You did it. You gave in at the checkout line of Walgreens and purchased your favorite fashion or celebrity magazine. You take all of the quizzes and read the latest news about Kim and Kanye, but while reading these articles, your eyes are feeling a little funny going through the columns of the pages. This feeling is probably due to the rivers running up and down the bodies of text. Rivers only occur when text is incorrectly justified and it makes the text hard to read. This means that the words become unevenly distributed in a paragraph, creating large gaps of white space between them.

Rivers 

Gaps of uneven negative space between words in a paragraph. If there are many of these gaps in the paragraph, it looks like a “river” of negative space flowing through and it makes text hard to read.

justification with and without rivers

Justified Text

A paragraph in which the lines of text are spaced-out so the first word aligns with the left margin and last word with the right margin of the text box. The illustration shows justified text in comparison to left and right aligned text to illustrate the difference.

left aligned versus right aligned

How to avoid Rivers

As graphic designers, we can easily avoid these rivers by increasing or decreasing the letter spacing between the words when we design infographics, brochures, research reports or other marketing materials. InDesign helps with some of this work if you go into the paragraph settings and edit your hyphenation and justification settings. Adjusting these settings allows justified text to fit together more efficiently, therefore producing fewer rivers. Using just your eyes as a judge of spacing mixed with keyboard shortcuts (ctrl + alt + backslash/backspace) is another technique, but if you want to be a perfectionist, these Indesign settings work really well.

If you don’t have a layout program like InDesign and you are working in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to create your presentation design, brochure or poster, try avoiding narrow text columns when using justified text. You might also consider avoiding justified text completely and left aligning your text. These software programs don’t have great ways to manipulate spacing unfortunately.

As designers in a small design studio in Boston, we work with adjusting word spacing and working out rivers all the time. If you are new to working with typography it can take a little while to get used to it, but it is worth the time to learn how to improve your text layout. Your readers will notice the difference.