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Stop and Think, Part II

Posted on Monday, September 30, 2013 at 11:15 AM

More tips on how to persuade searchers to stop, think, and read.

By Jan V. White

In Part I, we left off discussing readability of type. Now we continue with that topic, and offer additional tips.

Consistent styling. The fewer possibilities in type application there are, the simpler the visual effects become, and the more effective the patterning can be. Clarity of communication, however, needs sufficient variety to express the tonalities of emphasis from whispering to shouting. Styling decisions must be carefully crafted and balanced to accommodate the wide variety of needs. Once the system has been decided and agreed on, rigid discipline in its application must be enforced, to guard against its erosion. Its impact must not be diluted by unplanned ad hoc variations.

Standardization of spacing. Relationships up and down the page must be systematized and controlled. Therefore, page break policies must be embedded in the system to protect correct spacing. Opening up between lines to justify the column, for instance, destroys the integrity of the visual fabric and should never be allowed. Varying gaps between typographic elements can destroy the effects so carefully planned.

Departing from the usual. Situations may well arise whose specialness justifies departure from the norm. Clearly, such custom-fitted changes in format should be possible to make if the cost/benefit ratio is in their favor. They had better be worthwhile, because their very visual difference dramatizes their specialness.

Type for reader comfort. The people whom we are trying to attract must feel so comfortable that their attention is not diverted to the typography. Reading must not be a self-conscious, tiring effort, but a smooth, easy continuum. The type should be so right that it becomes part of the background, like furniture that nobody notices. No typographic exaggerations should be allowed: no ultrabold or ultralight weights, no all-caps in bulk, no italics in bulk, no unnatural spacing for the sake of special design effects. Functional typography is a mechanism restricted to functional use. Fashion is out of place not only because it disturbs, but because it brings attention to itself.

Color contrast of bold and light type. The different "color" (i.e., the darker or paler greyness of the texture the type creates) is vital for distinct visibility and findability of the signals as distinct to the text. The "weight" pulls the viewer's eye and gets more attention to the more important versus less important bits. (That could be an oversimplified way of calling our trade "visual editing.") Making them not just darker but also a bit bigger turns "headings" into headlines.

Fast perception? Display type

Think about traffic signs. They are large enough to be seen from a distance, always located in the expected place, recognizable in shape, noticeable by color and type, and visible because the surrounding bushes have been cleared away by the responsible authorities.

Headlines, our typographic signposts. Like them, they are a continuum. They must be placed where scanners expect to find them, and their look must be instantly recognizable. Their first job is visibility, noticeability, findability. Reader orientation is not their only function. Their job is also as identifiers and promisers. They lubricate understanding while their noticeability gives a cumulative character to the product as a whole. They sell.

Start at the top. The time-honored practice of deploying an article is to start at the end and work backwards and then arrange the display in whatever space is left over at the top. That is self-defeating, because the space in which scanners spot the display wording is as much a recognition factor as the type itself. The top is the crucial area for careful control.

Isolation. The blank area (that invaluable "white space") must be exploited as an active participant to explain relationships and rankings that the typography is intended to convey. Careful manipulation of size with placement makes for effective signaling. It is often impracticable to attract attention with enormous type. Instead, wording of modest size can stand just as noticeable by isolation in a cocoon of emptiness. (And no, that is not "wasted space").

Flush-left headings. Centering a heading in its space splits the leftover white space into two insignificant halves, one at each end of the heading. Flush-lefting merges them into a single, double-sized one, gaining more valuable contrast.

Breaking for sense. The display type should be as untrammeled as possible to protect the integrity of the thoughts it embodies. Fitting these valuable words and phrases into arbitrary line length can make the meaning hard to follow, even if it does not affect the actual interpretation. Line breaks should be specified by the writer to mirror the words as we speak. Tip: sound the headlines out loud. Simple! Logical! Readers like it without realizing why. Hyphenation in display type betrays poor craftsmanship.

Downstyle. Boldness and type size make headlines pop out without need of further elaboration. Capitalizing Important Words in Display Is a Useless Tradition. The first initial, of course, signals a new sentence. The rest in lowercase improves reading speed as well as understanding, because proper names and acronyms stand out. Speed of reading and increased comprehension are no small advantages, especially if they can be achieved at no cost. Only Outmoded Habit Insists on the Harder-to-Read Up-and-Down-Style.

Short label heads. Terseness may be fast, but not at the cost of enlightenment. Short heads are less effective than fully-worded, informative statements that define substance and promise results. Reading time may be microseconds longer, but motivation and comprehension are improved. Use as many words you need to sell the idea.

Legends and captions are read before the headlines. (Believe me -- it is true!) The illustration is what lookers notice first ... wonder about ... get curious ... search for explanation. Captions are the ideal opportunity to inform and lure them into reading. Full sentences draw attention to meanings, and conclusions motivate the reader. They should therefore be set in type large enough and visible enough to make the most of what the viewers see first.

Technical terms in text can be used as scanning shortcuts to bypass the slow process of looking something up. To act as a visual index embedded in the running text they must be popped out clearly in bold, since they are often strings of confusing abstract alphanumeric symbols.

Functional color can help immediate comprehension by classifying particular groups of information. At the same time, color can indeed be used as embellishment by making bullets red, arrows blue, rules green, headlines purple. Though prettiness and function each have their own place and validity, function is a better investment for reader satisfaction.

Raisins in the cake are vital. But you have to use visual embellishment with circumspection. Purely cosmetic fun and games at one end of the spectrum to serious information identification at the other are fine so long as the purpose of the piece is not compromised as decorative puffery. The danger is falling in love with any of it.

To be liked, satisfy our customers. When they are well served, they like our product. The desirable elegant solution must grow organically from the inner requirements of both the material and the user. Reveal the structure at first glance. So write and edit with an eye on the presentation. Organize the information into its component segments and flag each segment to reveal its content.

Jan V. White is author of the classic Editing by Design, Third Edition (Allworth Press, available on Amazon). Eight of his other books are now in the public domain and available for free at http://openlibrary.org/books. He may be reached at janvw2@aol.com.

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