Rethinking the block quote

I recently noticed my tendency to skip right over the block quotes in a book I was reading and figured there are probably others who do the same. My brain likely took the diminutive type as a cue that the quote wasn’t as important as the main text—but was this effect what the author intended?


Nonfiction authors use long quotes for one of two main reasons*:

  1. They have made (and would like to highlight) their own point but are using another authoritative source to buttress the argument.
  2. They want to draw special attention to the other source.

*(Be wary of the more disingenuous reason some authors use block quotes: to boost the word count of their manuscript.)

The problem is that, particularly in the second case, the traditional typographic treatments of block quotes may not do justice to the author’s intent.

Typographic styling of block quotes

According to Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, “Block quotations can be distinguished from the main text in many ways. For instance: by a change of face (usually from roman to italic), by a change in size (as from 11 pt down to 10 pt or 9 pt), or by indention.” He continues, “Combinations of these methods are often used, but one device is enough.” Bringhurst also advises using a white line or half-line at either end of the block to distinguish it from the main text.

A change from roman to italic can be problematic; as Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design advises, italics should be used sparingly and only to enhance communication. Long passages in italics can be hard to read, and since block quotes are usually set as blocks because they are too long to be run in, they are almost by definition ill suited to italics. There are typefaces with very readable italic fonts (Minion comes to mind), but in general italics are harder to read than their roman counterparts.

A change (usually a drop) in size can also be problematic: for readers, text in smaller type—think footnotes or back matter—means that the text is less important and can typically be ignored.

Worse are some websites that use greyed out boxes for block quotes. Rather than highlight the text, the screen is a cue to me that what’s in the box is of secondary importance.

Indention of block quotes has an interesting history: During the Baroque and Romantic periods, long quotations featured quotation marks at the beginning of every line (a practice I’m sure readability advocates are glad we’ve done away with). “When these distractions were finally omitted,” wrote Bringhurst, “the space they had occupied was frequently retained.”

Editorial considerations for block quotes

Editors may be able to give some input to the designer about how to style block quotes, but in many cases those kinds of decisions are beyond an editor’s control (particularly for freelancers). How do we minimize the risk that a quote an author wanted to showcase doesn’t get demoted to afterthought status? Here are some questions to consider:

1. What is the author’s purpose for using the quote?

In a lot of texts, particularly academic ones, quotes do play only a supportive role. In those cases, smaller type may be warranted, as a way of keeping attention on the main text.

However, it gets tricky when you work with texts where the author’s motivation for using quotes varies throughout. In those cases, lobby the designer for a neutral approach to styling a block quote, or reconsider using block quotes altogether.

2. Do we really need a block quote?

Is it important for the author to use the entire quote? Or can you refine it to its essence and use a run-in quote, which—if it means the reader will actually read it—may have more of an impact? Take out as much of the filler as you can. Even a shorter block quote would be better; long blocks of text, particularly in small type, are unwelcoming to readers.

3. Can we draw attention to the block quote through emphasis?

When authors add emphasis, either through italics or boldface, to an existing quote (along with a note that they’ve added emphasis), I admit I stop and pay attention. But don’t overuse this device. If it shows up more than once in a manuscript, it may be a good indication that only the emphasized portion of the quote should be used, run in to the main text.

4. Can we consider alternatives to the traditional block quote?

In a book I recently proofread, long quotes were simply set as regular paragraphs with quotation marks. The quotes never spanned more than a paragraph, and there were few of them, so this approach worked well for this particular text.

If the traditional block quote would not serve the text well, consider other options.

5. Can we communicate intent to the designer?

If possible, let the designer know the purpose of the quotes. It would be impractical—not to mention inconsistent, and crazy making for the designer—to set a different style for quotes you want to highlight and those you want to downplay, but communicating the general tenor of the quotes to the designer may yield a design that better suits the author’s text.

Design options for block quotes

1. Indent only

A neutral approach for block quotes is to eschew decreasing the type size or italicizing and simply set it off with indents, with a line space before and after. The indents provide a visual cue that the text is a quote, but the type size suggests to the reader that it’s at least of equal importance to the main text. Keeping roman type retains readability.

2. Consider a complementary but contrasting typeface

If the main body is in serif type, for example, maybe block quotes can be sans serif, of equal size.

3. If the author wants to highlight the quotes, consider making them bigger

Block quotes in larger type than the main text are almost unheard of, but if emphasis is the author’s intent, this option may be worth considering.

When designing block quotes, don’t be afraid to experiment, but use judgment, of course. Deviating too much from standard expectations can make the styling look like a mistake, and overusing any device can lessen its impact and yield an ugly design.

