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This report is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information
Publication Number: FHWA-RD-03-074

Communications Reference Guide

Chapter 4—Guidelines and Styles For All Publications

All Agency publications must be prepared in an accessible, electronic format for online use on an appropriate FHWA Web site (such as www.fhwa.dot.gov/ or www.fhwa.dot.gov/research/tfhrc/). Even if a printed version is prepared, an electronic version of the document MUST BE PREPARED and must meet the accessibility requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Two-Color Versus Four-Color Print

The use of multiple colors increases both the cost and the production time for a publication; therefore, additional color should be used only when it is necessary to ensure that the publication achieves its communication goal. Most reports and other publications whose sole goal is to disseminate information can easily convey the information with the use of a single color (almost always, but not necessarily, black ink). A second color of ink can considerably enhance the appearance of a publication and increase the design options available to the graphic designer. The creative use of two colors often negates the need for additional colors. Four-color printing should be used only when the supporting visual elements (e.g., photographs, graphs) require full color to accurately convey the message, or when there are other special considerations. The office director's approval is required to authorize the additional cost.

Choosing the Internet Instead of Print

To avoid duplicate production costs, program offices can have publications designed for Web site display only. Keep in mind that a high-quality Web design can be just as costly as a printed design. Internet publishing is especially useful for documents containing information that needs to be issued quickly, that may change rapidly, or that is of interest but is seldom used. You also may want to consider Internet publishing if you have a small audience, for example, fewer than 500 readers. If your document fits any of these categories, it may be most appropriate to create an HTML-coded, Web-only document for an FHWA Web site.

You should expect an electronic HTML file to have a different look and layout from that of a printed document for two reasons. Duplication of a print design on a Web page will increase file size, which will subsequently increase the amount of seconds it takes for a viewer to see your Web page. See chapter 8, "Minimum Requirements for FHWA Web Pages."

Print and Web Designs

In some instances, a communication product will need extensive design for both print and Web media. Consider taking one or two graphic elements from your print document and having your graphic artist apply those elements into a Web page design. This will ensure consistency between the print and electronic publications, and will help reduce graphic design costs. Make sure you let your designer know from the start that you would like a few graphic elements that you can include on an Internet or CD-ROM version.

Note: Web sites require a template so that the FHWA Web site style is consistent. (See Web site details in chapter 8.)

Internet Newsletters

The Agency recommends that program offices prepare newsletters strictly as electronic documents or Internet publications.

Section 508 and Publication Content

Normally, there are two distinct components necessary to post an electronic publication on a Web site—the written portion (i.e., content) and the HTML programming portion. Both must provide compliance with Section 508, however, each has a different role. There are two reviews that will take place before posting a Web page on the Internet—an editorial review by HRTM-3 or HAIM-20 and a technical review by HAIM-40.

Writing content, gathering information, creating visuals, and collecting photos for a publication or Web site is normally the function of a program specialist or writer. The person who performs this function is usually referred to as a content producer/writer or publication writer. A content producer/writer is normally responsible for fulfilling the information content portion of Section 508. Research and development information and publications that are written and posted on a Web site should be edited by HAIM-20 or HRTM-3. Because the information falls under the jurisdiction of "public information," the Office of Public Affairs also must review it.

Publication Writers/Web Content Producers

Whether you are writing a report or publication, or writing text specifically for a Web page, you should use the following Section 508 guidelines when creating material that will be posted on a Web site:

  1. 1) Write the content in plain language.

  2. 2) Write 508 captions or text for non-text elements in plain language. Be specific.

  3. 3) Select colors and include graphics, charts, photos, etc., that have high contrast.

  4. 4) Design Web pages so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color. For example:

    1. Label each line in a graph or make each line a distinct pattern such as dashes, exes, dots, thin lines, thick lines.
    2. Label or number each bar in a bar graph.
    3. Do not refer to color alone as a differentiator within text, such as, "the red line," "the blue text," "the green button." Instead of saying, "The red sign on this page...," use, "The red stop sign shown in figure 1 ..."
  5. 5) Create simple tables whenever possible containing one vertical header column and one horizontal header row, rather than nested tables with multiple subheadings.

  6. 6) Ensure that a text equivalent, such as a transcript, is provided for audio files that will be included with an electronic publication or highlighted on a Web page. Audio is considered a non-text element.

  7. 7) Similarly, a (silent) Web slide show presentation does not need to have an audio description accompanying it, but does require text alternatives to be associated with the graphics. See below for 508 captions or "text for non-text elements."

