Making the Summary layout look sharp

This is the fifth in a series of emails on one-page summaries of bigger reports - and in particular, what to do if your one-pager has many numbers embedded within its paragraphs. Today, we see how to make the table look sharp. And it's a topic I've not previously explored in my email updates. Yes, many years ago, I showed how to turn bad tables into good ones; with today's tips, you see how to make them fantastic.

Which needs design principles. The ideas in this email lean heavily on principles espoused in the mid-1990s by Robin Williams (the female designer, not the actor): (1) Contrast, (2) Repetition, (3) Alignment, (4) Proximity (spot her acronym...). Today, you see two of them in action; future emails mention the other two. And Robin's principles are great - they apply to any document and change how you look at reports.

Let's start. Below is a table we've seen previously in these emails. Notice its formats.

It has Contrast. Section headings pop from the page. They look proud, confident, create visual interest, and help readers navigate. Contrast makes a page look: “Mmmm” in a nice way (rather than “Hmmm” in a dispiriting way, which is how I feel when I see a page all in Arial, font size 10).

Contrast isn't just a bit of bold (which doesn’t do much). Nor a bit of UPPER CASE (which slows reading speed… avoid), nor underlining (which merges letters, hindering readability, plus it bumps into descenders on letters like g and y, and looks bad).

Contrast is using fonts three or four points bigger. Or using fonts that have more oommph. Figure 1's section headings are in Arial Black. Nice. Three warnings on Arial Black though:

1. Use it very sparingly on a page, otherwise it visually overwhelms.

2. Don’t do it in bold, for it'll look a bit smudgy. And anyway, it doesn't need to be in bold - it pops from the page anyway.

3. Do it in a font size 10% to 15% smaller than other stuff on the page. The numbers in the table are font size 10, and the bits in Arial Black are font size 9. Arial Black always come out bigger, so if I don't scale it down a bit, it looks disproportionate. A bit out-of-whack. And talking of font sizes...

In Figure 1, different font sizes help create visual distinctions: numbers are font size 10, whilst column headings and units of measurement are font size 9. 

Some non-numerical bits are greyed down, e.g. column headings, units of measurement, etc. It helps the key bits - the numbers - stand out. But wait... this is the exact opposite of what happens in many tables - often, column headings are funky. A white font on a blue background (known as ‘reversed font’). But reversed fonts distract… readers try to study the table’s numbers, but their eyes are drawn to the funky headings. It’s as if I give you a report to read, and as you start to read it, I stand next to you and wave a big flag; you’d eventually say: “Stop waving that flag, it’s distracting”. Hence in your tables, eschew funky column headings; instead, de-emphasise them. Put them in a smaller font and grey them down. Remember: the key bit of a table is its numbers. 

Some numbers are greyed down too: in bigger tables, this really helps - it makes the table look less daunting, less a blizzard of numbers. Often, I grey down all the numbers in a particular column or two - Figure 1 shows Actual, Variance and Forecast, and I've greyed down the Forecast column. Also, I’ve greyed down all favourable variances. Or I could instead grey down variances that are middle-of-the-road - which in effect helps big and small variances stand out more.  

Rows and columns are numbered (and again, this really helps in bigger tables): columns are A, B, C etc. Rows are 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 etc. Readers more easily talk about stuff in meetings, and you more easily refer to stuff in your commentary, e.g. “Bit of a problem with Bribes from Other – row 2.4”. The labels are greyed down and in a smaller font. There when we need them, not in the way when we don’t.

Row labels are right-aligned (column A): I prefer to left-align, it produces sharp lines of alignment down the left edge of the page. But if the table has a mix of long and short row labels, we get big gaps between a short label and its number. Readers can lose their place when reading across. When this occurs, I right-align the labels. See column A.

So far, so sharp... but I've a problem, one I often encounter when doing layouts: I tidy the page's individual bits - its tables, graphs, WiT, etc - and yes, each bit is good. But collectively it doesn’t quite hang together. It doesn't work.

So I resort to my 'Get-Out-Of-Jail' card, a trick I use constantly when creating layouts. And it uses another of the design principles.

But that's for next month - plus you see how to add insight to the one-pager. Time for the fun bit, and in common with this month's theme, it's on typography.

Born under a bad sign: recently when renewing my passport, I spotted a shop-sign that wrongly justified its text. It's almost illegible. I emerged not just with a passport photo, but a photo of the passport-photo sign... The moral of the story? Please don't justify narrow rows of text. Or, rather,   p    l    e    a    s    e         d    o    n    '    t.

Til next month.


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