Five Quick Tricks for Highlighting Information

For just about any document you create, highlighting information is important to increase readability and make information easy to scan. When creating a résumé, for example, your name and headings really ought to stand out above the rest. In the days of the typewriter, your only real option for highlighting information was to capitalize text and underline it. Nowadays there is so much we can do, but far too many people still resort to underlining and capitalizing text. If you’re stumped for a few good ways to highlight your name or headings or other pertinent information in a document, here are five quick tricks for highlighting:

Quick Trick #1: Use Contrast
Contrast comes in many different forms. The biggest idea with contrast, though, is that there is a real clear, visible difference between one element on a page and another (especially if they are right next to each other). So, for example, if you have a heading in a report and you make the font size a 13-point font, it will not stand out very much against 12-point text. Or, if you use Times New Roman as your typeface in the heading, but you use Palatino Linotype in the body text, they will look too similar. Making items on a page similar in size, color, or typeface negates the highlighting and even looks like a mistake to viewers, creating visual confusion. One idea (but there are many) for creating contrast with typefaces is to use a sans serif font for the heading (like Arial or Helvetica) and a serif font for the text (like Garamond or Times). A good rule for creating contrast with type size is make a heading at least 3 points larger than the text below it (or, for a title or name on a résumé, make it much larger than that.

Quick Trick #2: Consider Color
Depending on the use of your document, you may not want to use color (if, for example, it will be sent via fax machine). But when appropriate, colors can really make information pop out. In the digital age, colors are much more common even in professional documents like reports and résumés. You may wish to use a dark orange, for example, for your headings to contrast with black body text. Or, you might highlight a single word (like “Caution” or “Warning” in instructions) with a color like red, as long as you stay consistent within the document and use colors that don’t clash and are dark and easy to read.

Quick Trick #3: Avoid Underlining; Stick to Boldface and Italics
Any more, in the world of visual communication, underlining text is usually considered a no-no. That isn’t to say you can’t use rules (lines that go across an entire page), but simply underlining text is visually noisy and detracts from a document’s professionalism. Boldface is generally considered the preferred method for highlighting text within a paragraph or any text other than a heading, but italics works well, too, if you want to more subtlely highlight information.

Quick Trick #4: Try Inversing
Inverse text is type on a solid background (like white type on a black bar). Inverse text can be useful (in fact, it can make information pop out almost more than any other highlighting method), but it can also be a visual eyesore. When using reverse type, keep these three things in mind: 1) use clearly contrasting colors, on really light and one really dark, that don’t clash with each other (and never do red on blue or vice versa!); 2) don’t use typefaces with really thin or delicate features (heavy fonts like Impact or Arial Black work better); and 3) only do inverse type once on a page—its purpose is to really zero in on one really important thing (overuse is usually taxing on the eyes).

Quick Trick #5: DON’T USE ALL CAPS (for the most part)
All caps are acceptable for one- or two-word phrases or, perhaps, for a title or heading. But words written in all caps are hard to read, especially if there are many of them next to each other. We are trained to read in shapes (not every single letter) and when words are written in all caps, the shapes disappear and all words look blocky. Worse, perhaps, words written in all caps can appear like you are yelling at the reader.

Just as a general rule, you’ll never want to highlight more than 10% of any document. Remember that the more you highlight, the less it seems like you’re highlighting anything.