Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Information Design: How To Format Big Long Lists

Chris Brogan is a maven when it comes to social media. He is one of the new rising stars of the independent, small media publishing world. On who has really gone out of his way to evangelize, share, listen and give out tons of great advice of what social media is and how it can be best used.

Photo credit: Billboard Magazine, Chris Brogan mashed by Robin Good

I strongly advise you to and check out Chris' great blog at as he really has a million great tips to make the best of the new social media universe.

I often read and listen to his great advice myself, and I am astonished at the amount of time he actually spends going out of his way to directly help people out. I don't think I have ever seen someone like him before.

And so I have decided to give something back to Chris. Share something of what I know best that could help him most. Communicate most effectively with these new media technologies at our disposal.

Nonetheless Chris is true social media maven by all measures, he, like anyone else publishing online, is not born a new media literate or a visual communication expert. He, like anyone else can immensely benefit from learning a thing or two about how to make content more legible, accessible, engaging and memorable. Just like he recommends in his own advice!

Fo this very purpose I am taking up Chris' recent and excellent "100 Personal Branding Tactics Using Social Media" which he published a few weeks ago with the intent of sharing a comprehensive quick-guide to personal online branding with a strong emphasis on social media marketing.

Again, the contents, are great, (I actually think that you Chris have an index for a fantastic cool little useful book right there), but let's look at how the same information could be presented better and in a more effective ways. this is a very big list, and shoving down a web page throwing in only as many good ideas as possible is good yes, but there is opportunity for broader reach.

Here some specific advice for anyone who like Chris Brogan who wants to present a big cool list of valuable stuff.




How To Format Big Lists

1) Legibility Is First


If you write for a grown-up audience that includes non-techies use a typeface size that is as legible as you can make it. Since you are not paying for extra web space used by your text, make your reader experience more enjoyable by putting less strain on those reading eyes.

Larger text not only is more readable, but if properly selected looks more friendly and more in tune with the web 2.0 much sought-after "feel", giving it an extra appeal.

One additional legibility variable, few are aware of, is line length. By controlling how many words appear in a text line you can significantly facilitate reading ability. As longer lines are harder to follow (especially after a line break), the shorter a line of text is the easier is to read and to follow through the ensuing text. An ideal reference measure is about ten to twelve words per line, considering a typical font and an average text size.


2) Rule of Seven


When listing stuff never go beyond having six or seven items in each discrete visual group. Your brain can't easily pick up and memorize individual items when they are grouped together in large numbers.

If your big list has more than seven items, break it down in several sub-lists.

Shorter lists look more accessible as it is much easier for us to memorize a few items in a small group than the same total number when mixed up in a longer list.

3) Visual Communication - Information Design


Understanding that also text documents are visual information entities and that our eyes will explore and scan them by following very specific patterns it is of the highest value if one's own goal is not just to impress but one of communicating effectively, while helping the reader enjoy his experience and making it as memorable, smooth and unique as possible. In this light pressing together so much content in such little virtual space, does not help anyone. Especially on the web, where space doesn't cost any extra money, effective communicators should not try to fit the largest amount of text in the minimum possible space.

Space by itself, including line breaks, leading, paragraph spacing and margins is one of the key components that influences how legible and easy to follow the text in front of us appears. Using space as a live and dynamic information component can drastically change the perception and initial impressions a long text will send off to a potential reader.

The better the empty space is organized, by utilizing fundamental information design and typography principles, the cleaner, more legible and professionally looking the content will appear.


4) Use Images


Images communicate better than a million words. Yes, one effective image can say a lot more than a lot of text but one great image TOGETHER with an effective title can really be unbeatable. The art of combining effective titles with perfectly fitting images, which do not simply illustrate (unless you are reporting news) but which complement, synergize and augment the overall meaning of the message being conveyed is really as powerful, as rare a skill to find in the online world. For the most it remains in the hands of highly skilled art directors, inside print magazines and newspapers.

Re the issue Chris Brogan raises about why images work is very simple: text is a language we learn later in our lives. Images come first in our way of comprehending the world, and due to the pervasive presence of visual perceptions and man-made images used for communication since our very early days, images have a much stronger foothold inside our personal communication systems.

What goes often unnoted is that both the visual and aural perceptions we encounter during our young age are highly permeated by emotional charges, which, even later in life, will keep their influence on our immediate reaction to them. Images therefore can pack a lot of punch in a very efficient package, by being powerful triggers and communicators of specific ideas, emotions, concepts which can be conveyed "at-a-glance".


5) Learn How To Choose Images That Work


But notwithstanding how easy it may appear, how to select appropriate images to complement specific content, this has shown over time to be one of the most challenging tasks for most writers.

