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Better Headlines

Posted on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 1:13 PM

Nine new essentials.

By Jan V. White

Headlines (titles or heds) and decks have separate functions. See how the headline above identifies the topic ("headlines") and telegraphs importance ("better")? See how the deck defines why you, dear reader, should care? ("Nine new essentials" to help you make them better). Those time-tested functions make as much sense as ever, but we must go beyond them. Here are some pointers to better heads that affect and are, in turn, affected by the way they appear on the page. (Next issue we'll tackle decks.)

1) Curiosity is what pulls the casual reader into your story. The display is your best persuasion tool to get them to want to find out more. (The key words here are "to want to"). It often takes several words to define a complex topic and describe what you need to say so it is the honey that draws the bee. Therefore, make heads as long as they need to be to fascinate. Shorter isn't better, no matter what you have taken for journalistic gospel, or what the designer may maintain. Heads aren't just journalism, they are salesmanship.

2) Each head in a publication refers to its own story, but it is also a segment of a package. Since it is purposely noticeable, the way it looks helps create (or disintegrate) the personality of the product. To compete successfully, it is the product-as-a-whole that matters in the marketplace more than any of its component. Consistency is what keeps it looking unified. The temptation has always been to vary the typeface of headlines "to keep the reader interested." The pub is in serious trouble if it depends on such superficial tinkering to be interesting. Heads are recognition signals, so make them look the same.

3) The display should be what people are led to by the design. Heads and decks must pop out by contrast to what surrounds them. Type size defines the headlines visually but is usually limited by the available space into which the words must fit. Blackness is the other identifier. How can you make the headline blacker? Obviously by using a bolder version of the type. Less obviously, by taking advantage of type's malleability and squeezing out the air within and adding it to the surrounding frame. Set the characters closer together (by using tighter "tracking") and set the lines closer together (by using "minus-leading"). Tightening achieves darkness. Heads must stand out by looking loud and aggressive.

4) Tradition demanded heads and decks centered above the text below. That's what you learned in junior high as "correct." So it was, given the childish context of "reports." Also, it was standard practice when print was in its youth. Now it is essential to break out of the prison of formal form and handle our words-in-type as speech-made-visible. Talking stops, starts, has gaps, emphasizes, mumbles. Thoughts are sentences composed of phrases. Advance beyond tombstone inscriptions: open your eyes and listen to the sound of your type. Heads should be set flush left, lines broken by sense-making phrase.

5) An Even More Insidious Bad Habit Than Centering the Display Is the Up-and-Down Style That Has Haunted American Publishing Since the Mid-1800s. It decrees that a headline isn't a proper headline unless every important word's initial letter is capitalized. Nowhere in the world do people do this, unless they are attempting to ape an "American" style. There is absolutely no functional reason for it and most U.S. newspapers have switched to all-lowercase. It is counter-productive, because it makes reading slower and more laborious (just where it should be fast and smooth). It camouflages proper names (which are vital interest-hooks in headlines). It robs you of the capacity to emphasize (where you might want to use such caps). Starting with a cap initial like any normal sentence, heads should slip off the page smoothly in all-lowercase.

6) Headlines are believed to be the most useful elements to bring the reader into the story. (I believe that cutlines are even more vital, because people look at pictures first, then look for an irresistible explanation, but be that as it may.) Is it not logical, then, to make the type as inviting and beguiling as your carefully wrought words? Yet we relegate them to standardized ugliness by using "condensed" type squeezed to shoehorn those words in. The invited reader is disinvited by what you present them. They skip it. Your precious piece remains unread. Think of a whole publication's-worth of such waste. Instead of using hard-to-read condensed, devote the same amount of space and fit the headline in using regular type but at a smaller size.

7) HEADLINES USED TO BE SET IN ALL-CAPS. That was intended to make the type look bigger when it was made of metal and was limited in size by its vulnerability on press. We don't have technical size problems any more, but the desire for the Dignity and Implied importance of all-caps remains with us. In the old days, the amount of printed matter was limited and thus more precious, so people enjoyed reading slowly, carefully. Now we race through it. Tests prove that all-caps are more laborious to decipher than lowercase. If you want your headlines to be read, set only a few words in all-caps.

8) Immediacy ... speed of communication ... first impression ... are key words today. Parallel with the ease of reading comes ease of understanding: how the words are written to expose the point of the story. If that nub has content that is apt for the reader (i.e., "The What's In It For Me") it is folly not to signal it for first glance attention. This admits that our journalistic content is less literary than it is more functional. Self-interest -- promised benefit -- is the bait that catches that elusive unconvinced reader. It is in our interest to show off that vital point at first glance. In headlines, run a word or two in extrabold, in color, in bigger size, anything to make it pop out.

9) Reading some of the words in the following examples may well convince you of my personal prejudices. Not prejudices, but preferences.

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Example 4

Example 5

Example 6

These are recommendations based on observation, study, and empirical experience. Decisions should never only be about what something looks like, but on how it works within given circumstances. All editing and designing and headline-setting is interpretive choice-making.

Jan V. White is a communication design consultant and author of Editing by Design (3rd Ed.), Allsworth Press, 2003. He may be reached at janvw2 [at] aol [dot] com.

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