Rules or white space for separating rows and columns?

Subject: Rules or white space for separating rows and columns?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Milan Davidovic <milan -dot- lists -at- gmail -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 17 Jun 2008 16:40:41 -0400

Milan Davidovic reported the following advice: <<From Carolyn Rude,
"Technical Editing" 2nd ed., p. 167: "Vertical and horizontal lines
(rules) separating rows and columns are discouraged except for highly
complex tables because the lines clutter the table with visual noise.
White space is the preferred method for separating rows and columns.
Too much space between columns, however, may result in inaccurate
reading because the eye may skip to a lower or higher row.">>

Good basic advice, but not to be taken as a rule <ahem> of nature.
Rude is certainly correct that you don't want the table to look like
a sheet of graph paper, but absolutely forbidding the use of lines is
going too far. The basic principle can be boiled down to "use the
minimum number of rules necessary to visually group related data and
separate it from unrelated groups of data; where possible, use white
space instead of a line". You can easily tell if white space provides
sufficient distinction by walking back about 10 feet* and looking at
the table: if you can see distinct rows and columns using white space
alone, you don't need lines. If adjacent lines blur together, you
need more space or an occasional line to group things appropriately.

* Your distance may vary. <g> The point is that you should see the
rows as single objects, not as individual words.

For example, you'll often see a very simple format in which the
column titles are bordered on top and bottom only by a line that
separates them from the text above the table and the rows below the
titles that contain the table's data; a final horizontal line at the
bottom of the table separates it from the text that follows. That's
very effective without creating visually intrusive numbers of lines.

For cell data that align neatly (e.g., all left justified or decimal
aligned), you don't usually need vertical lines, because it's easy to
scan vertically downwards without skipping to another column.
Horizontal lines are more necessary, particularly in wide tables,
because it's more easy to skip lines. So you'll often find it
necessary to insert horizontal lines or white space, but not vertical

<<Right now, I'm building a template in the shadow of legacy
documentation that is chock full of tables, almost all of which make
full use of rules to separate rows and columns; relatively few of
these tables are "complex". If I follow Rude's advice, I'm pretty
sure I'll experience some opposition.>>

If everyone is enamored of the lines, the most effective approach is
to eliminate some, but not all, of the lines: cut out any lines that
don't help, and retain the ones that do. Odds are good nobody will
notice. If you're old enough to remember the paper used for line
printers (and some smaller dot matrix printers), you'll be familiar
with another alternative that often works even better than white
space and lines: use light color shading to group rows of data. For
example, a 10% or 20% grey can be used to group one set of adjacent
rows, and the absence of this shading for the next group of rows
provides a clear but not distracting visual separation.

This works best where the groups of data are roughly equal in size
(number of lines); it can produce distracting variation in the amount
of color on the page if the groups vary widely in size.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
***Now available*** _Effective onscreen editing_

Print version:


Create HTML or Microsoft Word content and convert to Help file formats or
printed documentation. Features include support for Windows Vista & 2007
Microsoft Office, team authoring, plus more.

True single source, conditional content, PDF export, modular help.
Help & Manual is the most powerful authoring tool for technical
documentation. Boost your productivity!

You are currently subscribed to TECHWR-L as archive -at- web -dot- techwr-l -dot- com -dot-

To unsubscribe send a blank email to
techwr-l-unsubscribe -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
or visit

To subscribe, send a blank email to techwr-l-join -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com

Send administrative questions to admin -at- techwr-l -dot- com -dot- Visit for more resources and info.


Rules or white space for separating rows and columns?: From: Milan Davidovic

Previous by Author: Opinion on outline numbering for chapters/sections?
Next by Author: Seeking translation vendors?
Previous by Thread: Rules or white space for separating rows and columns?
Next by Thread: Re: Rules or white space for separating rows and columns?

What this post helpful? Share it with friends and colleagues:

Sponsored Ads