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How to design headlines... from previous page, with Ronnie Lipton

Using caps and punctuation in headlines

In the newspaper example, we saw how ugly that headline is because of being centered and the use of caps. Caps and punctuation in headlines is a long, ongoing debate among designers and copy editors -- and one of the frequent questions we get. Much of the debate depends on which authoritative style guide* the designer depends on, or what traditional modes apply. I generally adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style(?), while others go for the New York Times Manual of Style(?) or the AP Stylebook(?) one of which all designers should have and use.

caps in heads Who died?

Caps can even change or confuse the meaning of the whole piece. In the example at right, the reader wonders who Al White is and how he died. Except Al White is the manufacturer of die-cutting dies, and at the time was producing dies for the Kluge press. By using traditional initial caps, the meaning is ambiguous. Only the proper nouns are capitalized. Hopefully, readers of printing trade journal would pick up on the keyword Kluge and understand the article is about cutting dies. In today's world though, they won't -- they probably weren't born yet.

The old style text books said capitalize each word in a headline except articles like of, the, an, a, on, and so forth. David McKenzie*, author of several books on writing says

Capitalize the First Letter of Each Major Word in the Headline

He claims it makes the headline get the readers' attention. I disagree. Not only is it ugly, it forces the reader to slow the reading progress and read -- each -- word -- one -- by -- one. As graphic designers, we know all too well that the fundamental purpose of a headline is not necessarily to get the readers attention, but rather to instantly communicate a message with sufficient power to motivate the reader to keep reading into the body copy. If what McKenzie says (and many of the older style guides) is true, then all the articles on each page of the newspaper would be shouting for your attention. Of course, they are, but then again, that's why most newspapers are so horrible.

If there are four or five words or less, then sometimes all caps might be more effective if you really want to punch. I usually avoid all caps at all costs -- with the exception of a one or two word head where they can be seen without requiring reading. If you're using a script or decorative display font, NEVER use all caps -- that crime carries the death penalty. All caps also cause the reader to read each and every word separately. Again, reading the passage aloud -- or better yet having someone else read it to you out loud, will be the proof of the pudding. (Note, I said 'four or five' but really, four is too boring -- in two-line heads that puts two words on each line. Five is better because it gives a magic 3 + 2 supporting the pyramid shape, and avoiding wordspace lineup.)

As in our example "Al White Dies" the reader has cause for pause.

Use upercase letters with discretion. My rule (which agrees with the Associated Press style guide) is to set your heads as a correct sentence. This is called downstyle. Capitalize only proper nouns and the first word in the headline. It is the most easy to read, and most resembles the natural capitalization used in sentences. Many times I will use ALL lower case, which can be very elegant and more effective. No initial cap means no punctuation. Right? Try it. If it works, go for it. Which brings me to my next point...

What about punctuation in headlines?

For years, I've followed the no-punctuation rule... with the exception of the ellipsis* and question mark. (Perhaps you've noticed I actually over-use the ellipsis always meaning to "follow along" which is totally incorrect. Ronnie would spank me for that! I hope she's not reading this...) Punctuation, while may be correct, interferes with the visual flow of the word shapes, introducing white space into the visual gulp where it doesn't belong. What you do depends on your particular style guide, or what the boss/client demands. I have a client who insists on a period at the end of each headline and bullet point in a list -- even if they aren't complete sentences. Talk about anal!

The purpose of punctuation is to clarify the meaning of the writing. However, because of the nature of headlines and display type the meaning should be obvious -- with the single exception of the question mark. So things like periods and colons are really just a visual distraction. If the meaning is obvious by the arrangements of the words, weight, posture, etc., then just eliminate the punctuation and see if it retains its integrity if not actually becoming visually stronger.

Punctuation causes other visual problems too. In the middle of the word flow they introduce distracting white space into the type set. Always strive to move distracting white space from the inside of the type gulp to the outside. Quotation marks are bad for this. If you must use quotations, then 'hang' them outside the visual frame of the actual letters. (?) I have a client who ends every headline with an exclamation mark or two. Sometimes three or four. His web site reads like the end of the world!!!!!! But we can all forget and slip. Oooops! I found several in this article. One day I'll take them out. But please folks stay away from exclamation marks -- life is exciting enough as it is. Besides, the words themselves should speak the message. Exclamation marks give only superficial support -- and are not believed by most people. Don't try to say too much. Which brings me to my final point.

How long is too long?

I've often chided clients for using headlines that are too long, or that contain too much information for a single gulp. When headlines become body copy, they're no longer headlines. This is sometimes unavoidable if the client' name is particularly long, or has multiple words that demand to be included. Around here, we live in an area that has long, long names of places. I cringe any time a client has to name one in a headline. I avoid them altogether, rather opting to try and re-word the head as not to include the location by putting it into an eyebrow or subhead. Headlines should never have three lines.

single word adEarlier we talked about the Volkswagen ad campaign launched by Bill Bernback's New York ad agency. Its headline was simply two words which made a demand of the audience: "Think Small".

At left, this remarkable Bernbach ad used only one word. Brilliant. Between the photograph -- one of the more dreaded nightmares by motorists -- and the headline "impossible" the ad is strikingly understandable in an instant. Even the period mark here adds real power to the word "impossible" - end of sentence. Remember though, when this ad came out who ever heard of putting the motor in the back of the car? So anyone who could understand the photo was undeniably compelled to read this ad. And they did read it.

And again, note how that white space is pushing us toward the pitch. So we see that shorter is almost always better. But what if you just can't get it down to one or two words?

VW change ad

What would Bill do?

Later in the progression of ads, at model year end, Bernbach took a slightly different approach. At right you see he had a bit of explaining to do -- so relied on the trusty question mark. He asked a question that required the head be expanded the head to full width of the content well. The photograph philosophy changed a bit to paint a picture supporting the question and imbibing a bit of mystery. Again, brilliant advertising.

My favorite aspect of this is the conspicuous absence of a headline. Yes, look at the top of the page to see there's space allocated, but it is empty. Observe how powerful that white space is; how effortlessly it pushes the reader immediately into the content. Again, the size of the type didn't have to shout. And while it stretches across the page, is it longer than five words? Readers got it in a single visual gulp. (You can click it for a better look)

I get to read lots of press releases. Unfortunately the computer industry is the worst for writing long, boring, nonsensical headlines. I have to re-write just about any that I use in DTG. We get heads like this:

"The Wizzo Software Company helps freelance graphic designers save thousands of hours each year"

Now, even though it is pretty correct -- wow, what a mouthful. Just try to read that one out loud quickly. Bet'cha can't do it. I would probably rewrite it to read:

"Designers save thousands with Wizzo"

(For you search engine gurus, I put 'designers' first because that's a keyword I prefer over 'Wizzo' even though the spiders will pick that up too. Besides, I'm talking to designers, so, I want to address them.) If you remember and adhere to the 5-word rule, you can't go wrong.

Okay, one last example to bring all this together, and I'll let you get back to work...

Next: Sender, medium, message, receiver...


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