When you create a table, whether using a web app, Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, or even Adobe InDesign, the default is usually a black line around every cell, and little to no space around the content in that cell. That should hardly ever be the end of the process.

The defaults have faults


In MS Office, even applying one of their preset formats offers little improvement (alternating row colors, and assuming certain cell lines).

The point of a table is to order and align information in a predictable way — that’s (usually) a good thing. But if the table itself is getting in the way of absorbing or interpreting that information, that’s a bad thing.

A subtle truth of design, which I mention elsewhere, is that when things are ‘lined up’ — then your eye/brain can make that connection; meaning, you don’t necessarily even need cell lines at all — or, in any case, they can be very subtle. They certainly shouldn’t compete with or overpower the content that you’re presenting. One way to take control is to start by removing the default border altogether, then consider just adding borders to horizontal lines, reducing the width and/or darkness of the lines, and  adjusting the cell height and width to fit the content.

Building better tables


As with other aspects of design, just look around and you can probably find really good examples — the trick is to make the little effort, not relying on defaults, and apply the attributes you see in these. (example with formatting)


Having said all of this, to format a table a certain way is not always the most obvious process to do. As soon as you want to make these lines thinner and those lines a different color, it can get a little tricky.

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In Microsoft Office text formatting, and more

Here’s a tip that apparently not enough people know (or too easily forget). It applies to most any application that formats text, particularly in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint text formatting, and it has a number of uses. If you want to force a line of text to wrap—that is, to start on the next line, without starting a new paragraph, hold down the SHIFT key as you hit the ENTER (or RETURN) key. This is called a “soft return” in modern word processing terms; buried in Word as a “Text wrapping break.” Here are its most common uses:

  1. wrap a bulleted line without invoking a new bullet
  2. control a ‘line break’ of a paragraph without starting a new paragraph – particularly when it’s centered
  3. a double soft return can maintain a paragraph’s formatting

A regular ENTER / RETURN in PowerPoint creates a new bullet and a capitalized first letter:


But a soft return continues the line and maintains line spacing:

soft return-example

For a short cut that’s available in many word-processing applications, it is not commonly known, yet it’s extremely helpful when trying to tame your lines of text for any kind of publishing.

More examples of using soft return

Another place where using a soft return is very helpful is to keep your centered text balanced.

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