Running Head

mr. potato headThe term running head conjures odd images for me. Immediately, I think in literal terms of a cartoonish, disembodied human head with disproportionately small legs fleeing a scene. Maybe a little like Mr. Potato Head if he were really on the go, though in my mind’s eye, he is always just standing around.

Running head also makes me think of racing thoughts, a chronic condition I suffer from. It’s got an anxious angle, this term – it sounds like too much on the brain plus rushing, an equation for stress. That reaction tells you a bit about me.

The actual meaning is quite different. It’s downright calm and very helpful: Text at the top of a standard book page that usually contains book, chapter or section title information. So “running” simply refers to ongoing—as in, happening throughout a book—and “head” just describes the positioning on the page. As a part-time graphic designer, I’m surprised not to know this term already. I’ve always called it a page header! But I’ve only officially laid out one long-form book, and I just made it up as I went along. Because I’m creative. Translation: fraud.

Anyway. Terminology. Upon further research, running head has poetic possibilities. One book design site refers to the “atmosphere you can create with running heads.” I love this, as any designer would, because it implies (correctly) that the look and feel of a layout, including font face and size, spacing, margins, location of page numbers, etc. all have an impact on how the actual text comes across. They help shape the way the story is presented overall.

Running head also plays a critical role in orientation. A reader often puts down a book, with or without marking his or her spot, and has to figure out where they left off when they open it back up again. The running head tells them in which chapter they have landed and maybe the section and page number too, and could include the author’s name and/or book title as well (just for reinforcement, I guess). It’s all kind of like a little icon on a map saying: “You are here.”

Running heads are not to be used for chapter openings, table of content pages and the like, because hopefully you know where you are at that moment from actual titles. (If you don’t, there may be larger concerns to consider.) Anything else, longer than one page, is apparently supposed to have running heads, if the body of the book is set up that way. There are rules.

So, running head is a marriage of form and function, one of my favorite things.

Lastly, and I really, really love this add-on from writer Joel Friedlander, “If you take the running heads off of your book pages, the pages are likely to look quite bare, like they went out and forgot to put their clothes on.” Talk about a vision of embodiment. Now I have stark naked detached heads on the brain. That’ll keep my mind racing.



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