Capital ideas

I’ve been doing some work at an interactive design shop lately, and I’ve been hearing this question occasionally as I send copy through to the folks on the other side of the baffles: “Should this heading be title case or sentence case?”

This generally means that I’ve been inconsistent in what I’m sending them, but nevertheless I love hearing it. My answer is always the same – “Sentence case.”

I love hearing that question for a few reasons. Primarily, it means that the designers I’m working with understand that typographic treatments are a joint decision between writers and designers, and that capitalization affects the meaning of a headline. Secondarily, it means that someone is proofing my work, which helps me to sleep at night.

Back in my agency days I had a client whose in-house design team was responsible for laying down the law regarding their online brand standards. It is of course right that they should take ownership of their brand. One of their laws, however, was that all headlines on their website should be in title case.

I understand where the idea originated. It was an attempt to create consistency in design. And when your website is presenting information about your products, and each page can be considered as an article which describes a product, like a chapter in the timeless story of your brand, you could certainly treat each page heading as a title: Understanding the Great Value of This Particular Feature of Our Awesome Product.

The problem occurs when you try to apply those rigid standards to response marketing. Everyone who’s anyone in response marketing will agree that more often than not, you want your big bold headings to clearly convey relevant information or instructions – to motivate people to act. And that becomes more difficult when you turn your headings into nouns, which is exactly what title case does. Title case takes a group of words and identifies them as a single entity representing the copy that follows. For an extreme case of how badly this can all end, may I direct you to your nearest Softron location.

Just to be clear, the lesson is not “Never use title case.” The lesson is “Don’t let your brand standards push your message around.” Because once you render your message impotent, your brand standards are little more than pretty fonts and colours.