Variations on table design in law firm survey reports

Carlton Fields CA 2013 [pg. 21] turned to an unusual table design (aside from the shadowed box). It is a simple 2 x 2 that uses a couple of colors and very large numbers. The snippet includes a summary statement at the top and two bullets on the left which complement the table’s data.

From Carlton Fields CA 2013 [pg. 12], its table offers two variations. First, the firm outlined the most important data in red and added in the right margin “> than 50%.” Think of this as a technique to highlight the most significant finding in a table. Additionally, the firm backgrounded the left column in green for the seven rows below the header. Other than that, there are no cell borders or outline to the table.

The unassuming table from Bryan Cave Collective 2007 [pg. 5] was selected for its black background of the header row, the choice of not identifying the leftmost column with a header label, the replay of the question from the survey above the table, and the horizontal divider lines above and below the table.  To give a sense of the table on the page, the snippet includes part of the text in the second column.

CMS Poland 2016 [pg. 22] chose to outline the cells with partial lines and it aligns the data at the top of each partial line. Also, aside from the left column and its longer text, the most common layout of a table makes the remaining columns of equal width. This table contravenes that convention.

Tables and some of their design characteristics

Among other characteristics, tables vary by the numbers of rows and columns, background shading, borders of cells, and column justification. The sample discussed here offers some of the variations.

Presenting its respondent profile, Fulbright Jaworski Lit 2013 [pg. 4] set up a straightforward four-row-by-four-column table. Unlike most tables, this one has a topic statement directly over the header row. The header row applies a crimson background and uses all capital letters. The three rows below have zebra striping with a gradient of color lightest in the middle. The data columns are centered and no cells have border lines.

The next table, from Dykema Gossett MA 2016 [pg. 13], has one fewer column than the Fulbright table but one more row. The top row is not a header as it restates the question asked on the survey. Both the question and the header row show a light blue shading. Another difference is that the data columns are left justified, not centered. Lastly, the table’s unsightly outline and cell borders stand out.

In the following table from King Spalding ClaimsProfs 2016 [pg. 13], the six rows (including the header) are followed by a gap and then a row for averages. Tables can always add marginal figures.

Note that there are no boundary lines around this table, the cell borders are faint, and the numbers are right justified under the headers. To emphasize it, the average row has a darker shaded background.

This table illustrates how hard it is to detect changes in complex data as compared to presenting the data in a chart. The table has the advantage of giving precise numbers, but it takes work to spot the highs and lows in the columns or to perceive trends over the five-year period.

The table from Allen Overy Innovative 2012 [pg. 53] presents only text, not data. The firm chose an unusual color scheme of green against the entire page’s background of gray. Like the King Spalding table just above, this one dispenses with table outlines but unlike it inserts white cell borders.

A final example, from Berwin Leighton ArbDiversity 2016 [pg. 7], has ten rows (six are omitted here) and six columns, the largest array of this sample. As is typical, the table colors the header differently than the rest of the rows, which are zebra-striped green. The data are left justified and no border outlines clutter the table.

Good practices for table design we suggest from this set include:

  1. Don’t outline the table, since borders add nothing but ink.
  2. Center the data in the column, to avoid crowding it against a border.
  3. Use zebra striping with light shading, to distinguish rows
  4. Have no borders around cells, or unobtrusive borders, and no table outline, to focus readers on the content, not the aesthetics.

Tables in survey reports

Plots outnumber tables greatly in law firm survey reports. Designers of reports appear to believe that plots look better than tables, even if they are only reporting small amounts of information. Nevertheless, tables do appear and we have collected five of them.

Berwin Leighton ArbAppointees 2017 [pg. 6] colored its header row with a light blue and used a different color for the text. It outlined the header with a blue-colored line and did not continue in the header the vertical divider between the two columns. In the table itself, the firm added green cell borders and shaded every other row (a technique known as zebra striping). The type is somewhat smaller than the type in the main text. In the data column, the percentages are centered in that column whereas the left column is left-justified. As with the remaining tables, this one has two columns.

Morrison Foerster Consumer 2015 [pg. 7] produced a straightforward table of numbered text. Unlike many tables, it presents no data. The header portion uses two different colors, perhaps to highlight the two years. Lines encompass the entire table. Effectively, this is two numbered lists side-by-side. It is doubtful the numbers contribute any additional information.

Under a dark green quadrilateral, HoganLovells Brexometer 2017 [pg. 9] placed its table with whimsical smiley faces. Note that this table has no prominent header row nor does it have any lines around it.

What’s interesting about Berger Singerman SFRE 2017 [pg. 2] is that a bar chart to the left of the table (not shown in the snippet) conveys exactly the same information. The spartan table is relieved only with the light blue shading of the left column. In the “Responses” column neither the percentages nor the header label are centered.

Purists might not call the object of Morrison Foerster GCsup 2017 [pg. 20] a table, but at the least it presents an interesting design decision. The role at the left has five responsibilities shown in the three-dimensional, blue rectangles on the right. The blue divider is not needed as what is below is so obvious.