  8. 8) When deciding what text and the order of text to include on an electronic or Web form, place labels adjacent to data input fields, not in separate cells of a table. Label each data field. Whenever possible, write any detailed instructions for completing a specific field before that field. Instead of this:

    Name: Symbol. Data field. This symbol indicates a data entry field in a form. (Use only upper case letters)

    Label your form in this manner:

    Name (Use only upper case letters): Symbol. Data field. This symbol indicates a data entry field in a form.

Web Site Technical Coders/Programmers

The programming portion of posting a publication on the Web consists of HTML coding (or other types of programming such as JavaTM, JavaScriptTM, Visual Basic®, etc.). It is normally a technical function carried out by a technical programmer under the auspices of an information technology office. A programmer must program a Web site using specific standards and programming language rules in accordance to FHWA requirements and Section 508. The programming portion of a publication or Web site also will undergo a review by a technical group (HAIM-40), for adherence to Section 508 and FHWA programming standards.

COTRs and technical programmers who will work on a Web site or who will provide HTML files or a Web site as a final deliverable should see chapter 8 for more specific guidelines on programming an FHWA Web site.

508 Caption Requirement

The HAIM-20 and HRTM-3 publication groups now require that anyone who submits a report or publication for print or electronic posting also must submit an electronic "508 captions" file in addition to the final publication file.

The separate 508 captions file should contain a listing of all the descriptions of "non-text elements" within a publication—including but not limited to every photo, chart, graph, pie chart, flowchart, diagram, and equation.

What to Include in 508 Text for Non-Text Elements

To write a 508 caption (text equivalent), writers may find it easiest to cover a figure with a hand and to describe what the relevance of the non-text element is within a document. The Access Board (the governing body responsible for enforcing accessibility standards) defines text equivalent:(5)

What is meant by a text equivalent?
A text equivalent means adding words to represent the purpose of a non-text element. This provision requires that when an image indicates a navigational action such as "move to the next screen" or "go back to the top of the page," the image must be accompanied by actual text that states the purpose of the image. This provision also requires that when an image is used to represent page content, the image must have a text description accompanying it that explains the meaning of the image.

How much information actually needs to be in the text equivalent?
The text information associated with a non-text element should, when possible, communicate the same information as its associated element. For example, when an image indicates an action, the action must be described in the text. The types of non-text elements requiring actual text descriptions are limited to those elements that provide information required for comprehension of content.

Format for 508 Text for Non-Text Elements

For every figure, graph, photo, formula, equation, chart, etc., shown in a publication or Web document, use the following FHWA format for the 508 caption:

Figure 1. Graph. Name of graph. [Insert 508 caption for graph.]
Figure 2. Photo. Name of photo. [Insert 508 caption for photo.]
Figure 3. Formula. Name of formula. [Insert 508 caption for formula.]
Figure 4. Chart. Name of chart. [Insert 508 caption for chart.]
Figure 5. Equation. Name of equation. [Insert 508 caption for equation.]

Examples of 508 Text for Non-Text Elements

These examples show 508 captions that were used in actual FHWA reports:

Figure 1. Photo. Participants in showcase. More than 40 participants in the Arkansas Interstate Rubblization and Rehabilitation Showcase stare down at and take photographs of the huge pit of "rubblized concrete" during a field exercise on I-40.

Figure 2. Pie Chart. Percent of respondents by truck volume corridor categories. Pie chart depicts the following distribution of respondents: 23 percent from corridors with fewer than 5,000 trucks per day, 24 percent from corridors with 5,001 to 10,000 trucks per day, 15 percent from corridors with 10,001 to 15,000 trucks per day, and 38 percent from corridors with 15,001 to 20,000 trucks per day.

Figure 3. Histogram. Frequency with which drivers find available parking at truck stops and rest areas. Histogram depicts the following frequencies for truck stops (9 percent almost always, 25 percent frequently, 51 percent sometimes, 12 percent rarely, and 4 percent almost never) and rest areas (2 percent almost always, 9 percent frequently, 41 percent sometimes, 34 percent rarely, and 14 percent almost never).

Figure 4. Equation. PR subscript LH. PR subscript LH equals the sum of the following: 8 days times 24 hours per day minus T subscript driving minus T subscript home minus T subscript load/unload minus T subscript shipper/receiver, end of sum, that sum divided by T subscript driving, to that quotient add the quotient of 5 minutes divided by 60 minutes, the sum of which equals 0.7833.


Do not submit second generation or previously printed materials as graphics. Do not use tape; correction fluid; photocopies; or fuzzy, dark, or faded artwork.

When submitting electronic files especially for layout, please submit high-resolution files at dpi 300 or greater for printing purposes. See "Designing and Formatting Your FHWA Publication" in the FHWA Publications and Printing Handbook.

