To hang or not to hang – punctuation, that is. The term hanging punctuation might not be familiar to some, as the related terminology in digital typesetting is optical margin alignment. They are actually a bit different, but both serve to accomplish the same thing – to create optically (as opposed to mechanically) aligned flush margins, whether they be both margins in justified text, or a single margin in F/L or F/R text.
Hung punctuation refers to the practice of extending lines beginning or ending with certain punctuation, such as quotations marks, hyphens and dashes, periods, commas, asterisks, and any character that does not have a lot of vertical mass, into the margin of a flush edge of text to create the appearance of a more visually, or optically aligned edge. The punctuation then appears to ‘hang’ in the margin of the text. This is done because a line that begins or ends with these punctuation marks can result in a margin that looks uneven. Hung punc (as it was commonly referred to) was – and still is – considered an advanced technique that was done with regularity by experienced typographers prior to desktop publishing, but it became more challenging, if not impossible, to achieve in the early days of design software. This is no longer the case.
Optical margin alignment is the term used by much of today’s digital design programs, and takes hung punctuation to interrupt the alignment of a flush edge, including letters, numerals, and symbols, such as a cap A, T, W, the numeral 1, as well as registered and trademark symbols. This sophisticated technique is not used to right a wrong as such, but is more a question of taste and professionalism.
Optical Margin Alignment in InDesign
While it’s not difficult to manually hang punctuation in headlines, subheads, and other large settings, many designers don’t bother finessing text settings in this manner due to the impracticality of making dozens of manual adjustments. The good news is InDesign has the capability of creating a more optically aligned text margin with its Optical Margin Alignment feature, located in the Story panel. This is a little-known but extremely powerful feature in the oddly named Story panel. When this is activated (it is turned off by default), not only is punctuation pulled into the margin for a more uniform appearance, but so are serifs and the edges of certain characters with overhanging strokes, as previously mentioned. InDesign gives you control over how much these characters extend into the margin for the entire text frame.
To set Optical Margin Alignment in Adobe InDesign:
- Select the text frame, or place the cursor within the text
- Choose Window > Type & Tables > Story (or choose Type > Story)
- Select Optical Margin Alignment
- Adjust the point size as necessary to get the results you want
Note that the default setting for how far into the margin characters will extend is 12 point, but it can be adjusted, as it doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to the point size of your text. Select a point size for the amount of overhang by starting with the size of the type and going up (or down) from there. Go by what looks good to your eye, not by the number, which can sometimes be considerably larger than the size of the text for a good alignment.
Optical Margin Alignment in Illustrator
This feature exists in Illustrator as well, but it is greatly simplified; it can only be turned on or off with no ability to customize the value. Even so, if you are setting type in Illustrator, this does improve a spotty, unbalanced alignment.
To set Optical Margin Alignment in Adobe Illustrator:
- Select the text setting, or place the cursor within the text
- Choose Type > Optical Margin Alignment
Here are some other tips when using Optical Margin Alignment:
- Optical Margin Alignment can help to optically align centered lines that begin or end with one or more of these minimal characters.
- When using this feature on a bulleted list, the bullets will be moved, or ‘hung’ into the margin – a look you might or might not like. If you don’t, you can turn it off for the bulleted list only.
- To choose this feature as the default for new documents, check Optical Margin Alignment when the InDesign application is open, but before you create a new document.
- When using InDesign’s Paragraph Styles, Optical Margin Alignment can be selected or ignored. Go to Paragraph Styles Options > Indents and Spacing > Alignment > Ignore Optical Margin.