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
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.
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.
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
isfirst-line indent is half an inch, and no space between paragraphs. I’ll call this document A. “Double” (if you’re using Word; if not, use exactly 28 points),
Start another new document in your word processor. Paste in the same text.
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.
Print both documents. Which one looks more like a professionally typeset book: A or B?
Which document is more comfortable to read: A or B?
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.
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.