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Putting captions in their place

Ed Henninger

by Ed Henninger
Independent Newspaper Consultant

Good news design is the practice of understanding how readers read — then using that understanding to make your newspaper easier, faster and more comfortable for readers to follow.

Part of that calls for proper placement of captions.

During my almost-30 years as a consultant, I’ve seen captions placed:

  1. Below the photo.
  2. To the right of the photo.
  3. To the left of the photo.
  4. Above the photo.
  5. Overlaid (and often reversed) on the photo.

Five approaches, used because:

  1. Well, it’s the correct place to position a caption.
  2. The photo and caption will fit in a shallow hole.
  3. The photo and caption will fit in a shallow hole.
  4. I’ll never understand why!
  5. The photo and caption will fit in a shallow hole.

I am:

  1. Absolutely fine with this placement.
  2. Uneasy with this placement.
  3. Uneasy with this placement.
  4. Absolutely against this placement.
  5. Absolutely against this placement.

Here’s why:

The five places where
you can position a caption.
  1. For countless centuries, titles, descriptions and captions on items have been placed below those items. Granted, not in every case, but in most. When you visit a museum or an art gallery (unless they’re working very hard to be “different”), you’ll most often find the name and/or description of the item below it. That’s where we’ve been trained to look…it’s where we want to look. So, it makes sense for us to place captions below photos.
  2. Placing the caption to the right of a photo (only if it’s absolutely necessary!) allows readers to see the photo first and then follow normal left-to-right reading flow to find the caption. But…it’s not below the photo, where readers naturally look first.
  3. Placing the caption to the left of a photo may save vertical space, but it reverses normal reading flow, causing readers to have to go left from the photo to read the caption. And…it’s not below the photo, where readers naturally look first.
  4. I am convinced that readers become completely confused when we place a caption above a photo. It’s the last place they’ll look — and they’re often surprised when they find the caption there. It’s just unacceptable…like driving on the left side of the road here in the U.S. Or holding a knife by the blade to cut your steak.
  5. Placing the caption text directly over the photo is a more magazine-y look, but too often it’s badly done in newspapers, partly because we don’t have the high quality printing capability of magazines and partly because we don’t have the skills to make it work well. Often, this is done just to save some space. A few years ago, I worked with one newspaper client who used this as a standard approach because “…it saves us space so we don’t have to edit our stories so tightly.” Poor reasoning. If we have to misplace captions because we fail to edit…well, then, we’re making one mistake to cover up another mistake.

For the sake of readers — for the sake of a better designed newspaper — let’s put captions in their place.

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ED HENNINGER is an independent newspaper consultant and the Director of Henninger Consulting. Want a free evaluation of your newspaper’s design? Just contact Ed: edh@henningerconsulting.com | 803-325-5252.