Text Alignment in Web Design: To Center or Not?

In web design circles, you hear the term “accessibility” thrown around quite a bit. I think this is a great thing. When we inspect our sites to see if they meet accessibility criteria, however, we tend to ignore text alignment.

Text Alignment and the Brain

Now, I realize that most people don’t give text alignment a second thought, especially on the web, but it makes a difference. As a former educator, I know that the way text appears can affect the readability of the text, particularly for those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. When I had a job training teachers in technology, I had some training in creating presentation slides that were easy to process. One thing I learned in that class is that text alignment makes a difference. When paragraphs and other long bits of information appear completely centered, the brain finds it more difficult to process. Some people think that centering all their text is more “artsy” or “edgy”, but doing so actually makes the brain work harder to process what it’s reading.

We learn to read left to right, and books from an early age read that way. When the brain always travels to the beginning of the line to continue reading, things are consistent and the brain processes the information more easily.

When writers completely center entire paragraphs, however, your eyes have to search for the beginning of each line, causing the brain to process the information in a more disjointed way. Your brain finds this unnatural and defiant of how we are taught as children. To see what I mean, check out this article on Why You Should Never Center Align Paragraph Text. There’s an example of centered text versus left aligned text and which is easier to read.

Infographic - Why you should avoid centering paragraph text
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When Should I Center Text?

When considering the text alignment for your web page content (or for email newsletters, flyers, and anything else with paragraphs of information) centered text should be reserved for certain instances:

  • Headers – Centering a topic header or headline will set it apart from the rest of the content. Other options for headers include different font sizes and weights.
  • Emphasis – To emphasize a point, date, deadline, etc., go ahead and center it. As with headers, it sets the information apart and draws the reader’s eye. If everything shows centered, nothing stands apart and it all blends in.
  • Quotes – If you have a short (about one sentence) quote that doesn’t take up too many lines, centering it would be appropriate. This especially holds true if you don’t over use it. If you have five centered quotes on a page, for example, you may overdo it a bit. Construct longer quotes in paragraph form and left justified, but indent them to set them apart. You could indent the entire paragraph (like these bullet points) so the brain still processes the information easily.

To make your website easier to access for the visually impaired or for those with reading disabilities such as dyslexia, considering text alignment really makes a difference. So take a look at your blog, website, or email newsletter and adjust the text alignment. In the meantime, keep swimming along!

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