The main takeaway is the importance of communication: talk to the editor or author, and try to ascertain the purpose of the quotes before deciding how to style them.


(The irony isn’t lost on me that my WordPress theme’s default is indented italics for block quotes. Only time will tell if I’ll tweak the CSS or if laziness will prevail.)

Neil James and Ginny Redish—Writing for the web and mobiles (PLAIN 2013)

Veteran plain language advocates Neil James and Ginny Redish shared some eye-opening statistics about web and mobile use at the PLAIN 2013 conference that may prompt some organizations to reprioritize how they deliver their content. In 2013, for example, there were 6.8 billion mobile phones in use—almost one for every person on the planet. Half of the users were using their mobiles to go online. In 2014, mobiles are expected to overtake PCs for Internet use. Surprisingly, however, 44% of Fortune 100 companies have no mobile site at all, and only 14% of consumers were happy their mobile experience. Mobile users are 67% more likely to purchase from a mobile-friendly site, and 79% will go elsewhere if the site is poor.

People don’t go to a website just to use the web, explained Redish. Every use of a website is to achieve a goal. When writing for the web, always consider

  • purpose: why is the content being created?
  • personas: who are the users?
  • conversations: what do users have to do to complete their task?

Always write to a persona, said Redish, and walk those personas through their conversations. Remember to repeat this exercise on mobile, too.

Consider the following areas when creating content:

  1. Audience
  2. Physical context
  3. Channels
  4. Navigation
  5. Page structure
  6. Design
  7. Expression

Words, noted the presenters, are only one element out of seven.

Some basic guidelines

Build everything for user needs

Again, think of who your users are and what they are trying to accomplish. Consider their characteristics when they use your site. Are they anxious? Relaxed? Aggressive? Reluctant? Keep those characteristics in mind when creating your content.

Consider the physical context

Mobiles are a different physical environment compared with a tablet or PC. The screens are smaller, and type and links on a typical website are too small to read comfortably. Maybe soon we’ll have sites with responsive design that change how content is wrapped depending on the device being used to read it, but for now,  creating a dedicated mobile version of a site may be the best way to ensure that all users have an optimal experience on your site regardless of the device they use.

Select the best channels

Smartphones, equipped with cameras, geolocators, accelerometers, and so on, are capable of a lot. We need to be creative and consider whether any of these functions could help us deliver content.

Simplify the navigation

Minimize the number of actions—clicks and swipes—that a user needs to do before they get to what they want. “People will tolerate scrolling if they’re confident they’ll get to what they want,” said James.

Prioritize the content on every page

Put the information users want at the top, and be aware that, for a given line length, a heading with more words will have smaller type, which can affect its perceived hierarchy.

Design for the small screen

Pay attention in particular to information in tables. Do users have to scroll to read the whole table? Do they need to see the whole table at once to get the information they need?

Cut every word you can

The amount of information you can put on a website might be seemingly infinite, but for mobile sites, it’s best to be as succinct as possible. Pare the content down to only what users would need.

Karen Schriver—Plain by design: Evidence-based plain language (PLAIN 2013)

We may be good at the how of plain language, but the why can be more elusive. To fill in that missing chunk of the puzzle, information design expert Karen Schriver has scoured the empirical research on writing and design published between 1980 and 2010. She gave the PLAIN 2013 audience an eye-opening overview of her extensive, cross-disciplinary review, debunking some long-held myths in some instances and reaffirming our practices in others.

Audiences, readers, and users

In the 1980s, we classified readers and users as experts versus novices, a distinction that continues to haunt the plain language community because some people assume that we “dumb down” content for lower-level readers. Later on we added a category of intermediate readers, but Schriver notes that we have to refine our audience models.

What we thought

A good reader is always a good reader.

What the research shows

Reading ability depends on a huge number of variables, including task, context, and motivation. Someone’s tech savvy, physical ability, and even assumptions, feelings, and beliefs can influence how well they read.


What we thought

Processing nominalizations (versus their equivalent verbs or adjectives) takes extra time.

What the research shows

It’s true, in general, that most nominalizations do “chew up working memory,” as Schriver described, because readers have to backtrack and reanalyze them. However, readers have little trouble when nominalizations appear in the subject position of a sentence and refer to an idea in the previous sentence.


What we thought

Conditionals (if, then; unless, then; when, then) break up text and help readers understand.

What the research shows

A sentence with several conditionals are hard for people to process, particularly if they appear at the start. Leave them till the end or, better yet, use a table.


What we thought

Lists help readers understand and remember, and we should use as many lists as possible.

