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Working with Subheads

Posted on Wednesday, August 30, 2017 at 4:21 PM

The delicate art of designing and placing subheads.

By Nikola Mileta

In a design sense, subheads serve the purpose of breaking up long text blocks. It is important to place them in strategically good spots. I'll offer some tips on how to do that.

The general idea is to break up the text and to give readers some clue what lies in the following paragraphs. Editorially, subheads act as a headline for the upcoming text. Some publications miss this point, and I find myself often reading paragraphs that have no connection with the subhead.

Let's review some of the principles and techniques involved through the use of examples.


Subhead set in bold.


Subhead set in different italics. Be careful with italics because they can look pretty light.


Subhead set in all caps.


Subhead set in different type style. This is the best practice for setting the subheads.


Subhead set in a box, or with underline.


Subhead set in running-in style. Looks really cool, but the text has to have some meaning.

Type Selection in Subheads

When establishing your style for subheads, make it consistent throughout the publication. There are times when you might want something to stand out and be different. But obviously you can't accomplish that without having an established graphic style.

Your subheads should be clearly distinctive from the main body copy. They should be instantly recognizable. You can emphasize them in several ways:

--You can set your subheads in the same typeface as your main copy but use the bold version. To make them even more distinctive, enlarge the subheads a few points. Two or maybe even three points larger works well. Four points would be too large.

--Another option is to keep the same typeface as the body copy but use the italic version. I tend not to use that in my designs because italics tend to look lighter than the normal text font. Bold italics would be a better option.

--The most used option for subheads is to use different type. The most obvious choice is sans serif if you are using serif type for the body copy.

--You can set your subheads in all caps, but I almost never use this method. It can sometimes work. But in many cases it does not, especially if the subhead is long. You don't want to break the flow of the text.


Bad placing of the subheads.

Subhead Tips

Never place subheads three lines or fewer from the bottom of a column or three lines from the top of a column. The biggest mistake I see is placing subheads at the top of a column. That kind of subhead treatment can give the mistaken impression that the subhead is the headline of another story.

Then there is the matter of whether subheads should be one line or two lines. Graphically it is best to maintain consistency; either make them one or two lines. Three rows would be too many. Editors and design staff need to agree on which way to go. Whatever your choice is, make it consistent.

Always position subheads at the top of the next paragraph, not in the middle between paragraphs or just below the previous paragraph.

Whether you use flush-left text or justified copy, align your subheads to the left. Do not center them since that would disrupt the reader's eye flow. Also, do not indent the subhead. The first paragraph below the subhead should not be indented either.

If you want to place a rule with your subhead, place it above. Placement below will break the subhead from its paragraphs below. The best option is not to use rules at all.

A cool way of making subheads, and I like it a lot, is to make so-called "running-in subheads." But your copy editor should start this paragraph with really meaningful words; otherwise there is no point and you cannot call it a subhead. It will only be emphasized words.


Bad placement of the subhead, just below the image.


Bad placement of the subhead, just above the image.


Bad placement of the subhead, around the runaround image.

Subheads and Images
Do not place the subheads just below an image. Do not place a subhead just above an image either.

If an image is positioned with runaround copy, don't place subheads within runaround text. It will look messy and will create awkward white space around the image.

Nikola Mileta is an internationally noted magazine designer from Zagreb, Croatia, currently living in Beijing. He can be reached at info@magazinedesigning.com.

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