If you had an old-school English teacher, you may have been told to avoid using emphasis styles in writing like italic, bold, underline, ALL CAPS and exclamation marks!!! With even greater stress they probably also discouraged indentation, tables, font, point size, images, figures and colour. This is a very classical theory of writing. It is that ‘you should use the writing itself to create emphasis, not the formatting. Formatting is lazy writing.’ It’s a well-reasoned opinion, but has it stood the test of time? Does it apply to all types of content? Is it a rule or just a guide? It’s a point of personal opinion and debate among writers, grammarians, typographers and the like on the web, but hasn’t been covered (to our knowledge) in relation to marketing. It also hasn’t been covered in relation to other writing forms by marketers (us) who can provide some insight from our field of expertise.

Emphasis Styling—Is it ever OK?

Should you steer clear of content even for the most informal forms of writing? No, this is silly. Even T.S. Eliot would have used emphasis styles if he were writing a blog post or designing a poster for a laundromat. The fact is: there are vastly different forms of writing, and this rule was intended for full-length formal fiction and essay writing.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Emphasis Styling

Benefits:

  • It’s quicker to write—due to easier word choice.
  • It’s more eye-catching—emphasis catches attention even before the text is read

 

Drawbacks:

  • It may come across as unsophisticated and ‘cheap’—because the way it grabs attention is not by the merit of the actual content of the text)
  • Emphasis is relative—emphasis of one thing de-emphasises the rest, and this effect also applies between points of emphasis

 

When is it OK?

Emphasis styling should be used where the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. These are some cases from our experience as a guide:

Where it’s OK:

  • Posters, signs—things that need to be viewed from a distance. Formatting can make them readable from a distance.
  • Marketing banners and commercials—marketing can benefit from from the way that formatting is perceived even before the content is read. It can catch attention to a banner even if the consumer had no intention of reading the ad, no matter how much of a literary masterpiece it may be. Psychological research indicates that visual information is perceived 60,000 times faster than text by the brain.
  • Videos, images—these mediums aren’t textual, they’re visual. So this writing rule doesn’t apply to them as directly. Emphasis and formatting are visual elements used in textual mediums. In visual mediums, these visual elements are at home. Hence the masterfull use of emphasis styles in the speech cards of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920):

Caligari-Speech-Emphasis
* Blogging and social media—brevity is the key and emphasis is A-OK. People want to get the message then move onto the next site/post. They don’t want a wordy essay that explores the nuances of anything. If you want to #rant, this isn’t the medium. And while commenters will slam spelling errors, it isn’t internet culture to worry about the finer points of grammar or typography.

 

Where it’s not OK:

  • Formal documents—essays and curriculum vitae. Emphasis styles should be kept to the utmost minimum, the more formal the stricter you should be with this. As marketers, we think about these kinds of documents as marketing ourselves. In these documents, we want to give the impression that we are as serious and formal as the writing in relation to the topic concerned. So emphasis should be used once per page max, including exclamation marks. Of course, sometimes formatting is needed in these documents for distinguishing information e.g. indented block quotes, italisised variables or whatnot. That doesn’t count as emphasis so it’s OK.
  • Websites—dLook believes that websites should be regarded as formal documents, and we implement this philosophy in our design of webpages and landing pages. Websites are your face to the web community and you want them to make a good impression, especially if the intent of your website is serious like if it’s for a commercial or social enterprise. So less is often more when it comes to emphasis and all kinds of formatting including images, colour, tables, etc. You want to keep in mind ‘the fold’ (the portion of the page above the screen) and average screen sizes to try to make just one clear point per viewable page region. Emphasising, should emphasise that one thing. It should still be used more liberally than paged documents however, because the way that people view the web is more visual and less reading.

 

Not all Emphasis is Created Equally

Some types of emphasis formatting are better than others. Of course, this doesn’t account for all situations, but it’s about as objective as you can get when it comes to design. Here’s a quick guide to the common formatting options and when they should be used:

  • Use often:
    • Italics—mild emphasis
    • Small caps—mild-moderate emphasis
    • Bold—moderate emphasis
  • Use sometimes:
    • Underline—discouraged because it makes text harder to read. Also now associated with hyperlinks which can cause confusion if used on the web or even in digital documents.
    • Exclamation marks—change the way the text is read in people’s heads to an extent even greater than italics or bold. Because of this, it can get annoying if overused. It sounds like the page is shouting at you.
  • Use rarely:
    • All caps—same as above but even worse. All caps don’t just sound loud and frantic, they often sound enraged.
    • Highlighting and colours—can seem gaudy and juvenile and can make text had to read. But they can work if the content is colour paletted, as then there isn’t such a large, distracting, unnecesary degree of contrast.

 

THE ONE MAJOR CAVEAT TO USING EMPHASIS STYLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

SEE HOW ANNOYING THIS IS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! IF YOU EMPHASISE EVERYTHING, THERE’S NO CONTRAST IN FORMATTING. RELATIVE EMPHASIS IS NONEXISTANT AND THERE’S NO ‘HIERARCHY’ TO YOUR FORMATTING. HENCE YOU LOSE THE ABILITY TO ADD FURTHER EMPHASIS WITHOUT GETTING RIDICULOUS.

THE POINT IS, AND IT CAN ONLY BE EMPHASISED BY USING LESS EMPHASIS: moderation.

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