What the research shows

Lists can be unhelpful if they’re not semantically grouped. If an entire document consists of lists, we can lose important hierarchical cues that tell us what content to prioritize.

Text density

What we thought

A dense text is hard to understand.

What the research shows

It’s true! But there’s a nuance: we’re used to thinking about verbal density, which turns readers off after they begin reading. Text that is dense visually can make people disengage before reading even begins.

Serif versus sans-serif

What we thought

For print materials, serif type is better than sans-serif. Sans-serif is better for on-screen reading.

What the research shows

When resolution is excellent, as it is on most screens and devices nowadays, serif and sans-serif are equally legible and easy to read. Factors that are more important to readability include line length, contrast, and leading.

Layout and design

What we thought

Layouts that people prefer are better.

What the research shows

We prefer what we’re used to, not necessarily what makes us perform better. This point highlights why user testing is so important.

Impressions and opinions

We thought

It takes sustained reading to get an impression of the content.

What the research shows

It takes only 50 millseconds for a reader to form an opinion, and that first impression tends to persist.


What we thought

Content is content, regardless of medium.

What the research shows

Reader engagement is mediated by the technologies used to display the content.

Teamwork in writing and design

What we thought

Writing and design are largely solitary pursuits.

What the research shows

Today, both are highly collaborative. We now have an emphasis on editing and revision rather than on creation.


Evidence-based plain language helps us understand the reasons behind our principles and practices, allowing us to go beyond intuition in improving our work and developing expertise. We can also offer up this body of research to support our arguments for plain language and convince clients that our work is important and effective. What Schriver would like to see (and what the plain language community clearly needs) is a repository for this invaluable research.

Use hyphens wisely: Discretion is advised

Having just educated two of my designer friends—both award-winning veterans of the book industry—about the discretionary/optional hyphen, I realized that maybe not everyone knows about it after all. Convincing designers to embrace the discretionary hyphen can mean saving a lot of proofing time (or, at the very least, eliminating a proofing worry), so I’ve found myself proselytizing, and I might as well do that here, too.

What they are

You’re familiar with the good ol’-fashioned regular hyphen (like the one in “ol’-fashioned”), also known as the hard hyphen. If a line breaks after a hard hyphen, it’s no big deal. In contrast, you wouldn’t want a line break after the hyphen in a phone number, say, or a numeral-unit adjective (e.g., 4-ton jack), and in those situations you’d want to use a nonbreaking hyphen.

But let’s say you’re reading a proof where a word has broken where you don’t want it to break—e.g., mi•crowave instead of micro•wave. What happens when you mark up the proof asking the designer to rebreak the word?

Well, the way many designers have been told to solve the problem is simply to add a (hard) hyphen where they want the break to happen. The approach seems to resolve the issue, but it’s not an elegant fix. What they should be using is a discretionary hyphen (Ctrl/Command + Shift + – in InDesign), which appears if the word breaks at the end of the line but remains invisible when it doesn’t.

Let’s say the designer has added a hard hyphen to “microwave” to make it break as


If you made text changes that pushed “micro” to the following line, for example, you’d end up with “micro-wave” on one line, and the proofreader would have to ask for that hyphen to be deleted.

Using a discretionary hyphen would mean that “microwave” would continue to break as


if it flowed over two lines but appear as “microwave” otherwise.

(Apparently, if you add a discretionary hyphen before a word, InDesign prevents that word from being broken at all—handy for some proper nouns. More information about hyphens in InDesign can be found here.)

Why they help

Beyond the fact that the proofreader no longer has to worry about designer-introduced hard hyphens, discretionary hyphens are especially helpful for texts that are destined for more than one format or medium. Many publishers create their ebooks from their InDesign files, and because EPUB text can reflow, hard hyphens introduced to break a word in a desirable place for the print edition are bound to show up where they aren’t needed in the ebook. Either a proofreader has to go through the ebook text and remove them, or the publisher leaves them in and effectively sacrifices some of its editorial standards in its ebooks. Similarly, reprints (e.g., when a hardcover is reformatted as a mass-market paperback) would be a lot less work for the proofreader if designer-introduced hard hyphens were no longer a concern.

What they could mean to editors

We could nip the problem in the bud a bit earlier in the production process if copy editors also used discretionary hyphens (called optional hyphens in Microsoft Word—shortcut key: Ctrl/Command + -) after common prefixes in closed compounds. (As if copy editors needed any more responsibility!) It’s probably impossible to anticipate every possible bad word break, but a few global searches would be fairly easy to do at the copy-editing stage and would eliminate a lot of the distraction for the proofreader.

