05 November 2009

Holding the center

Bulletin board noticesNext time you walk past a bulletin board or message board, have a look at all the various notices that people have posted on it. They will probably be on different colours of paper. They will almost certainly have a dizzying array of typefaces – sometimes on the same piece of paper. But there is one feature that almost all of them are likely to share.

The text will be centered.

Similarly, if you look through a poster session at a scientific conference, I’ll bet over 98% of their titles are centered at the top of their posters. Why? There is no advantage in reading. Most word processors and other publishing programs start with text left aligned by default, which implies that people deliberately center the text all the time.

David Jury noted, “Centered arrangements were, and still are, considered to be the appropriate way of presenting a text of distinction.” I can’t find if he says it explicitly, but elsewhere in his book, he discusses that “economical and fast” is often interpreted as “cheap and low status.”

People’s tendency to center text seems to be holdover from the days when books were hard to make, and typesetting was a craft. Consider how books were typeset before computers. They had to be physically set by moving around small blocks of metal. Now think about how difficult it would be to center words, with varying letter widths and sizes, on a page by moving around metal blocks one by one: hard, time consuming and costly.

Systema NaturaeThus, centering became classy. Dignified.

The flipside of that is that, as Ellen Lupton noted, centered text can look “like a tombstone.”

My point, and I do have one, is not to say, “Don’t center the title of your poster.” I’ve centered the titles of most of my posters (though I will say, I’ve liked the results when I’ve left aligned my title). The point is to raise your awareness of a little decision that you make to follow an arbitrary convention, probably without ever noticing it.


Jury D. 2006. What is Typography? Mies: RotoVision SA. Amazon

Lupton E. 2004. Thinking With Type. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. Amazon

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