rules & bordersUse sparingly

In tra­di­tional print­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy, a rule is a line; a bor­der is a box. But in word proces­sors and web browsers, they’re vari­a­tions of the same func­tion. Rules and bor­ders can be ap­plied to pages, para­graphs, or ta­bles.

Like cen­tered text, bold or italic, and all caps, rules and bor­ders are best used spar­ingly. Ask your­self: do you really need a rule or bor­der to make a vi­sual dis­tinc­tion? You can usu­ally get equally good re­sults by in­creas­ing the space above and be­low the text. Try that first.

For bor­ders, set the thick­ness be­tween half a point and one point. Thin­ner bor­ders can work on pro­fes­sion­ally printed goods but are too fine to re­pro­duce well on an of­fice printer or com­puter screen. Thicker bor­ders are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive—they cre­ate noise that up­stages the in­for­ma­tion in­side. You want to see the data, not the lines around the data.

WrongAthosPorthosAramis
Phone(617) 555 1453(508) 555 3232(603) 555 8490
Cell(617) 555 3145(508) 555 2323(603) 555 8491
Fax(617) 555 5413(508) 555 4545(603) 555 8492
RightAthosPorthosAramis
Phone(617) 555 1453(508) 555 3232(603) 555 8490
Cell(617) 555 3145(508) 555 2323(603) 555 8491
Fax(617) 555 5413(508) 555 4545(603) 555 8492

Sim­i­larly, don’t use pat­terned bor­ders (i.e., bor­ders made of any­thing other than a sin­gle solid line, like dots, dashes, or dou­ble lines). They’re un­nec­es­sar­ily complicated.

You have more lat­i­tude with rules be­cause they don’t ac­cu­mu­late the way bor­ders do. If you want to make a rule thicker than one point or use a pat­tern, go ahead. But thick or pat­terned rules still wear out their wel­come faster than the clas­sic half-point solid rule.

How to edit rules & borders

Word Home tab → Paragraph panel → look for the but­ton that re­sem­bles a win­dow­pane → click the ar­row on the right edge → se­lect Borders and Shading

Pages Click in­side the ta­ble and press ⌘ + a to se­lect all cells. Then do ViewShow Toolbar (or op­tion + ⌘ + t) → Format but­ton → Cell pane → use the con­trols un­der Border

CSS Use the bor­ders prop­erty. To get bor­ders only be­tween columns, set the bor­der-left prop­erty on the td+td se­lec­tor. To get bor­ders only be­tween rows, set the bor­der-top prop­erty on the tr+tr selector.

Never make rules and bor­ders out of re­peated ty­po­graphic char­ac­ters, like punc­tu­a­tion, hy­phens and dashes, or math sym­bols. Par­tic­u­larly ridicu­lous is the prac­tice in cer­tain of­fices of us­ing stacked paren­the­ses to make a ver­ti­cal line. Not only is it uglier than a ver­ti­cal rule, it’s much harder to as­sem­ble. These are type­writer habits. They’re obsolete.

by the way
  • If you at­tach a rule to head­ings, try putting it above the head­ing (rather than be­low, which is usu­ally the de­fault). Then the rule is sep­a­rat­ing the end of the pre­vi­ous sec­tion from the cur­rent head­ing, in­stead of sep­a­rat­ing the cur­rent head­ing from its own section.