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In the last few posts, we discussed the immersion, that can be achieved through a balance between emphasis and structure. And since structure has had its post, it’s time to discuss its witty counterpart, emphasis.

Emphasis is like the cool guitar solo, that breaks the rhythm of a song, and makes you play your air guitar while listening. The icing on the cake. The olive in your martini.

It is our ability to guide our viewer’s attention to points of importance in a layout. But how do we achieve it? Sometimes, it is not about what we add. But what we omit.

Let’s think negative!

Most of our life as designers is adding stuff. Logos, headings, text, illustration, captions, cat photos, etc. But what can we add to help the most important stuff pop out? The answer is nothing. No, I am not saying, we should not add anything. I say we should literally add nothing — also known as negative space, or whitespace. In order for a specific message or point to gain more visual weight, we just need to add space around it.

Think of the last time you visited a gallery exhibition (it’s been some time, right?). Unless you’ve been to one of these edgy postmodernist contemporary events, I assume you’ve seen classical paintings exhibited on a white wall. Each painting had at least a couple of meters of distance to the next one. And if there is a centerpiece of the exhibition – it would have its own wall with a ton of space around it. What does this tell us?

The more important an item (in our case – text) is, the more whitespace needs to be around it. The perceived visual weight of a type increases in proportion to the amount of space around it. But there are other ways to increase visual weight…

Bulking up the right way.

If we’ve already tried using negative space, but it’s not enough, it’s time to bring out the steroids. It is time to add visual weight to the intended text. This can happen a couple of ways. We’ll start with more subtle ones, moving on to more radical ones.

Italicise

If you want your viewer to just take note of a specific word or phrase, you can make it italic. This is a subtle visual queue, that you are presenting them with an important concept. It is non-intrusive, and should not slow down their reading speed.

Embolden

If subtlety is not your thing, and you want to make a point obvious and strong, it is time to punch things up. Adding a bolder variant to the text shows that we need to stop and think over a specific part. A good rule of thumb, when using a font family with several weights included, is to make your bold weight at least two weights over what your body text is. That way the reader can clearly see the difference. However – beware using bold text too frequently, can be very distracting. It can quickly turn your text into a checkerboard, and would severely slow reading speeds. So, use with care.

Capitalize

Say you are a drama queen, and you want your reader to HEAR YOUR SHRILLING VOICE inside their head. There is a way to do this too. You capitalize on the point of emphasis. Jokes aside – this method is very radical and should be omitted, when possible. There is no better way for a text to seem written by an angry teenage girl than capitalize on each third sentence. All-Caps is more accepted, when it comes to titles, since grabbing attention and pausing the reader is their goal.

Increase size

Another very radical way that can break the reading flow is changing (usually increasing) text size. This should also be a last resort, when inside a paragraph. Resized text would mostly look out of place, and would surely pause your reader. So in most cases, this is not advisable.

Style change

This method of emphasis is the definition of hit or miss. The result depends on the style you change emphasized text to. It can be as subtle as italicizing if you choose a typeface with very similar weight and characteristics. It can look like bold text if you choose a typeface, heavier than the surrounding text. It can even look bigger or capitalized, if the new style has a dramatically different x-height, or is an all-caps typeface. This is one of those advanced techniques, that should only be used if you know what you are doing.

With great power…

We need to keep in mind, that having the tools does not mean we should use them all the time. In the end of the day, it is the balance of emphasis and structure, that leads to reader immersion. So now that you know how to lead your viewer’s attention, use it at your own discretion. And remember that if you emphasize on everything – you emphasized on nothing.