Using Lorem Ipsum Effectively

As you know from the last post, using Microsoft Word’s “=lorem()” function adds lorem ipsum filler text to any document easily and quickly. Using lorem ipsum filler text in documents as they’re being designed seems like a value-neutral choice: it allows readers to see how text will flow and what a typeface looks like in context without having to wait for drafted content. Win-win, right?

Not so fast! If you check out #loremipsum on Twitter, you’ll find that the decision to use lorem ipsum filler text during the design stages of a textual product is more complex than it seems. Some people believe that lorem ipsum causes more problems than it solves, and everyone should avoid using it.

Arguments against using lorem ipsum generally fall into two categories:

  1. Lorem ipsum is confusing and hard to read.
  2. Lorem ipsum allows designers to ignore the role that content plays in design choices.

For the first argument, well, the point of filler text is generally that it doesn’t need to be read and should be ignored. Anyone who’s trying to read any kind of filler text for meaning is going to be disappointed. If the goal of filler text is to illustrate what a page will look like once it has content, then lorem ipsum’s lack of readability isn’t a bug but a feature. (I do, however, empathize with this argument. One of my favorite comments in review sessions for proposals that have a bit of lorem ipsum to indicate that content is missing from a section is, “What is this? Greek? This will need to be rewritten.” It always makes me chuckle!)

Still, if lorem ipsum is alienating for reviewers because it’s Latin and they can’t understand it, there are plenty of other options for filler text before content enters the picture. One option is a feature of Microsoft Word that automatically inserts text from the Help documents — check back for a post about this feature next week.

Or there are other “ipsums” out there that use words from the English language. If English nonsense is more your (or your project owner’s) style, then you might try Bacon Ipsum, Whedon Ipsum, or one of a hundred other ipsums on this site.

As for the second argument against lorem ipsum — that it allows document designers to ignore the needs of content — that one’s a little more compelling. But it’s important to consider context here, too. A website designer or user interface designer who doesn’t get any content-related information from her client is more likely to view content as divorced from design. The two are strongly related, and a client’s content needs — tabs, sections, callouts, and so forth — should absolutely influence the design and layout of a text.

In contrast, designing a proposal template will necessarily involve reviewing a request for proposal or previously submitted proposals to make sure that all the common sections are accounted for. For example, the Colorado Department of Transportation consultant proposal process uses a standard layout: a two-page cover letter, a five-page statement of interest, a four-page work plan, a five-page optional/miscellaneous section, and a commendation section. Each of these sections needs to discuss particular categories of information, which can be turned into headings and subheadings easily. Creating a CDOT-compliant proposal template necessarily considers content requirements and constraints.

But in the early stages of template design — especially if you’re creating a proposal template for a project that hasn’t even been announced yet — the specific content isn’t typically available. In proposal writing, text will arrive, and the final look of a proposal will always depend on exactly what kind of content is delivered. In the meantime, lorem ipsum is an easy way to show what a proposal and its parts will look like without demanding content that simply cannot be drafted yet.

So, in the end, I agree that content matters when it comes to document design. But I don’t think lorem ipsum is the problem; through no fault of its own, it sometimes gets used as a way to gloss over poor design choices that don’t actually attend to content needs.