List formats?

Subject: List formats?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Kirk Turner <royj -at- alltel -dot- net>
Date: Wed, 26 Apr 2006 09:18:40 -0400

Kirk Turner reports: <<We had a meeting yesterday with the content experts, and one of them made a snide remark about the "big fat bullets" that I used for the unordered lists. Actually, the bullets are standard size, but this content expert, a major architect in our state, likes the more eccentric bullets available in Word--you know, the fancy arrows.>>

A key rule of information design is that you should change features of the design to accomplish a specific purpose, not randomly because you're bored with the old design. Bullets serve the purpose of indicating a list item, and the standard round bullet is what everyone instantly recognizes. Change that standard only if you have a defensible reason.

If the emphasis is function over form, there's no reason whatsoever to change the standard bullet: it works just fine for its intended purpose, and is instantly recognizable. If the emphasis is form over function--a distinction certain self-important architects fail to recognize--then it's appropriate to look for something more fancy.

The decision criterion is as follows: are we trying to make it look good, or are we focusing on usability? The two are not inherently contradictory, but extreme advocates of form and function often try to make it seem like they are. What's important is to get your priorities straight, and work on secondary priorities only once the primary priorities are met.

<<Also, He suggested that all the ordered lists be lettered.>>

Was it accidental that you capped "He"? <g> In general, there are two types of lists: one in which the order is unimportant, and one in which it is. In the former case, use bullets (i.e., symbols that lack any inherent order). In the latter case, use either a number (most common) or a letter (not uncommon) to communicate the concept of order or sequence.

There's little theoretical difference between letters and numbers, since both clearly show sequence to any literate reader, though numbers may have a slight theoretical edge. However, there is an important practical difference: if the audience for this particular manual is familiar with one or the other style, then consistency suggests you should stick with that style.

Since you noted that you're closing on the deadline, it makes far more sense to focus on getting the content right rather than quibbling over trivial design details. Emphasize clarity and correctness of the content, and worry about the other details later. Nobody expects elegance from a government department, so nobody will be disappointed if your design isn't going to win any graphic design awards. They will be disappointed and will possibly suffer harm if the content sucks.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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List formats: From: Kirk Turner

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