This is one article to which many people will reply, “Who cares?” So let’s begin by reviewing the name of this site—”Overthinking Design.” Admittedly, this is a small issue that I’ve put too much thought into. But with design the details matter, and text formatting is often overlooked. So buckle yourself in as we take a close look at…phone numbers!
When it comes to designing text there are two main goals. Above all, you want the text to be understood and processed quickly. Second, you want the text to be attractive or, at the very least, appropriate. This applies to headings, it applies to body text, and it even applies to “scraps” of text—like phone numbers.
Over the past decade, it has become very popular to separate phone number segments with periods. You’ve seen it done. You’ve probably done it. I’ve certainly done it. The question I’m asking is whether we should use periods to segment phone numbers.
Let’s start by dissecting the anatomy of a phone number. In the United States we use three segments which follow the 3-3-4 format. We’re all familiar with the three-digit area code. This is followed by a three-digit exchange. And bringing up the rear is a four-digit subscriber number (or line number). When you dial outside of the United States you have country codes to include, plus many European countries use variable length numbers. But we’re going to look only at the United States format.
The traditional formatting of a phone number includes parentheses around the area code, and a dash between the exchange and the subscriber number. As design is largely about simplification, the dotted phone number does make sense. The traditional format includes 14 characters if you count spaces. The dotted phone number reduces that to 12. Also, there’s less clutter. Let’s face it—parentheses are clunky, as their vertical height is significantly larger than that of the numbers they contain. Now, some fonts do contain numbers with exaggerated ascenders and descenders, but for the majority of fonts period-based phone numbers allow for a consistent height across the board.
These issues of simplification make it difficult for me to say much against using periods in phone numbers. However I do have a couple points of caution.
The first is that over-simplification can lead to sterility. Your basic dotted phone number has little character. Yes, on your fancy concert poster you can spice things up. But let’s consider a less romantic scenario—the footer of a web page using the basic Arial font. On technology-based websites, I feel the dotted phone number works great. It fits the feel. It’s modern and it’s sleek, especially compared to the traditional format. But on Mom & Pop’s simple “buy my handmade product” site, a dotted phone number feels out of place. There are times traditional works and feels so much better.
The other issue is readability. The reality of the situation is that simplification does not necessarily increases readability. It can make things unique, attention-getting, and clean, but that does not equal readable. The parentheses and dash are used for a reason. They visually separate the segments of a phone number, making it easier to digest and easier to remember. We mentioned that the periods save space. But it can be argued they save too much space. The horizontal distance periods takes up is less than that of a dash or even a space. The segments of the phone number are now very close together. It’s clean, but it’s less readable.
My encouragement is to simply consider the setting. This is not a matter of right and wrong, but of appropriateness. People will be able to read the phone number regardless, so with this issue it’s absolutely fine to choose an option that may be slightly less readable in order to create a more appropriate feel. But your reason for using the periods should go beyond the fact that it’s a trending practice.
Let’s consider this matter completely overthought.