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I read some books about typography and design. They all recommended to avoid lines in tables, and instead to make use of spacing. I found that reasonable and adhered henceforth to those rules.

Recently I ran into discussions with spreadsheet users, who doubted these rules and argued that grid-lines are better since all programs have them turned on by default.

I also read an article that explained the problem with lines: the human eye first has to remove them before it can focus on the content of the table. If somebody would know this one or similar scientific findings about perception of data, I would be glad as well.

Is it in fact better to avoid lines? Why? Do you have any references you could provide to back this up with?

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    Please have a look to my question graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/13697/…, there you find several good typography books discusing making good tables in several languages ... – Mensch Nov 4 '15 at 20:33
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    Anyone using spreadsheets for a living is almost always going to argue that the lines need to be there. Spreadsheet use is a much different animal than readability in a design. Spreadsheet apps would be a nightmare without the lines.... but conversely many designs would be a nightmare with the lines. – Scott Nov 4 '15 at 21:28
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    Could be useful if you could link that article about "human eyes removing the lines." A lot of articles have no source to back up their claims.I think a mix of lines and good spacing is fine; the lines act like a ruler and it makes sense it's easier to read in some contexts & easy to associate what goes with what. It's not necessary to make the lines 100% black & solid or add all the lines. You can also use light shades. Some tables are unreadable because they aren't logical, they need to be re-organized and I think that's where the biggest issue is in general. It's not only about design. – go-junta Nov 5 '15 at 5:14
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    +1 on Scott's comment. Using a spreadsheet for data manipulation/entry is very different than using a table for presentation. – Nelson Nov 5 '15 at 8:22
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    Related: tex.stackexchange.com/q/163061/28808 and other Qs on tex.stackexchange tagged [booktabs] or [tables]. These provide example of tables (often of data) formatted with and without vertical and many horizontal lines. – Chris H Nov 5 '15 at 9:53
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Edward Tufte is the one that coined the term chart junk to refer to extraneous visual elements that tend to clutter, rather than clarify the data being presented.

This can refer to all sorts of things that you tend to see often, but don't really enhance the understanding and--often--actively interfere with the understanding of the data.

These can include:

  • arbitrary color
  • 3D effects
  • excessive borders
  • redundant labels
  • zebra striping
  • etc.

I think this animated gif communicates the concept nicely:

enter image description here

Is it better to remove lines? Usually. The point to consider when dealing with chart junk is that you should use only what is necessary to format the data. Anything extra is just that...extra...and likely not enhancing the message.

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    This is a nice animated gif but it seems more focused on the beauty of a table from a designer's point of view, not how readable or practical it is for the reader. There's also a difference between comparing a basic ugly Word table with a nicely done Indesign table with lines. Nasdaq, banks, exchange rate services, Paypal, science/medical/annual reports, etc.: all these people/services/elements seem to use lines... I can only guess it's because they prioritize the comfort of their readers, want to avoid confusion and don't prioritize design beauty. I think they are reliable references too. – go-junta Nov 5 '15 at 8:34
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    It's just a matter of the designer's personal opinion and agenda to consider lines as "junk". Tufte would probably recommend to keep the lines or a shading if their purpose is to avoid any confusion on wide tables, and remove them on tables with 2 columns if it looks alright. To my understanding, by chart junk he means removing extra icons, oversized texts that are useless, patterns, unreadable fonts, ORNEMENTAL shading (eg. has no other purpose than design), etc. All this is nothing new to most designers, it's just logical and it's not exclusive to charts but any layout. – go-junta Nov 5 '15 at 8:47
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    This seems like a gross simplification without any explanation as to when lines are necessary and useful and when they're extraneous. Also in reading your answer somewhat underplays that lines should only be removed if they are in fact extraneous. To point your animated .gif keeps one line, but no explanation as to why. – Ryan Nov 5 '15 at 14:40
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    Again, to me saying remove extraneous visual elements doesn't say why and when something is extraneous. I have a table in front of me of 26 rows and 18 columns (courtesy a business consultant), should they have removed all the lines and shading? Because when I read your answer it makes it sound like a near universal yes. – Ryan Nov 5 '15 at 15:34
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    @Ryan - I agree, especially on large tables where some "cells" span multiple lines, and also where some cells may be empty. These cases (and others) can benefit from some horizontal lines. There are (at least) two "factors" to consider, that are sometimes (many times) conflicting with one another: Aesthetics, and Useability. Useability is more important than good looks. If a table design looks good but is unusable (difficult or confusing to use), what actual good is it. Many times aesthetics is more about how a table looks from a distance, rather than when trying to read the data in the table. – Kevin Fegan Nov 5 '15 at 15:59
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I think you may reconsider the issue of your question by focusing on the table purpose instead of any general guideline.

For instance, if the readers need to compare the content of different rows, it may be easier to differentiate each row. You can also consider to implement contrasts between columns instead.

There are several options to make rows or columns distinguishable:

  • Alternate background colors (soft colors, so that the contrast still makes text readable)
  • Use lines between rows or columns
  • Use padding around content in the table

Your choice would depend on :

  • What would the user do with your table, and how to make this use easier for the user: this would guide the hierarchy of the read, and therefore your graphic choices
  • The size of the content, and consequently, the size of the table: for instance, long lines must be graphicaly distinguishable; it is not so much required for a little table

That being said, in my experience, in most of the cases, I tend to try not to use lines, which are quite heavy. I prefer to use alternate shaded background-colors for rows. And, if required, white lines for columns only. This way, content gets prominent, and table graphics imperceptibly guide the user.

Always consider the table purpose before applying any style.

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    +1 "Always consider the table purpose before applying any style." That's what the OP asked for, and anyway a good graphic designer will always prioritize purpose first! – go-junta Nov 5 '15 at 8:36
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I don't believe you or your coworker are right. The more important issue is readability. Spacing on its own can effectively do this, lines / shading can often help to use less space.

Here we have a table with pretty normalized spacing and no lines. It's hard to follow because the numbers are primarily designed to be read left to right, not top to bottom. But you have to figure that out on your own:

enter image description here

Now I've used only spacing, which we know from our Gestalt Principles, to make it pretty clear you read horizontally:

enter image description here

However, the entire image got larger. When I could add the same thing with a line or shading and use less total space:

enter image description here

Using total lines however, might as well be like using no lines at all. On its own it doesn't help determine which direction people should be more interested in reading first:

enter image description here

And same thing if we wanted it to be understood vertically first then it might look something like this:

enter image description here

But could also be less spacing if we use a line (I'd probably center this line if I were doing this for real but just doing this quickly):

enter image description here

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APA Style uses no lines between rows. A table styled this way has associations with research and academics; a table styled otherwise could imply otherwise.

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