Headings, Headlines, and Headers

Which is Which and Why Does it Matter?

Tina M. Kister

March 31, 2016

Headings, headlines, and headers are often confused with one another. All three are information design elements that help to orient users by providing context and establishing hierarchy, but each serves a slightly different purpose.  It is important to know the difference so you know how each one should be written, presented, formatted, and used.

Headings

Headings are simply titles that precede detailed content and describe the content that follows. (I love the fact that a secondary definition is "a direction or bearing," because, in information design, headings are used to orient and guide users.)

Headings

Generally speaking, headings are descriptive and brief. As with all information development, the exact wording you should use for headings depends on the style guidelines that you follow. (If you don't have style guidelines, get some. There are a million ways to design information, and the only way to ensure consistency is to use style guidelines.)

For example, the Microsoft Style Guide states: "Consider infinitive phrases, such as To create a heading, for headings and titles related to tasks. For headings that aren't related to tasks, use a noun phrase such as Headings, if possible."

Manage Files

or

To Manage Files

The capitalization of headings also depends on your style guidelines. Microsoft recommends sentence case without end punctuation, even with complete sentences (in most cases). The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using a form of title case in which certain words are capitalized based on importance and position. Some styles call for an initial capital letter for every word, all capital letters, or all lowercase letters.

There are legitimate reasons to use traditional title case, such as readability, contrast with the surrounding text, and the ability to distinguish between common and proper nouns. Whichever capitalization style you choose, be sure to use it consistently.

Capitalization in headings

or

Capitalization in Headings

or

Capitalization In Headings

or

CAPITALIZATION IN HEADINGS

or

capitalization in headings

Headlines

Headlines are a special type of heading that originated in the field of journalism. Like headings, headlines orient the user and provide information. Unlike headings, headlines are specifically designed to pique curiosity and generate interest. Headlines often rely on wordplay, such as puns and double entendre.

Because headlines are designed to persuade the user to continue reading, they are strongly rhetorical (that is, designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect).

So, while a heading might read something like, "The Fundamentals of Visual Design," a headline might read something like, "Headless Body in Topless Bar" or "Weiner's Second Coming." (Aye!)

Headers

Headers are also used to orient the user and provide context. However, unlike headings and headlines, headers can include more than simple text. Headers can also include background colors, logos, breadcrumbs, and other design elements. Because headers can include so many elements, they can provide a lot of information without disrupting the flow of information.

Headers usually run across the top of a series of printed pages, web pages, slides, or other type of information deliverable. Headers help to provide a consistency that orients users as other content changes.

Slide Headers

Slide headers can include multiple heading levels that relate to the overall organization of a presentation, which helps keep the presentation organized and provides context for the user.

Slide Headers

Website Headers

Website headers (also called "banners") usually contain the main navigation for a website, as well as a logo. They can also contain contact information, social media links, or a call-to-action.

Website Headers

Manuscript Headers

Manuscript headers (also called "running heads") are usually an abbreviated version of the full title. They typically appear at the top of every page.

Manuscript Headers

Why Does it Matter?

Knowing the difference between headings, headlines, and headers can help you choose which is most appropriate, and help you decide how it should be worded and presented.

Headings, headlines, and headers are fundamental to quality information design, including print layout, web design, presentation design, user-interface design, and more.

When used properly, they can:

  • Provide information about the content that follows.
  • Make it easier for users to find information.
  • Prioritize information by creating a visual hierarchy.
  • Help the information developer in sorting information into related chunks.

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