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Using Subheads

Format Attractive and Effective Subheads

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Subheads are one of several types of heads that are both an editorial tool and a design feature in page composition. I've seen them described as mini-headlines. Subheads break text into meaningful sections, aid readability by breaking up large blocks of text, make it easier for readers to skim an article for relevant information, and also add visual interest to a page. Coming up with appropriate subheads is generally the job of the writer or editor. Formatting attractive and effective subheads is one of the jobs of the designer. Sometimes the writer/editor/designer are all the same person.

Write Effective Subheads

When designing your own marketing materials or when working with clients that want you to be both copywriter and designer, you need to be able to write appropriate subheads.

Use Contrast to Set Apart Subheads and Body Text

Subheads should stand out from the surrounding text. Techniques for subheads and headlines include bold text, using a larger font (but not larger than your main headline -- create a headline hierarchy), use a different style of font (such as a sans serif subhead with serif body text), or using a different color of text.

Use White Space to Set Apart Subheads and Body Text

Visually separate your subheads from surrounding body text. This is especially important if you use more subtle typographic contrast. Generally there should be more white space between your subhead and the proceeding text than there is between the subhead and the following block of text -- keep the subhead visually associated with its accompanying body text and don't leave it floating in a sea of white space between sections.

Use Rules or Graphics Sparingly to Set Apart Subheads and Body Text

Combining subheads with a graphic element such as a dingbat or a thin rule creates separation but could visually break up your text too much, making sections appear to be separate articles rather than parts of the whole. Be careful when placing a rule beneath the subhead because it can visually separate it from the text it is supposed to be introducing. Instead, try using a thin rule above the subhead. This can be effective when space limitations don't allow you to but as much extra space before the subhead as you might like.

Align Your Subheads

For flush left/ragged right body text alignment, left-aligned subheads generally look best. Left-aligned subheads also work with fully justified text. Centered subheads or right-aligned subheads can look good with fully justified text.

Don't Dangle Your Subheads

Widows and orphans are "words or short phrases at the end or beginning of paragraphs that are left to sit alone at the top or bottom of a column — separated from the rest of the paragraph." This includes subheads. Don't completely separate a subhead from its following text leaving it at the bottom of a column or at the end of a page. Keep at least a couple of lines of text with the subhead.

Use Consistent Formatting With Subheads

Adhere to a consistent style of subheads. In a book, newsletter, brochure, or ad its generally best to use the same subhead style throughout. In a magazine where some individual articles or sections often have vastly different formatting, changing subhead styles from one article to the next is acceptable -- but be consistent within each individual article.

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