page marginsOne inch is not enough

Page mar­gins set the de­fault ter­ri­tory your text oc­cu­pies on the page. Page mar­gins de­ter­mine the width of the text block, and thus have the great­est ef­fect on line length. (Point size also af­fects line length, though more finely.) As page mar­gins in­crease, line length de­creases, and vice versa.

Most word proces­sors de­fault to page mar­gins of one inch. On stan­dard 8.5"× 11" pa­per, that pro­duces a line length of 6.5 inches. That’s fine for type­writer-style mono­spaced fonts, which use a lot of hor­i­zon­tal space. But for pro­por­tional fonts, one-inch mar­gins are too small.

At 12 point, left and right page mar­gins of 1.5–2.0 inches will usu­ally give you a com­fort­able line length. But don’t take that range as an ab­solute—fo­cus on get­ting the num­ber of char­ac­ters per line into the right range (see line length). The smaller the point size, the larger the page mar­gins will need to be, and vice versa.

Orig­i­nally, web browsers had no con­cept of mar­gins—text sim­ply flowed from one edge of the win­dow to the other. That wasn’t a huge prob­lem, since com­puter screens were much smaller. With the ad­vent of CSS, web de­sign­ers could use the mar­gin and padding prop­er­ties to cre­ate space be­tween text and the edge of its con­tain­ing block.

Nev­er­the­less, the web has never shaken the edge-to-edge de­sign id­iom. Many of to­day’s web­sites still look like they were cre­ated by de­sign­ers who got paid by the square inch. Just as it’s im­por­tant in print to let go of type­writer habits, it’s im­por­tant on the web to let go of the 1994 habits.

To pre­serve text leg­i­bil­ity, web pages need big mar­gins too. There isn’t one mar­gin size that will work for all web pages, but the core ad­vice is the same as on the printed page—fo­cus on line length. As you do that, you’ll find your mar­gins get­ting big­ger. Don’t panic.

But if I use big­ger mar­gins, won’t a lot of the page be empty?” Sure. Is that a problem?

The 8.5"× 11" of­fice pa­per size, and the sizes of com­puter screens, are stan­dards im­posed on us by his­tory and tra­di­tion. They are ar­bi­trary. They do not rep­re­sent any­one’s idea of a con­ve­nient size for good ty­pog­ra­phy. But with page mar­gins, you can re­shape them.

As proof, con­sider a print ex­am­ple. Are there any pub­li­ca­tions that use 8.5"× 11" pa­per? Yes, it’s the ap­prox­i­mate size of many mag­a­zines. But do any of those mag­a­zines run text in a sin­gle block on the page with one-inch mar­gins? No—never. They use mul­ti­ple-col­umn lay­outs or find other ways to di­vide the page.

So are there any pub­li­ca­tions that do run text in a sin­gle block on the page? Sure—books are usu­ally set in a sin­gle col­umn. But do you ever see a book printed on 8.5"× 11" pa­per? No—never. It would be too big for com­fort­able reading.

Pro­fes­sional ty­pog­ra­phers never use 8.5"× 11" pa­per with a 6.5-inch line length. Nei­ther should you.

Whether you’re writ­ing for print or the web, set your text ac­cord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of good ty­pog­ra­phy. The white space will take care of it­self. The plea­sure of read­ing an ef­fec­tively de­signed doc­u­ment will soon out­weigh the un­fa­mil­iar­ity of ex­tra white space around the edges.

But with those big mar­gins, I won’t fit nearly as many words.” Let’s ad­dress that fear with a word-proces­sor ex­er­cise that brings to­gether some of what you’ve learned so far.

  1. Start a new doc­u­ment in your word proces­sor. Paste in a text of at least 1000 words. For­mat this new doc­u­ment as fol­lows: page mar­gins of one inch per side, font is Times New Ro­man, point size is 12, line spac­ing isDou­ble” (if you’re us­ing Word; if not, use ex­actly 28 points), first-line in­dent is half an inch, and no space be­tween para­graphs. I’ll call this doc­u­ment A.

  2. Start an­other new doc­u­ment in your word proces­sor. Paste in the same text.

  3. For­mat this sec­ond doc­u­ment as fol­lows: page mar­gins of two inches per side, font is still Times New Ro­man, point size is 11, line spac­ing is ex­actly 15 points, first-line in­dent is still half an inch, and still no space be­tween para­graphs. I’ll call this doc­u­ment B.

  4. Print both doc­u­ments. Which one looks more like a pro­fes­sion­ally type­set book: A or B?

  5. Which doc­u­ment is more com­fort­able to read: A or B?

  6. Which doc­u­ment con­tains more words per page: A or B? Hint: use word count. See line length for instructions.

I’m guess­ing you an­swered B to the last three ques­tions. If so, you’re see­ing how good ty­pog­ra­phy can be a benev­o­lent force—it im­proves the ap­pear­ance and leg­i­bil­ity of your text with no com­pro­mise in words per page.

by the way
  • A gut­ter mar­gin is ex­tra space on one side of a printed page that ac­counts for a bind­ing. In a du­plex (two-sided) doc­u­ment, the gut­ter will au­to­mat­i­cally al­ter­nate sides.

  • In a printed doc­u­ment, do the mar­gins all have to be the same size? No. To fit more text on the page, re­duce the top and bot­tom mar­gins. Your line length will stay the same, but you’ll get more lines per page. To make the text block ap­pear cen­tered ver­ti­cally, try mak­ing the bot­tom mar­gin about a quar­ter-inch larger than the top mar­gin. (An old ty­pog­ra­pher’s trick—oth­er­wise, the text block can look like it’s sag­ging.) Fi­nally, there’s no rule that a text block has to be cen­tered on the page hor­i­zon­tally. For an asym­met­ric lay­out, make the dif­fer­ence be­tween the left and right mar­gins at least one inch—weak asym­me­try will just look like a lay­out error.

  • The best way to judge a lay­out is with your eyes, not with a cal­cu­la­tor. But ty­pog­ra­phers have long en­joyed fid­dling with lay­outs that in­cor­po­rate spe­cific math­e­mat­i­cal ra­tios. Most fa­mous among these is the golden ra­tio, which is ap­prox­i­mately 1.618 : 1. For in­stance, if you set page mar­gins of 2.23 inches on all four sides of 8.5"× 11" pa­per, the pro­por­tions of your text block will be close to the golden ratio.