What to keep in mind

Ideally, all optional hyphens in Word would translate seamlessly into discretionary hyphens in InDesign. Apparently the two programs don’t always play nicely together, though, so if you’re a copy editor prepping a file for design, it might be worth sending a few test files to the designer you’re working with, to figure out if the special characters, including nonbreaking spaces, nonbreaking hyphens, and discretionary hyphens, among others, will come through.

Also, discretionary hyphens may cause problems for online text because different standards treat them differently, some translating discretionary hyphens into hard hyphens. Again, you may want to test some files, particularly in an ebook workflow, to see if inputting discretionary hyphens is worth the copy editor’s time or if they should be inserted by the designer and only as needed for the print publication. Luckily, designers can just as easily search an InDesign file for discretionary hyphens they’ve inserted and remove them for the ebook version.

How you can make the world a more discretionary place

Next time you’re proofreading and you notice one of those manually added hyphens that buggers up a word, just mention discretionary hyphens to the designer. The designers I spoke to were happy to learn about them and were excited about the prospect of saving proofreading time and, more importantly, not inadvertently introducing errors.

Laurel Hyatt—The chart clinic (EAC conference 2013)

Laurel Hyatt gave us a quick tour of the system she uses to diagnose and treat ailing charts. Taking the medical metaphor further, she said that at the substantive editing stage, the goal is prevention; at the copy-editing stage, the goal is successful treatment; and at the proofreading stage, sometimes all we can do is try to keep the chart alive. The earlier you can intervene when you spot a poor chart, the better.

Charts are the trifecta of communication: numbers, words, and pictures. When they come together in harmony, said Hyatt, they can be a beautiful thing. If one or more of those elements goes wrong, the chart can be a dog’s breakfast.

Charts should tell a story. Hyatt showed us examples functional and dysfunctional charts in each of four of the most popular types of charts. Here is just a sample of her advice:

Bar charts


  • make the y-axis begin at 0. Doing otherwise could exaggerate the difference between two bars and be misleading.
  • show scales (such as years) in even increments.


  • use more than about ten bars per chart.
  • use more precision in number labels than necessary.

If you have too little data, consider using text instead. If there’s too much data, try a table. Even-year time series may work better as a line chart, and parts of a whole that add up to 100% may work better as a pie chart.

Line charts


  • use a scale that clearly shows changes over time (or whatever you’re measuring on the x-axis).
  • use even increments of time (or whatever you’re measuring on the x-axis)


  • use too many lines. Even with a legend, crowded lines will be confusing and hard to interpret.

When you have uneven increments of time, a bar chart might be a better choice; if you have too many lines, a bar chart or table might be more appropriate. If the data don’t change enough over time, consider using text.

Pie charts

Data visualization specialists like Edward Tufte dislike pie charts, but Hyatt believes that they can serve a function when the aim isn’t to do any precision comparisons.


  • use pie charts to show parts of a whole.


  • use fewer than three or more than about six slices.
  • use more than one pie to compare apples and oranges.
  • use slices that represent 0%.

If you have too many slices, or the slices are too thin, a bar chart or table might work better. If there are only two slices, summarize the data as text. Changes in time are better compared using a line chart rather than separate pie charts.


We don’t come across too many pictographs in our work, but they can be very effective when done creatively. You can suggest using them at the developmental and substantive editing stages if you think they work well to get the message across.


  • use proportionate size to indicate data.


  • use a pictograph just because it looks cool.
  • use three-dimensional objects to represent anything other than volume.

Too often, said Hyatt, when there’s geographically sensitive data, people default to using some kind of map, but maps are not always the most effective choices, especially if you’re expected to compare data between locations. Opt for other types of charts, tables, or text if the data you’re representing is very technical or if it has to be shown precisely.

Further resources

The Alcuin Society honours Will Rueter and The Aliquando Press

The Alcuin Society gave its sixth annual Robert R. Reid Award and Medal for lifetime achievement in the book arts to Will Rueter—teacher, printmaker, bookbinder, graphic designer, one-time senior designer at the University of Toronto Press, and founder of The Aliquando Press, a private press based in Dundas, Ontario. To celebrate this honour, the Alcuin Society invited Rueter and fellow private press owner Rollin Milroy (of Heavenly Monkey) to sit down for an informal interview and chat.

To kick off the evening, Alcuin board member Ralph Stanton acknowledged Leah Gordon, who helped organize the event, as well as special guests in the audience—patron Yosef Wosk; Don McLeod, editor of The Devil’s Artisan magazine; Stan Bevington of Coach House Press; typographer Rod McDonald; Chester and Camilla Gryski of Toronto; and of course Will Rueter himself. Stanton introduced Rueter, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, who established The Aliquando Press in 1963 and has published over one hundred books and broadsheets, as well as interviewer Rollin Milroy, who, through Heavenly Monkey, has published about three dozen books, the archives of which are housed in Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC Library.

