The Table (Revisited)

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


In a previous blog posting, we addressed the use of tables in publications. Our conclusion has been that it is best not to use them, and if you are going to use tables make sure you are using them properly and sparingly.

Since then, better support for tables in desktop publishing systems and electronic devices has been developed. So we have reconsidered the use of tables and have reached some conclusions.

Tables are useful for comparing related information. If you wish to compare the features of like things, a table can be useful. I recently bought a new phone. It was very helpful to be able to compare features in a tabular manner. But this is not the way we use tables within publications. We primarily use them as decorative lists or visual features.

But many in the publishing industry feel tables are necessary. They claim that authors, the practices of certain disciplines, or the need to create visual interest, require the use of tables. We ask you to consider the following:

  • Tables add time to projects. No matter how well done, tables require manual labor. This adds to the time, thus cost, associated with the production of books.
  • Most tables function better as lists. We presented the same information in tabular and list format. The table was more visually appealing, but when we later asked people to recall information, they were more apt to confuse attributes when they were presented as tables. While not scientifically proven, it seems that comprehension is increased with a narrative format, like a list or paragraphs, than with tables. Tables seem to offer instant comparison and help organize data, but they do not seem to actually contribute to comprehension.
  • Demand for tables is often the result of a lack of understanding. When the technical difficulties of presenting tables in multipurpose publishing are explained to authors, and good alternatives are presented, authors are willing to reconsider their position. When you educate an author and open up a dialogue with him, the result is a better publication and improved relationship. This helps increase sales and solidify your value.
  • Demand for tables is often the result of habit but does not represent the reality of the discipline. As we present them, tables in books are a modern phenomenon. While old books often have simple tables (which present little technical difficulty), they lack the sophisticated tables found in contemporary books. The advent of the table is the result of publishers’ adaption to available technologies. It is we who lead to the use of tables. Now that technology and the aesthetic for presenting information have changed, it is our job to come up with creative alternatives. As publishing professionals, it is our responsibility to push disciplines to improve, not to appease habit.
  • The use of tables is often the result of author insistence, not value. Many of our clients claim that they need to accommodate authors’ wishes. They feel the high level of competition, and self-publishing options, requires that they keep an author happy through accommodation. It is our role to work with an author to create the best publication possible. A dialogue in which we present him with thoughtful questions, information, and samples of various options, helps in the process of formulating his books in the best possible manner. The result is cutting-edge publications and improved author relationships.

Despite the improvement of e-book readers, the increasing use of fixed file formats, and other technical developments that assist in the creation and display of tables, they remain problematic. Tables may offer visual interest, but in most cases they do not add to our understanding of subjects. In many cases, tables hinder comprehension, especially within e-books. It seems that the insistence on tables is the result of habit, or lack of knowledge, not because they contribute to understanding. Tables increase the cost to produce books and offer little return on investment. After reexamining the use of tables, we have reached the following conclusion: it is best not to use them, and if you are going to use tables make sure you are using them properly and sparingly.