16 May 2013

Undo the underline

Next time you’re reading a book – or, indeed, any professionally typeset publication, whether it be a journal or a magazine or a newspaper – look for something. Look for underlined text. You know, like this.

I pulled a dozen different books off my bookshelf while writing this post. I opened them up at random, to a different two page spread. I scanned the pages. The number of underlines I saw was zero.

Yet I see people underlining stuff on posters all the time. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Underlining is the quickest and easiest way to emphasize text in handwriting. But everyone makes conference posters with computers, where other formatting tools are are available as air.
  2. The silly little underline button is visible in a prominent place on every piece of basic office software. It sits there, tempting you to press it. “Come on, baby. You’ve pressed pressed bold. You pressed italic. Why can’t you press me, too?”

Pro typesetters normally use italics for emphasis, particularly for long texts. You also see bold used for emphasis, but less often. Bold text is good for posters, however, because it is more recognizable when skimming text. An underline crosses and obscures the shape of descending letters, like g, j, and q, making the text harder to read.

Underlining is one of those little signs that scream “Amateur!” once you recognize it. Just don’t touch it.

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