right-hand margin of this paragraph. By contrast, the three consecutive hyphenated lines that end the paragraph are far less distracting. Whether this is a situation that requires repair depends on how fussy you are. (Me, I’d fix it.) In Figure 3, a similar thing happens (picking on The New Yorker again) when a series of ellipsis points appear on a diagonal axis in the middle of a paragraph. Here, the effect is to hollow out the text, creating a distracting hole in its center. It’s more of a pond than a river. Not terrible, but not pretty. Figure 3: Each set of ellipsis points in this paragraph opens a gap in text, which wouldn’t be a problem if all three weren’t clustered in the middle of the text block. Even though the last ellipsis points are separated from the others by three lines of text, the eye connects the dots, so to speak. Rivers are devilishly difficult to spot on screen because the modest resolution of computer monitors obscures the view. (The bright side of this is that it makes them less obvious in texts meant to be read on screen.) They’re easiest to spot in printed proofs, and as such they should be a part of every proofreader’s checklist. When reviewing text composition on screen, squinting to blur the text helps rivers become more apparent (see Figure 4), as does pushing back from the monitor to take a longer-range view of the page. Zooming in usually doesn’t help, because as the effective point size of the type increases, the tracking appears looser, camouflaging the problem. Figure 4: This simulation shows how blurring screen type by squinting at it can make rivers more apparent. Rivers that are almost undetectable on screen can be alarmingly obvious in print. (Source: The Complete Manual of Typography, 2nd edition, Adobe Press) The only way to fix a river is to coax the text into re-ragging, creating new line endings. A minor tweak to tracking is probably the easiest. Because rivers are most often born of overly wide word spaces, try tightening the tracking as a first effort. Finding an alternate hyphenation point for a key word will also do the trick. You can “suggest” an alternate break point to your program by inserting a discretionary hyphen. Avoid adding a typed, “hard” hyphen, as it may come back to haunt you if the text should re-rag for some other reason. In any case, solutions are easier to find in wider measures because alternative line endings are easer to find there without causing excessive variations in word and character spacing. There’s no reason that software couldn’t be designed to automatically avoid rivers or flag them when they’re unavoidable. Programs can “see” perfectly well where word spaces appear and spot distracting alignments. Were such controls available, you would presumably be able to specify, as with hyphenated lines, how many stacked word spaces in consecutive you’d tolerate. Maybe in Version Next.0.