By now we’re all used to the tile-patterned look and feel of responsive sites, with their bold hero images and blocky action-led UX and design. But what accompanies many of these designs so often – and seems to be less of a good idea – is a new vogue for centred design: as here on KitchenCraft, airbnb and Nutmeg.
This is puzzling to me as I’ve always understood centred text to be a usability no-no. Centering – outside of billboards, photo captions and poetry – is generally considered to be harder for readers both in print and online because the margin keeps remaking itself with every line. Writes content and usability expert Ginny Redish in her invaluable book, Letting Go of the Words (layout mine):
I don't know why I see so much text on the web where each line is centred.
We don't read centred text well.
We expect each line of a paragraph or related set of text to start at the same place on the left.
When the text is centred, our eyes have no 'anchor' – no steady place to come back to at the start of each line.
It makes sense perhaps for the welcome or hero area of a responsive site to be centred, as here on MOO and Moz. But on these sites, note how the alignment shifts left after the big initial centred flourish.
I thought perhaps there was some special technical requirement for responsive or mobile sites to use centring but all the designers and UX people I’ve consulted can’t see any such reason.
According to Trend List, which monitors trends in graphic design, ‘center aligned text may have its roots in graphic design from the early 20th century, or may be meant as irony and the desire for liberation from the well-ordered Swiss typography.’ It sees the trend as having peaked in 2011 – though I can’t help feeling it's enjoying a comeback – but even here it is largely referring to ‘massive simple typography’ in examples such as book covers, posters, flyers, visual memes and the like, not whole web pages on informational sites.
Centred text in website design may be originally related to the change of screen sizes and resolution. As more users switch to viewing sites in higher resolutions, a web designer tries to balance the amount of space surrounding the layout by providing the same amount of white space on the left and on the right.
From here, the practice of using centring to keep text static, while the surrounding design elements of the page change responsively, could have developed.
Design over usability? As Sticky senior content strategist Steve Beard puts it, ‘The screen-size argument sounds like a weak post-rationalisation of a fashion thing.’
At Usability Week I asked NN/g Senior Researcher Raluca Budiu for her view, and she concurred that she knew of no technical or UX reasons for centring whole pages of text. Can anyone else enlighten me?