headingsFewer levels, subtler emphasis

Head­ings present two prob­lems: struc­tural and ty­po­graphic. Cure the struc­tural prob­lem and the ty­po­graphic prob­lem be­comes simpler.

The struc­tural prob­lem is that writ­ers of­ten use too many lev­els of head­ings. This leads to in­creas­ingly des­per­ate at­tempts to make them vi­su­ally dis­tinct, usu­ally with in­ju­di­cious com­bi­na­tions of bold or italic, un­der­lin­ing, point size, all caps, and first-line in­dents. The re­sult is train­wrecks like this:

5(a)(1)(iv) The Tar­get Mar­ket
Has Ex­pressed a Pref­er­ence for
Co­pi­ous Ban­ner Advertising.

Head­ings are sign­posts for read­ers that re­veal the struc­ture of your ar­gu­ment. Note that I didn’t say the struc­ture of your doc­u­ment. Head­ings that an­nounce every topic, subtopic, mini­topic, and mi­cro­topic are ex­haust­ing. If you write from an out­line, that can be a good start­ing point for your head­ings, but don’t stop there—sim­plify it further.

Limit your­self to three lev­els of head­ings. Two is bet­ter. Read­ers should be able to ori­ent them­selves from the head­ings. With more than three lev­els, that task be­comes hope­lessly con­fus­ing. You may know your ar­gu­ment in­side out, but no one else does (or will).

Once you’ve cured the struc­tural prob­lem, work within these ty­po­graphic parameters:

  1. Don’t use all caps. If your head­ings are full sen­tences, then they’re too long for caps. And Al­ways Avoid Ti­tle Case, Be­cause Your Head­ings Aren’t Titles.

  2. Don’t un­der­line. Why? Re­view un­der­lin­ing.

  3. Don’t cen­ter, sub­ject to the ex­cep­tions in cen­tered text.

  4. The best way to em­pha­size a head­ing is by putting space above and be­low, be­cause it’s both sub­tle and effective.

  5. Use bold, not italic. For head­ings, bold is eas­ier to read than italic and stands out bet­ter on the page. And since the choice is bold or italic—not both—you should pre­fer bold. But even then, it’s an op­tion, not a re­quire­ment. Non-bold head­ings work too.

  6. It’s fine to make the point size big­ger, but just a lit­tle. Use the small­est in­cre­ment nec­es­sary to make a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence. If your text is set in 12 point, you needn’t go up to 14 or 15 point. Try a smaller in­crease—to 12.5 or 13 point.

  7. Only use two lev­els of in­dent­ing, even if you use more than two lev­els of head­ings. Some writ­ers like to in­dent every head­ing a lit­tle far­ther. Bad idea. It ends up look­ing ran­dom and messy.

  8. Sup­press hy­phen­ation in head­ings, and use the keep lines to­gether and keep with next para­graph op­tions to pre­vent head­ings from break­ing awkwardly.

  9. See hi­er­ar­chi­cal head­ings for a con­trar­ian sug­ges­tion about how to num­ber headings.

by the way
  • If you’re us­ing bold in your head­ing, you can also try re­duc­ing the point size by a half or full point. If your font has a rel­a­tively heavy bold style (like Times New Ro­man), re­duc­ing the size can off­set the ef­fect of the darker color, giv­ing you sub­tler emphasis.

  • Cer­tain web-de­sign pun­dits claim that mod­u­lar scale—that is, mul­ti­ply­ing the body text by a re­cur­ring ra­tio—is a use­ful method of siz­ing web head­ings. I dis­agree. Yes, math­e­mat­i­cal tools can guide cer­tain ty­po­graphic choices (see grids, for in­stance). The risk with these short­cuts is that they en­cour­age ty­pog­ra­phers to sat­isfy them­selves with nu­mer­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tions—I used the golden ra­tio, there­fore it must look good!—at the ex­pense of de­vel­op­ing vi­sual judg­ment. When your head­ings look right, they are right. The ra­tio is ir­rel­e­vant. (FWIW, I’ve never used a mod­u­lar scale to size type. And never will.)

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