It is a deep lack of visual communication training and experience, as well a missed awareness of art and media literacy that prevents most of us from being capable of even the most basic image selection skills. Yes, you slap a cool image on the article and you feel you have done a fantastic job. In reality the fantastic job is only the fact that you have moved from text-only content to text and images, and you have learned where to click to do so reliably.

But when it comes to knowing how to select those very images most of us ave no clue at all, outside of trying to "picture" or "illustrate" the idea to be conveyed. Out of all possible methods to find an effective image for a piece of content, this is by far the least effective and the hardest to execute in many cases.

Your effort, if you want to start learning this truly valuable art should be in abstracting and conceptualizing the idea you want to visually communicate and then to "simplify" it by looking for an image of a symbol, object or icon that is easily recognizable and has specific connotations for most of the people in the culture(s) you need to communicate to.


6) Make Your Content As Scanable As You Can


On the web people do not ever read a page as they do with a print book. They are more likely to use a scanning pattern similar to the one they use when checking out a newspaper or a magazine. The scan through the page searching for elements or clues that match some of their present interests and needs.

People also do not see a page as a whole, they normally see it as many discrete small parts that they can explore individually. Orchestrating the layout of your information in ways that facilitate the reader information scanning activity can only help the reader find what she is looking for while making her experience more enjoyable.

Separate different sections with a good amount of empty visual space. Extra space doesn't cost you anything. Put some good extra white space between one section and the next and your content will look less heavy, more professional and easier to scan.


7) Use Good, Visible Bullets


Simplicity always pays off. One way to make your big list items stand out is to use "text indenting" and bullets to make it individual items more scanable and distinct from each other. If your bullets are microsized, light colored or showing a decorative element, they may defeat their own purpose as original and highly visible signposts. Remember: what you are after here too is legibility and ease of scanning the content, not an effort in trying to make it "cuter".

Having a hundred bullets lines one after the other defeats the purpose of bulleted points: summary. This is why it is also important to limit bulleted lists to small groups of possibly not more than 6-7 items.

Think of the bullet as a visual hook point for your reader. You can achieve the same effect by simply using indenting, spacing and bold any time you wish to give extra visibility to a specific chunk of text inside your content.


8) Provide Extra Depth - Proof


Especially when recommending things, tools or methods you know or claim to know about, provide links to previous articles and published content that explores the matter in greater depth. Yes it is good to know that "you should do this..." but what do you really mean by "that" and how is it really done? If you ain't going to tell them, you should at least make it easy for them to explore further and find out more. That's a great way to add value. Link to it.

If your readers know all of the tools and services you mention then you are doing a great job already, but if some good number of them may have never used the ones you mention, it is not a bad idea to provide a straight link for them to go and try them out. You may be the avant-garde or a top expert in your sector and knowing certain tools may be a given, but who comes to read you may be exploring the field for the first time. Helping these persons find and verify easily what you claim and say goes a long way to show that you are not there just to shout your personal opinions.

Links to other authors, writers, experts, are not only a valuable resource addition, but do work in favor of increasing your credibility and authority. Unless you are ALREADY an established expert in your field, the use, referencing and linking of other relevant authors adds to your credibility while providing value to your audience.


9) Titling


Titles are essential communication components even in a big list, as they are often charged with the role of labeling groups of items appropriately and act therefore as critical navigation milestones. Here too, the task appears generally easier than it really is, simply because very few have had actually any formal training in studying how effective titles for web-based lists must be created.

In practical terms, there is more a lot more science than art in writing effective titles, especially if effectiveness is measured not only in terms of reader's greater navigational ease but also by increased search engine visibility.


10) Avoid Repetition


Always avoid repeating item descriptors or any other similar redundant information. Stay with the theme of your list and eliminate any additional content that is not strictly informative. Move out redundant items to the title of the section or to a note below it.

Little Things Make a BIG Difference

Yes, you may say that these are all little details and that what counts is only the content.

Placing content out there on the net, is not the best way to communicate something if one is really interested in getting a message across to as many people as possible.

If one not only writes great content, but works hard at making sure that the way this content is served makes it easier for the find it, read through it, understand it, then one is doing the best and most appropriate actions to communicate effectively.

The Proof Is In The Pudding

Now I could say all of this stuff, without really being yet able to fully prove my point, since the above are just recommendations, in text format. Not actual proofs that they do work.

It would be therefore my pleasure if Chris Brogan gave me official permission to take up his wonderful big list and to republish it here, according to the above defined principles.

Then we could make a reasonable comparison between the two and see precisely where and where the differences I suggest are truly valuable additions or just snobbish theories.

What do you say Chris? Can I proceed?


Originally written by for Master New Media and first published on July 16th 2008 as "Information Design: How To Format Big Long Lists"

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posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, July 16 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.




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