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Headlines that work best

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

In this ‘hands-on’ series about the readability of typefaces used in printed publications, we look at which type works best in headlines – whether you should use capitals or lower case letters or serif/sans serif.

The headline is the most important part of any piece of writing, whether it is an article, direct mail letter, advertisement or brochure. The headline tells you immediately whether the piece of writing is of interest to you.

Not only are the words in the headline crucial, but the way they are presented and their context are all important. Using the wrong typeface for the headline will lose you heaps of readers instantly!

In pioneering research, different typestyles were tested by Colin Wheildon among 224 readers. With one million readers as editor of the largest motoring publication in Australia, he wanted to be sure of his facts. He couldn’t find the information from existing literature so he conducted his own research.

He sought to determine the answers to two questions:

  1. Which headline faces and styles have greater legibility?

  2. Do capital letter headlines have greater impact than lower case headlines?

Wheildon took care to show the headlines against standardized backgrounds to ensure there was no bias from the context of the headlines.

Should you use capitals or lower case, and what about serif or sans serif?

Logic would suggest using lower case for headlines because it is easier to read in body text than words in capital letters. When a person reads a line of type, the eye recognizes letters by the shape of their upper half. The top half of each lower case letter is generally recognizable to the eye. Put the headline in capital letters and you see a solid rectangle, which makes it harder for the eye to identify.

Readers were asked: “Do you find this headline easy to read? A series of examples were shown to readers in capitals or lower case and in serif or sans serif typeface. The research results showing the proportion of readers who agreed:

Typical typeface: Lower case Capitals
Times Roman old style: 92% 69%
Sans serif: 90% 57%


Clearly, headlines in lower case are easier to read than capitals. If readers find something difficult to read, they don’t persevere – they move on to another piece, so the messages in the piece are totally lost on them.

The inference from this is that your carefully written piece immediately suffers a big handicap if its headline is written in capitals – in one move, you have lost 20-30% of your audience!

Interestingly, there is almost no difference between the readability of serif and sans serif type used in lower case for headlines. This finding gives a large range of options.

The readers were also asked if they thought capital letters made a different impact than lower case. It’s a neutral result. Most people (69%) said they could see no difference in impact, and virtually equal numbers thought capitals had more impact (16%) and lower case had more impact (15%).

Wheildon also tested the impact of kerning on the readability of the headlines. Kerning is when individual letters are moved closer together or further away than their natural style. Graphic designers move letters closer together to make them fit a tight space.

Wheildon’s readers found that anything more than minor kerning made the words harder to read (because the letters are jammed together more closely and the edges tend to blur to reader’s eyes). He gave the example of the word ‘burn’ that was kerned in a newspaper headline – the ‘r’ and ‘n’ merged to form the letter ‘m’ so the word became ‘bum’!

(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a new edition has been recently published and is available at under the title: Type & Layout: how typography and design can get your message across - or get in the way. Author Colin Wheildon, editor Mal Warwick.The Worsley Press, Publishers. Second edition, March 2005. Soft cover, 176 pages. Price: US$36.95. ISBN: 1875750223)


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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