Typesetting Tips: Think Twice Before Centering the Type

August 24, 2009 | Design Basics

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One thing I’ve noticed over the years, working with clients, is that they love centered type. It’s not that I hate centered type, but like many graphic designers, I think there is a time and a place for it.

I’ve come up with a theory as to why non-designers love centered type. It’s because they feel like they’re designing. They are making decisions about the placement of typography and overriding the default settings of their word processing program.

The default setting, in programs like Word, is to have all the type the same size and flush left. When you choose to center type, you’ve made a decision about the layout; you are doing some measure of typography design. This is similar to the decision to make something bigger, smaller, a different font, or a different color.

The problem, or potential problem, with centered type is that when the rest of your type is flush left it breaks the rhythm of the typical reading pattern. There are times when that makes sense, but there are other times when you should make it easy for your reader to keep reading.

Here are some examples of typography where centered type is well-designed, and not-so-well designed.

When to use centered type

  • For headlines above large blocks of copy. If you are reading something like a research document or white paper, that has multiple paragraphs of running text, centered type on headers works well.
    centered-good-1
  • Headlines above multi-column layouts. One centered head that runs across multiple columns is a good way to show that the headline applies to everything underneath.
    centered-good-2
  • Multiple short lines of copy, like on an invitation. Greeting cards, invitations, announcements and posters can all handle centered type well because there is just short amounts of text and all of the text can be centered.
    centered-good-3

When to avoid centered type

  • With short and small subheads. If you’re reading along, and have large sections of type that are all flush left, you can easily overlook a small, centered piece of type. It’s better to keep that flush left.
    centered-bad-1
  • Mixed in with bulleted text. Text set in bullets is already indented and hanging. When centered type runs immediately before or after bulleted text it’s hard for it to look properly spaced between left and right margins. BTW, you can see how these graphics also don’t sit well when centered under this bulleted text.
    centered-bad-2
  • Using it for no good reason, when flush left type is fine. This is really at the heart of my pet peeve with centered type; when people decide to use it without being consistent and without good reason. The problem with centered type is that it breaks the reader’s flow, and that should be done with purpose and with care.
    centered-bad-3

Am I the only one with a pet peeve about centered type? Do you like it?

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