I’m a designer, not a marketer, and not a writer (at least not professionally). A lot of the work I do involves working with material in a field that can be above my head. Because of that, I’m content to take the text that’s given to me and do what I can to make it look great on the page – tighten the kerning to get an orphan on the previous line, adjust size and leading to get it all on the page, play with gutter widths, and so on.
But sometimes, it’s tough to avoid the rivers or repetitive words or even orphans sometimes without altering the copy itself. When it’s my work I have no trouble doing this, but when it’s someone else’s work (particularly when they know more than I do and might care less about such issues as I do), it’s harder to make a case to change wording simply because it doesn’t look ideal when on the page.
Is it a designer’s place to try to alter wording on the mere basis that it doesn’t look quite right on the page? With apologies to David Carson fans, I believe that form follows function, not the other way around, so the answer would seem to be no. But tweaking just a few things can often make a big difference!
As sort of a side question, would altering text thus be a last resort? I do not like to hyphenate anything, but would it be better to do so than alter copy?
Great question. The answer depends partly on the context, and won’t be the same for every job, but here are some general guidelines.
In some situations, there will be someone actually wearing the copy editing hat, and you can refer problem passages to that person. In most settings that’s not the case, so the designer either edits the copy or adjusts the typography. It’s seldom necessary to change copy just to solve a local typographic problem, but there are occasions when a different choice of adjective or a simpler syntax makes all the difference. Any such changes must be pointed out to the client/author and approved.
There’s nothing wrong with hyphens provided they are used sparingly. Nobody wants a page bristling with hyphens down the right edge, but I’ll take an occasional hyphen over a bad line break or a river any day, and I think that’s true of most typographers. What is far worse is text that has been tracked, squeezed or otherwise over-manipulated just to avoid hyphens. Even text color on the page is the aim.
If you’re using InDesign, you have a great many tools that you can bring to bear. The justification settings in ID can be useful in other situations than justified text. For example, it can be more effective to change the “Preferred” word or letter spacing than to adjust tracking. Some fonts work better with a 95% word spacing than the built-in default. Getting a lighter text color by making the preferred letter spacing +3% while leaving word spacing alone gives a different and sometimes preferable result than opening the tracking.
The Adobe Paragraph composer does a great job, but sometimes turning it off for a problem paragraph can improve things. Experiment with this and you’ll get a feel for when it might be useful.
For justified text, don’t forget that typography on a computer enables an adjustment that was common before Gutenberg but impossible with solid type — character width. With most serif faces and a few sans (never with geometrics or grotesks), allowing the character width to vary plus or minus 2 or 3 percent can make an astonishing difference to the even flow of text while being indistinguishable to the reader.
So, to sum up: altering the text to solve a typographic problem is a last resort, and it is usually preferable to allow a hyphen in such a case.