Formatting elements: Column Width and Row Height (About aesthetics)

Last week I talked about changing column width and row height for readability purposes, and this week I’d like to look as the aesthetic possibilities in a little more depth. And, as you probably know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, most of the time aesthetic purposes can include non-critical readability issues, and ways to subconsiously convey information about the contents. A sort of graphical meta-data, if you will.

For example, you might want to make a column larger than the text in it to make it visually match with a related column, which can help a reader recognize that they’re related, especially if all the other cells are a different size. If you had a financial spreadsheet and were tracking the credits, debits, and balances of a bunch of different investments, you might want to have just two columns for debits and credits, put them next to each other and make them the same size as each other. Then you could have all of the balance columns grouped together, and make then the same width as each other. The balance columns would naturally be wider than the debit & credit columns, which would make the two groups visually distinct.

Or, if you have a repeating set of columns column sizes could help the eye identify which column it’s looking at. For example, I make a table every year that shows the membership statistics for the Society I work for. The top row has the last several years, and below each year I have the member types. We have fewer student members than regular members, so that column is narrower, and of course there are more members total than in either subgroup, so that column is wider. The column widths make it easier to track, even if all the borders get confusing.

On a pure readability note, widening columns can add a little bit of whitespace to either side of the text, to make it just a little easier to read.nn

Alternatively, if the text is long but only part of it matters, you might want to make a column larger than the standard width but smaller than the longest text. That tells the reader that this information is relevant, but not critical for the casual reader, so it’s easier for someone to just skim over it if they’re not interested.

For example, here are three versions of the same table, showing information about electronic journal holdings at NC LIVE. If you click on the miniaturized versions, it will take you to a full-sized version.

The first option uses the standard column widths. Almost all the columns are too narrow to show all of their contents, with the exception of the “Start” and “End” columns which are wider than they need to be.

The second option has all of the columns sized to exactly the width needed to fit the longest text in them, but this makes it so wide that it can’t even all fit on the screen. There’s also a lot of wasted space, since some titles, publishers, and subjects are much longer than others.

The third option is the one I customized. Starting from the column sizes in option 2, I made the following adjustments.

The “title” column is the same width as before. Even though some of the titles are longer than others, none are excessively long. What’s excessively long? That depends on your own taste. I roughly say that, for aesthetic purposes, if only one or two entries are more than half again the length of all the others, then it’s okay to be cut off. However, I’m less likely to cut off the information in the first column than in any other column since people usually look at the first column to find the row they want.

The “database” column is the same width as before. The longest entries are only a little bit longer than the shortest ones, so there’s not really much wasted space here.

The “start” and “end” columns have been widened somewhat. The “start” column was primarily widened so that it would be the same width as the “end” column, since they go together and therefore should visually match if they can. The “end” column was widened to give it a little white space, so the difference in length between “present” and a year (a four-digit number) isn’t as jarring. It also helps keep the word “present” from seeming to run into and become part of the data from another column by providing white space around it.

The “Print ISSN” column was expanded to match the width of the “Online ISSN” column. This is because the two concepts go together, and therefore it’s best if their column sizes match.

The “Publisher” column has been drastically reduced. I made it as wide as the “American Association of Critical-Care Nurses”, which is 44 characters, so anything longer than that got cut off. This reduced the column size by nearly half (the longest publisher was 81 characters), without making them difficult to distinguish. I could have made it as short as “Hart Energy Publishing LP”, but with two different “American Association” entries and one “Australasian Association” entry, a little more text seemed worth it.

The “Subject” column has also been reduced. I made it as long as the shortest subject, since doing so left it long enough to show the main, top-level subjects for all of the rows. I did this on the assumption that this table could be printed, but I could also have left it alone.