During my freshman year of college, my journalism adviser encouraged me to specialize in graphic design. Up until then, I had always envisioned myself spending my years banging out sentences and paragraphs on a computer (somewhat like I am doing right now except in a newsroom).
I entered the journalism world as a reporter and left it as a graphic designer and production director 17 years later. Interestingly, while the jobs were very different, they both stressed the importance of something: a well-written headline as part of visual hierarchy.
Writing headlines as a reporter
Headline writing was a course all of its own in my collegiate journalism curriculum. Even though I switched my specialty early on, I was still required to take it.
The course was aimed at reporters and editors. I remember the professor taught us that reporters should write a story with a headline in mind and include a suggested headline when they turned it in to the editors. On the editing side, we were taught to scrutinize that suggested headline and ensure that it was appropriate, accurate and clever. We were also told to avoid cliches when writing headlines. While I can’t remember all the rules, I found this Guide to Writing Headlines from the Poynter Institute that complements what I was taught in my course.
Headlines as part of visual hierarchy
In my graphic design courses, we were taught the term hierarchy. This referred to the way people ultimately read (or rather scanned) a newspaper or magazine page with their eyes. Based on focus group studies, it was found that before a person decided to actually read a story, they first scanned the page to get an understanding of the story. The visual points of the design were crucial to help them come to this understanding. The studies determined that visual hierarchy gave readers the priority of importance of the information on a page.
There are many aspects to a design that determine visual hierarchy. Some, but not all, include:
- Captions for images
- Pulled quotes
The order in which I listed the items above is generally the order many designers agree is what readers focus on first when scanning a printed page. In some cases, I have seen the order switched with images first and headlines second; but it’s still obvious that headlines are an important part of the visual hierarchy.
There are also other factors that play into visual hierarchy such as typography, font size, color and positioning. For example, a headline with a font size of 42 points would be considered of higher importance than a headline at 24 points. The story with the larger headline would probably be positioned near the top of the page.
Headlines beyond print
Today, as a regular blogger (writer), editor and website designer, what I learned in my journalism courses about writing headlines and visual hierarchy is still relevant. Below are the general rules I follow within those three areas.
As a blogger (writer), I begin writing with a headline in mind. While it might not be the final pick, it helps to shape and outline the story I want to tell. I also take pains to include several subheads within the content to separate different thoughts and transition between them.
As an editor, I read the headline first and then the story (blog post). I ask myself questions such as:
- Does the headline accurately portray what the story is about?
- Is it a cliche and, if so, does it work or is it just cute? (If it’s just cute, it usually has to go.)
- Do the subheads break up thoughts and help with transition?
As a designer for both online and print, I usually sketch out the layout on paper (much like the image with this post) before I turn to the computer. I think through the content, color, positioning, etc. to create the best visual hierarchy I can. Here’s a quick guide on creating visual hierarchy online that I bookmarked a long time ago as a reminder.
Now forget everything I just said …
While I normally dislike cliches, there is one that I use repeatedly when working with headlines as content creation and visual hierarchy:
Rules are meant to be broken.
At the beginning of any project, I generally follow the guidelines I’ve listed above; but if I can come up with a good reason to break away from them, I will.
How do you approach headlines (or titles for that matter) in your blogging and/or designing?