Milroy began his interview by asking Rueter about his background; as it turns out, Rueter’s family has a long history in the book arts. His grandfather’s brother was a Dutch artist who created patterned papers, some of which found its way into Rueter’s Majesty, Order and Beauty: Selections from the Journals of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Rueter’s father was a printmaker as well, although because his parents were divorced, Rueter never got a chance to see his father’s private press.

He travelled to Europe to meet his Dutch family in 1960, and he lived in London for ten months. “I had no money but was able to find a small job and soak up whatever I could,” he said. When he got the opportunity to see the Book of Kells, which was being exhibited at the Royal Academy on loan from Ireland, he became excited about the physical properties of the book.

Rueter returned to Canada, where he worked for while in a bookstore and discovered the work of Frank Newfeld. He became inspired to be a book designer and wanted to be able to do everything himself. The hurdle, Rueter explained, was that he knew nothing about making books.

Rueter bought a tabletop press and, under the mentorship of Stan Bevington, began to design and print. It was an exciting time for typography in Ontario, said Rueter: advertising design was strong, and that aesthetic seeped out into book design. Private presses were experimenting with exciting ways of presenting information, poetry, and essays. With the encouragement of designer and typographer Leslie (Sam) Smart, Rueter returned to Europe in 1968 and spent three months reading, looking at time, and visiting the Monotype Works. When he returned to Canada, he had no job, and he applied for a graphic design position at the University of Toronto Press.

Milroy asked if Rueter was interested in publishing generally or in academic publishing specifically. Rueter replied that he would have been happy with any job in publishing but he was lucky to have ended up at the University of Toronto Press, saying that his boss, Allan Fleming, gave him an awful lot of confidence. Rueter noted that scholarly publishing pushed him to find creative ways of tackling what he called “the minutiae of scholarly design”—the bits and pieces including footnotes, block quotes, tables, charts, and images—and he adapted many of those ideas to his work at The Aliquando Press, which occupied his evenings and weekends.

Rueter told us that he and Jim Rimmer shared a mentor in Paul Duensing. Duensing loved monotype machines and designed and cast his own type. He owned his own foundry and was in the unique position of being a one-man shop. Through Duensing, Rueter met Leonard Bahr of Adagio Press. Bahr, said Rueter, was a type-A personality—“He was once hospitalized because he found a typo in a book he’d just printed,” Rueter said, prompting raucous laughter. “He was totally passionate about type and books.” Bahr had wanted to write a book on private printing and even set some of it in type, but he never completed it. Miraculously, Rueter said, he’d kept Bahr’s galley proofs, and on the fiftieth anniversary of The Aliquando Press, Rueter printed Pressing Matters, a book in Bahr’s honour. Bahr’s first two chapters became the first two essays of the book; Bahr had written an outline for the subsequent chapters but hadn’t gotten any further. Pressing Matters also included correspondence from Paul Duensing and a contribution about the economics of the private press publishing from Rollin Milroy. Rueter contributed an afterword, “Printing Is Pleasure,” about the state of the private press today.

“What about the future?” Rollin Milroy asked. “I can’t make any prognostications,” Rueter answered, adding that he hopes the private press will continue to exist even if technological changes mean that the physical book may not exist at a commercial scale. “I can’t imagine not having a private press,” said Rueter, explaining that he feels he’s been able to hide behind the press—that the discipline of making books has forged his sense of self and has been a kind of salvation for him. He hopes that in the future we uphold “the importance of the text—always the text—because that’s what we work for.”

Milroy showed some examples of Rueter’s hand lettering, asking, “Do you think it’s important for people interested in the graphic arts to render letters by hand?”

“Absolutely,” answered Rueter. “It’s important to appreciate the subtlety of letterforms,” as well as the relationships between them. He mentioned that he’d tried to design his own typeface, but it was clunky and just didn’t work. “Letterforms are not necessarily type,” he elaborated. They have their own rules and disciplines when they become type.”

Rollin Milroy mentioned that he and Rueter both shared a strong interest in music, as well as a desire to express that interest through printing and books. “Why do you see these two media overlapping?” Rueter admitted that he has great difficulty with music and that he can’t read it. But he says he can’t print without music. “Letterpress printing and private printing have a kind of parallel relationship with early music,” he said. Whereas a piano is refined, he explained, earlier instruments such as harpsichords and lutes have a kind of tension; you get sour notes if they are not well tuned, much like a letterpress.

