Tables come in all sorts of shapes and sizes – card, coffee, kitchen, dining room, board room… Each serve a purpose, even if it is just somewhere for you to leave a book lying around to make you look clever and/or interesting when you have guests over. Tables in documents are no different – but these tables come with several health warnings.
One of my perennial bug-bears with technical presentations is the use of tables. Most people misuse these and try and cram as much information on to one slide as possible, making them worse than useless – not only can you not read them and engage with them in a meaningful manner, but you end up switching off and wondering when the coffee/lunch break is, or thinking about sneaking a look at your email or, in fact, just about anything else rather than the data presented in the table. Tables in documents run the same risk, albeit for slightly different reasons. Your thesis, like any book, has to stand alone – you cannot hover over the reader and explain what it was you meant to write. Every part of your writing, Tables (and for that matter Figures) included, needs to carry its weight, be meaningful, be accessible.
As a side note, it is important to remember that figure captions go underneath the figure, but table titles go at the top.
The purpose of a table is to collect data and to summarise it when presentation in a figure would not be appropriate. For example, you might perhaps need to look at the annual production of tea-cosies. If you were considering just one data set then a figure, probably a bar chart, would be the way to go, but if you wanted to compare production by country say, or by material of manufacture over a number of years, then a table is probably what you need. Tables need very clear labels for rows and columns; where appropriate, these should include the units, rather than including these in every single cell of the table.
As ever, aesthetics and functionality must be balanced – there is no point in having a beautiful table which is unintelligible. This is perhaps a little corny, but the data has a beauty of its own and should be allowed to speak for itself. We’re not talking about gilding the lily here, but there are a few simple things that can help. Firstly, simplicity itself is key: don’t add more detail than is necessary. Secondly, be consistent: align the content the same way; if your content is numerical then present them all to the same number of significant figures. (When it comes to column width and row height, this does not mean that all boxes in the table should be equal, rather, consider the table as a whole and set these parameters accordingly – you are aiming to minimise the white space over the whole table, whilst making sure that no boxes are too cramped). Thirdly, you need to be careful not to be selective in the data you present, but there is nothing wrong with emphasising significant data – for example there might be a lot of data which are apparently random, but one or two data-sets within this which represent a particular trend. Fourthly, make best use of the space: don’t cram all the information into tiny boxes – if appropriate, split a table into smaller tables that focus on particular trends or information. (If necessary, then you can always print a table on a larger piece of paper and concertina-fold it into the document. This should be used sparingly, but can get you out of a hole when your table simply can’t be cut down). Fifthly, it might be trendy to have a table with no lines, but this does make it difficult to read: do use some sort of structure to help the reader. (This could be some sort of shading if you really don’t want to use lines).
Tables might not be appropriate for your thesis, but they are a good way of presenting both textual and numerical information. In some cases they are a great way of gathering together a lot of supporting data that can then be relegated to an appendix, allowing you to maintain the flow of thought in the main body of the thesis. Harking back to D for Design, Tables are another form of window that can be used to help provide structure and in a sense a pause for breath when reading through. Most importantly though, a thesis is frequently ‘just’ a book you dip into to get information out of (much like any other reference tome) – tables make this much easier to do.