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I'm interested in good practice for table (tabular) and figure layout, especially in good references. What do typographers have to say about this. Please provide references if you can.

To focus the question, I'd like to ignore (La)TeX solutions to implementing a table layout because if we have 10 table/figure designs and five packages for implementing tables/figures, we may end up with 50 different solutions and we won't be able to see the wood from the trees.

I'm particularly interested in guidelines/good practice for aligning data in table rows, columns, and row and column headers. Finally, I'm interested in ideas that can be used to let table/figure blend in with the rest of the text, without interrupting the rhythm of the main text.

I'm aware this group is about TeX and LaTeX and some may consider the question inappropriate because it doesn't ask for specific (La)TeX solutions. Still I think the question has its merits because the answers to the questions should be known by anybody trying to implement a table.

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I hear the footsteps of @Herbert :) Here is one entire book by him. –  percusse Dec 30 '11 at 12:40
Thanks. I know about the book but I haven't seen it, yet. What specific advice does it provide? –  Marc van Dongen Dec 30 '11 at 12:45
The booktabs package has some excellent advice on tables. –  qubyte Dec 30 '11 at 13:04
I suppose nearly all writings by Tufte are of relevance to your question. –  Mico Dec 30 '11 at 13:24
@mark I agree the package has good comments. Please state the guidelines (so people don't have to read the documentation). –  Marc van Dongen Dec 30 '11 at 17:18
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Bringhurst gives a set of rules in the Elements of Typographic Style, p. 70–71. They are essentially similar to those given by the booktabs package mentioned by Mark Everitt, but there are some additional ideas as well:

  1. "All text should be horizontal, or in rare cases oblique. […]" (for latin alphabets)
  2. "Letterforms too small or too condensed for comfortable reading are not part of the solution."
  3. "There should be a minimum amount of furniture (rules, boxes, dots […]) and a maximum amount of information."
  4. "Rules, tint blocks or other guides and dividers, where they are necessary at all, should run in the predominant reading direction: vertically in the case of lists, indices and some numerical tables, and horizontally otherwise."
  5. "A rule located at the edge of a table […] ordinarily serves no function."
  6. "A table […] must contain within itself an adequate amount of white space."

Number 4 is of special interest, as it explains why horizontal rules are better than vertical ones in tables.

He later suggests that the left column should be flush left and the numbers should be flush right or aligned on the decimal (or on the mathematical operator).

(I am not quoting the entire passage of the book, as this might be too much, but I hope tis is clear enough and encourage anyone who is interested in the question to read the book)

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Thanks for the effort of writing this down. Much appreciated. –  Marc van Dongen Dec 30 '11 at 22:07
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The Rules

Upon request for more detail on formatting tables, here are the key points lifted directly from the documentation of the booktabs package. I highly recommend both the package and the documentation.

  1. Never, ever use vertical rules.
  2. Never use double rules.
  3. Put the units in the column heading (not in the body of the table).
  4. Always precede a decimal point by a digit; thus 0.1 not just .1.
  5. Do not use ‘ditto’ signs or any other such convention to repeat a previous value. In many circumstances a blank will serve just as well. If it won’t, then repeat the value.

As the author of that package notes, these are rather stringent rules. However, I have never had to deviate from them and the extra thought occasionally needed to make a table fit into these rules will often result in a much clearer table.

The Reasons

Above all else. your table must be clear. You may be presenting research data for example, so at worst a bad table could even be interpreted wrongly, leading to accusations of academic fraud (this is unlikely, I know). Perhaps you're writing a table for another reason. It doesn't matter, since an ambiguous table is a waste of space and you'll type more characters in a caption to explain it, wasting further space. Finally, a table should not look ugly. Obvious really, but typography is a kind of magic, and whilst the rules can at times seem arbitrary, they do work!

Point by point:

  • Vertical lines add nothing and occasionally obfuscate. A table should be composed of columns, and not be a patchwork, since a reader is expecting columns and should not have to engage a part of their brain that is needed to decode one.
  • Double rules just look ugly and are often there because there is a high density of lines. These ones are "shouting louder" to grab your attention. You've got a escalation on your hands if you have these.
  • Putting the units in the column heading is like putting the units on the axis of a plot. You do it once and it's done. You wouldn't put the units on every point, would you? Writing the same thing over and over is clumsy and distracts from the data.
  • Always precede a decimal with a digit. Always. In a good table you may consider aligning the numbers in a column up on their decimal points to make scales clear.
  • Dittos look messy.
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Thanks. This is definitely a start. Can you say something about why these are good guidelines. –  Marc van Dongen Dec 30 '11 at 20:41
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