How, asked Milroy, does someone wanting to create their own press today get started? “Talk to anyone who’s actually printing,” said Rueter. “Read the classics.” He recommended several titles, including

  • D.B. Updike’s Printing Types
  • Just My Type by Simon Garfield
  • The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree
  • Letterpress Now by Jessica White

“Be devoted to printing, want to learn,” said Rueter. “There is no money to be made, but you can have a lot of fun.” He added that one of the joys of letterpress these days is the flexibility to experiment offered by polymer plates.

Milroy asked Rueter which of his own books were his favourite. Rueter mentioned the following:

  • The Articulation of Time, a book he printed twenty years ago, “the first time I really became aware of my own mortality,” he said. The book features a lot of quotations and poetry that had meaning to him at the time.
  • Diary of an Amaryllis, which features colour reproductions of drawings by Rueter’s wife, who illustrated the life cycle of an amaryllis plant.
  • Majesty, Order and Beauty, the diary of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Rueter described Sanderson (1840–1922) as “one of the most complex people. He started life as a barrister but then became the best bookbinder of the nineteenth century. He wrote journals and was an important figure in the early fine-press movement.”

“Private printers do work in very strange ways,” Rueter said. He offered a quote from Henry James, saying “He’s talking about writing, but I think it says a lot about private printing and its frustrations: ‘We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we can… The rest is madness of art.”

The evening ended with a tribute from last year’s Robert R. Reid recipient, Stan Bevington, who said of Rueter’s work, “Every letter has been picked up by hand. And his choice of paper is exquisite… As a designer at the University of Toronto Press, the largest university press in Canada, Will Rueter made a great contribution to setting high standards for commercial printing.” At Aliquando, Bevington added, Rueter is involved in every aspect: selecting texts, editing, designing, writing, illustrating, setting type, and printing. He has come a long way from his first book, A Bach Fugue, which Rueter derided as having “derivative design and poor inking” to the impressive opus of Majesty, Order and Beauty, which was his hundredth publication.

Each of the audience members got to go home with a special keepsake—a gorgeously printed and incisive quote from Latin grammarian Terentianus: “Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli”—or “The fate of books depends on the capacity of the reader.”

What does your markup say about you?

This interview also appears on The Editors’ Weekly, the Editors’ Association of Canada’s official blog.


A friend of mine was venting to me about his old boss, who used to look over his reports. Whenever his boss found an error, he’d not only circle it but also emphasize his discovery with an exclamation point—a practice that drove my buddy nuts. Encoded within this tiny mark of punctuation was his micromanaging boss’s chiding disapproval: “HEY! THERE’S A MISTAKE RIGHT HERE! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”

I was relating this story to my good friend Naomi MacDougall, an award-winning designer, and she told me she once had to work with a proofreader whose markup she found “overly aggressive.” We both had a good laugh about that, but the conversation got me thinking: Whereas most of us have switched to editing on screen, a lot of us still proof on hard copy, and our markup is often the only communication we have with a designer, whom we may not know and may never meet. It’s a bit of a weird working relationship—more distant than others in the publication production chain. How can we be sure that our markup isn’t inadvertently pissing off the designer? I asked Naomi to sit down for an interview to talk about some of these issues.

IC: When you mentioned that a proofreader you’d worked with had “overly aggressive markup,” what did you mean by that? What did the proofreader do that rubbed you the wrong way?

NM: Mostly it was the use of all caps and lots of exclamation points at the end of every note. It made me feel as though I was being yelled at. The tone of the markup put me on the defensive.

IC: Are there other things proofreaders have done that you wish they wouldn’t do?

NM: There have been times when the markup hasn’t been clear, and obviously that’s tricky. It’s frustrating to have to sit there and puzzle over what a letter is. Also, occasionally, I feel like the markup has left too much for interpretation. Because we’re often going through these changes quickly, I don’t want to have to be deciphering code.

On the flip side, if something is very obvious in the markup—like if a letter is dropped or a word inserted into a sentence—then you don’t have to spell it out again by rewriting the sentence in the margin. But when there are lots of moving words and punctuation marks in a sentence, it’s really helpful if the proofreader rewrites the sentence in the margin.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like as much clarity as possible in markup. I’m intelligent, but I’m not a mind reader.

IC: When there’s a problem like a bad break or a widow, would you prefer that the proofreader just point out the problem so that you can find a solution, or would you rather the proofreader suggest a fix?

NM: That’s a good question. In most cases I would say just point out the problem, unless it’s obvious it’s going to be very tricky to fix—then it’s hugely appreciated when the proofreader suggests a fix, especially if it involves cutting or inserting words.

