Formatted lists question?

Subject: Formatted lists question?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Tammy Van Boening <tammy -dot- vanboening -at- fiserv -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 04 Jun 2007 17:15:07 -0400

Tammy Van Boening wondered: <<Have a question about formatting of
numbered lists and bulleted lists in regards to level of indentation.
I have scoured the web and reference books trying to find an
explicitly stated standard for this approach and I haven't found one>>

That's because this is more a matter of style than a matter of
"correctness", and styles vary. If you're using a specific style
guide that addresses this, follow their guidelines.

If not, think about the purpose of indentation: it's to clearly
distinguish items as belonging to a specific level of the hierarchy.
One standard rule of information design is that you should use as few
variations as possible to distinguish between two objects, so if
there's space between the number (or bullet) and the first word of
the text it introduces, that's all you need to identify the
information (by means of white space). Adding indentation on top of
this is overkill.

Alignment of second and subsequent lines of a bulleted or numbered
point is a matter of style, but think of it this way: aligning to the
tab stop (instead of beneath the bullet or number at the left margin)
makes the bullets and numbers stand out more clearly from the
background, and by forming a nice tidy left margin, simplifies
scanning. Does this approach provide an enormous and compelling
increase in usability over contrasting approaches. Possibly not. But
there's also some virtue to familiarity: all software I'm familiar
with follows this approach by default, suggesting that it's perceived
as a standard. Whatever the theoretical merits of a design guideline,
following reader expectations is always a good idea, so stick with
the standard unless you have compelling reasons to do otherwise.

<<I have some fellow authors, however, who want to start indenting
right off the bat with the first level lists>>

It's not wrong, but it's not necessary and it's not standard (again,
see the settings in most software for an example of what their
typographers consider to be standard practice).

<<It just looks really funky to me, gives you a truckload of
whitespace in procedural steps and moves everything way over to the
right as a result (especially for the lower level tags) - you get the

A useful question when pondering changes to a standard convention is
the following: "What advantage does this approach provide that the
standard approach does not?" If you can't demonstrate an advantage,
you should be asking yourself whether your job is font fondling (to
borrow a phrase) or communicating. For most of us, the latter is more
important. The overabundance of white space could be a significant
problem in online information, where screen real-estate may be at a
premium. On the other hand, it shouldn't be a major problem unless
you have more than two levels of indentation, and if you do, you
should be rethinking the structure of your document anyway.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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Formatted lists question: From: Van Boening, Tammy

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