Subheads are one of those page elements with which you will work often and you have to know how to approach them and how to lay them out. Their role is to break up the text and to give readers some clue what lies in the following paragraphs. This is why subheads should have meaning since they act like a headline for the upcoming text. This is neglected so often and I find myself so often reading the paragraphs that have no connection with the subhead.
In design sense subheads serve a purpose to break long text blocks so place them in strategically good spots. In this tutorial I will tell you which are the bad spots to place them so you will know how to avoid them.
Type selection in subheads
When setting up subheads make them consistent throughout the publication. There are magazines that want to stand out and be different and they love to break the rules but before you break them you have to know them.
Your subheads should be clearly distinctive from the main body copy. They have a purpose and they should be instantly recognizable. You can emphasize them in several ways:
You can set your subheads in the same type as your main copy but use bold version. To make it more distinctive enlarge the subheads few points.
As mentioned above you can emphasize subheads by making them larger. You can set them in the same type as body copy but make them 2 points bigger. Maybe even three, four would be too much.
One option is to set them in the same type as body copy but using italics version. I do not use it because then I have to enlarge them because italics tend to look lighter than the text set in normal font. Subheads should be easily recognizable and that’s why I do not like to set them in italics. Bold italics would be better option.
Most used option for subheads is to use different type. Most obvious choice is sans-serif if you are using serif type for body copy.
You can set your subheads in all caps but I almost never use this method. It can work but in many cases it does not, especially if the subheads are long. You don’t want to break the flow of the text.
If you are working on some youthful magazine you can set your subheads in underlined style or you can make that line big enough to cover the subhead and reverse its color in white.
Placing the subheads
As mentioned in my article on page elements, never place subheads three lines or less at the bottom of a column and three or above at the top of a column. Biggest mistake is to place subhead at the top of a column. This kind of subhead treatment pulls the reader’s eye and reader can skip the entire column because of it since the reader will think this is the headline of another story.
Work with your copy editor and journalists to have the same length of a subhead. By that I mean the row length. Either make them two rows or one long. Three rows would be too much. Whatever is your choice make it consistent.
Always position subheads at the top of the next paragraph. Not in the middle between paragraphs, nor just below the previous paragraph.
If you align text to the left or justify it, align your subheads to the left also. Do not place them in center since the reader’s flow of the eye will be disrupted because he will have to find where the subhead is. Also do not indent the subhead. First paragraph below the subhead should not be indented also.
If you want to place a rule with your subhead, place it above, because if you place it below it will break the subhead and its paragraphs below. Best option is not to use rules.
Cool way of making subheads and I like it a lot, is to make so-called “running in subheads”, but your copy editor should start this paragraph with really meaningful words otherwise there is no point and you cannot call it subhead. It will only be emphasized words.
Subheads and images
Do not place the subheads just below the image. This is the same no-no rule as with the top of the column placement.
I don’t need to say this but I will, do not place subheads just above the image (if you plan to break the text with image).
If you place an image on the page in a way that it makes runaround, don’t place subheads within runaround text. It will look messy and it will create awkward white space around image.