IC: What’s your preference when there are more extensive passages of text that need to be inserted? How long would an insert have to be before it’s better to send you new text in an email rather than writing it in the margin for you to rekey?

NM: I would say I’d want new text for anything longer than one sentence or two short sentences. There’s just more room for error when I have to type a bunch of text. And if you’re moving more than, say, four words around in a sentence, just rewrite the sentence and have me retype it. It takes less time than moving all those words around and making sure they’re all in the right place.

IC: I think you were telling me earlier that different proofreaders approach word substitutions differently. Some mark a word as deleted and then add a caret to show that a word in the margin should be inserted, whereas others just cross out the word in the proof and write its replacement in the margin, without the caret.

NM: Yes, I like the caret. I find it clearer.

IC: It’s a visual cue for the designer to look in the margin.

NM: Exactly. It takes out that second of guesswork.

IC: Which can really add up!

NM: Yes!

IC: Is there anything else proofreaders do that you really appreciate?

NM: I always appreciate a neat printer, and I always appreciate it when a proofreader uses a bright ink, like red or purple or anything that stands out against the type. Often I’m scanning a page quickly, and if the markup is in pencil or black or blue pen, I tend to miss more of the changes. They don’t jump off the page as easily, so I have to take more time to look at each page closely.

Also, I really appreciate it when the proofreader suggests a global change at the beginning of document if a word is misspelled throughout. It’s so much quicker for me to search and replace these in one go. But I also like it when these words are highlighted in the text so that I can double-check that the change was made and check for reflow, since, during a global change, there’s always the potential for a line to break differently.

IC: Do you ever return communication on the proofs? What kinds of things to you say to the proofreader?

NM: Not often, but if I do it’s almost always a note that a change can’t be made because of reflow issues—mostly to do with hyphenation. And occasionally I’ll make note of a design style that overrules a type change.

IC: We’ve focused on hard-copy markup so far. Any thoughts about proofreaders working on PDF?

NM: I know in some instances I’ve missed smaller fixes in PDFs, like a change to one letter or a punctuation change, because they’ll just show up as tiny, tiny marks, and they’re easy to miss even in the full list of changes. If you click on the markup and add a short comment to it, though, it pops up as a little box, so it jumps out.

PDFs are great for shorter publications; I can copy and paste the text right out of the markup boxes, so that makes my life easy! But for a big book, hard copy is preferable. Having to go back and forth between windows on the computer is the issue.

IC: How much does it annoy designers when we make a change on first proofs and reverse it on second?

NM: It’s not usually a big deal—unless it’s a complete change from Canadian to U.S. spelling throughout, say. If that ping-pongs, then it can get annoying—though I’m sure it is for everyone involved! In that case a note about global changes is hugely appreciated.

IC: What can a proofreader do to ensure that the relationship with the designer is as collegial and productive as it can be, given that it’s such a bizarre, arms-length interaction?

NM: If markup is done professionally, then the relationship will be smooth. Just be clear, be thorough, and print neatly… and no all-caps yelling!

IC: Yes! I think those are all of my questions. Do you have anything to add?

NM: Just that I appreciate how much work goes into a thorough proofread, and I don’t know how you all do it! Sometimes your hawk eyes blow my mind!

What every designer needs to know about people

Behavioural psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk (@thebrainlady) teamed up with the folks at to offer a free webinar about some of the things designers have to keep in mind about the way our brains work. Weinschenk is the author of 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People (as well as the upcoming book How to Get People to Do Stuff). She couldn’t cover all hundred of her points in the webinar but gave us a run-down of ten of her favourites:

10. People pay attention only to what is salient

Weinschenk showed us a photo of several pennies that had its components—the year, the face, etc.—shuffled around into various positions and different directions. Even though we all handle pennies practically every day, it wasn’t easy to identify which was the correct penny in the photo. Weinschenk used this demo to show that people don’t see everything in front of them; they’re going to notice only what’s most important or most interesting to them.

9. People use peripheral vision to get the gist of the scene

Research by Adam Larson and Lester Loschky published in the Journal of Vision revealed that we can identify objects in the periphery more quickly and accurately than we can identify objects in our central vision, particularly if the information we’re receiving is emotionally charged or may indicate danger. We tend to process stuff that’s in the periphery unconsciously. A lot of design is focused on the central vision—what’s considered “prime real estate” in design—but Weinschenk suggests that we shouldn’t neglect the space around the centre and could use it to evoke a certain emotional reaction in the user.

8. Readers assume that if an instruction is written in a hard-to-read or overly decorative font, the task it’s asking you to do will be hard

Weinschenk notes that there isn’t much difference in the way we read serif versus sans-serif type, as long as it’s large enough and readable. If an instruction is in a hard-to-read font, however, not only do users overestimate the amount of time the task would take, but they are also less likely to follow the instruction, reducing compliance.

7. Miller’s Law is an urban legend

Miller’s Law states that we can store 7±2 items in our short-term memory. More recent research shows, however, that we can really remember and deal with only three to four items at a time.

6. Too many choices can be demotivating

People love to have choices, but having too many can turn them off. Sheena S. Iyengar of Columbia  University and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford published a study in which they offered one group of consumers a choice of tasting six types of jam and another group a choice of twenty-four choices. Although only 40% of the first group stopped to taste the jam, compared with 60% of the second group, 30% of the tasters purchased jam, compared with 3% of the tasters offered more choice. This point is especially important when considering navigation or know how many items to show on one screen.

5. Most mental processing is unconscious

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, documented two levels of thinking:

  • System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, effortless
  • System 2 thinking is analytical and takes conscious effort. (This is what you do when you’re solving a complex math problem in your head, say.)

Most of the thinking we do is System 1 thinking (System 2 thinking is something we have to engage, and when that happens we have a physiological response: our pupils dilate). As a result, most users are susceptible to priming.

Numbers are powerful priming tools; Weinschenk gave the example that saying “Limit 12 cans of soup per person” compelled consumers to buy an average of seven cans, whereas saying “No limit” compelled consumers to buy an average of three cans. Seeing the number 12 primed them. This point is particularly important when it comes to money, because researchers have discovered that the presence or discussion of money changes people’s behaviour. Weinschenk encourages us to build a relationship with a client first, before mentioning the price of a product or service.

Interestingly, Weinschenk told us that if a riddle or puzzle is written in a hard-to-read or overly decorative font, people get it right more often than when the same riddle is in a readable font, suggesting that the decorative font triggers System 2 thinking. She proposed the radical idea that you should use harder-to-read fonts when you want a user to stop and think carefully about something.

4. People have mental models

People come into new situations with preconceptions and expectations based on their past experiences. Everything has an interface, and that interface conveys the model on which the product is based. The better you understand that mental model and create your product to conform to it, the easier your product will be to use. Weinschenk suggests that, before you do any actual design work, you build in a step to purposely design a conceptual model that matches your user’s mental model.

3. We have two types of communities: those with weak ties and those with strong ties

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar analyzed the optimal size of a community of various species and applied the model to humans. For us, a community of 150 people or fewer is usually a “strong tie” community—we know all of the members personally, and we know the relationships between members. Falling outside of these criteria are “weak tie” communities. “Strong” and “weak” are used as anthropological terms here; strong isn’t better than weak, but designers should be aware of what kind of community they’re designing something for.

2. Speaker and listener brains sync together

Researchers Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson discovered that when a speaker successfully communicates something to a listener, their brains sync up: functional MRI scans show that the same areas of the brain light up in both parties, an effect not seen with writing and reading. Incorporating multimedia in your communications—audio in particular—is much more powerful having than text alone.

1. There’s a part of the brain that makes us focus on faces

The fusiform facial area (FFA) is a part of the brain that processes visual information about human faces. Faces can instantly convey emotional information and so are very powerful images for designers to use. Weinschenk showed us that as a corollary, images that distort the normal proportions of a human face can be extremely off-putting.


Many of these points have interesting implications for editors and plain language specialists. I’m especially intrigued now about the threshold at which System 2 thinking kicks in. Weinschenk showed that System 1 thinking often leads to the wrong answer when a problem is logically tricky. How can we improve our communications so that we can ensure the correct message gets through without having readers engage their System 2 thinking? And how do we, along with designers, find fonts that will spur System 2 thinking when appropriate but that don’t reduce user compliance?

Introduction to information graphics and data visualization

Alberto Cairo, author of The Functional Art, found my review of his book and wrote me a very gracious note to let me know about an online course he’s teaching about infographics and data visualization. The first offering of the six-week course began October 28 and saw an enrolment of 2,000 students; a second offering is scheduled for January 2013. It’s completely free, and you can register here.

Cairo tells me that although he designed the course with journalists in mind, the diversity of backgrounds among his current students is huge, from epidemiology to statistics to cartography—as well as journalism.

The course, he says, will help fill in the gaps I identified in The Functional Art—namely, the details of how to put the theory he presents into practice. Further, he’s at work on another book that focuses more on that aspect of information visualization. If it’s as cogent and clear as The Functional Art, it will be a valuable reference indeed.