Editorial Styles for All Publications

All FHWA publications follow the style guidelines in the following order: FHWA Publications and Printing Handbook(1)and the most recent versions of the United States Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO Style Manual),(2) Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary,(3)and The Chicago Manual of Style(4) by the University of Chicago Press. Therefore, when looking up a particular style, use the above order for prioritizing conflicting styles.


According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (23 CFR 420.121(p)), Federal research reports shall provide units of measurement using the SI (metric) system. (The American Society for Testing and Materials publication, Standard Practice for Use of the SI International System of Units: The Modernized Metric System (ASTM E380-89a or later) should be followed.) Research reports prepared under FHWA planning and research grants must contain metric units, however, they may contain dual units with metric units first and English units in parentheses. Contact the Strategic Communications Team (HRTM-3) if you have questions. Section 205(c) of the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 was amended to give the State transportation officials sufficient flexibility to decide whether to prepare all reports and documents using the English units, metric measurements, or dual measurements. Section 121(d) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century made this exception permanent. See the Update on Metric Use Requirements June 1, 2001 memo at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/contracts/0601metr.cfm.


  • Use a hyphen between the elements of compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine (when they must be spelled out) and in compound adjectives with a numerical first element (see GPO Style Manual). For example:

    24-inch ruler

    8- by 12-inch page

    3-m-wide screen

    four-lane highway

    3-to-1 ratio

  • For further guidance in hyphenation and compounding, see GPO Style Manual.

  • Use an em dash—instead of a hyphen—as shown here to set off a particular phrase. There should be no spaces around the em dash.

  • When parentheses or brackets are used to enclose an independent sentence, the period falls inside as in the following example. (See sample here.) If the enclosed matter is part of a sentence, the period falls outside (when the enclosed matter completes the sentence).

  • Periods and commas should be placed inside quotation marks; semicolons fall outside quotation marks.

  • Use a comma after each member within a series of three or more words, phrases, letters, or figures used with "and," "or," or "nor."

  • Use semicolons to separate groups of items only when commas are already used within each group. For example, "He checked the streets, highways, and lanes; the subways, bus routes, and airlines; and the theaters, museums, and art galleries." In other instances in which intervening commas are used and confusion may result, use semicolons to separate elements containing commas.

Numbers and Measurements

  • Any number that begins a sentence is spelled out. Numbers from one through nine are spelled out. Use numerals for numbers 10 and above.

  • However, if a number 10 or above is in the same sentence with a lower number, use numerals for all.

  • Units of money, measurement, and time (actual or implied) are expressed in numerals. These do not affect, and are unaffected by, other numbers in a sentence. Therefore, when using a monetary, measurement, or time reference in the sentence, only use a numeral to depict other numbers if the number is 10 or greater.

  • Numbers and their units of measurement should not be separated on two lines. Also, keep words that depend on each other for meaning together on the same line of type by using non-breaking spaces (in Microsoft Word, go to insert, symbol, special characters). (For example: chapter 5, 25 millimeters (mm), and 31 percent.)


Use GPO Style Manual abbreviations for units of measurement. Abbreviations used for units of measurement are the same for both singular and plural. However, for Section 508 compliance and to avoid confusion with the word, "in," do not abbreviate "inch," except where it is necessary for space in tables and figures. Do not use periods after these abbreviations, except for "in." in place of inch or inches (again, only where it is necessary for space in tables and figures). Examples of some commonly used units are the following (see GPO Style Manual):

mi for mile(s)

mi2 for square mile(s) m for meter(s)

mi/h for miles per hour (not mph) ft for foot (feet)

km/h for kilometers per hour ft3 for cubic foot (feet)

in. for inch(es) lb for pound(s)

in2 for square inch(es) lbf/in2 (not psi)

ft /s for square foot (feet) per second s for second(s)

in3 for cubic inch(es)

m for meter(s)

ft for foot (feet)

ft3 for cubic foot (feet)

lb for pound(s)

lbf/in2 (not psi)

s for second(s)

"Percent" and most other symbols such as $, &, #, etc., should be spelled out in the text. Some symbols may be used in figures, tables, and references (see GPO Style Manual).

See appendix J, "List of Preferred Terminology and Abbreviations," for terms that are unique to FHWA.

Some Unique GPO Styles

Some common GPO Style Manual rules are listed below to aid in the writing process.

  • Common nouns such as table 1, chapter 2, sample A, reference 4, appendix A, etc., should not be capitalized within the text.

  • The word "State" should be capitalized when referring to a geographic or governmental entity.

  • The words "Federal" and "Government" are capitalized, whether they appear together or alone, when referring to the Federal Government. The word "Nation" is capitalized when used as a synonym for the United States.

  • Acronyms should be established by spelling out the term the first time it is used followed by the acronym in parentheses, such as Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). If the publication or report has many acronyms, a list of acronyms may be included after the list of tables.

  • The prefixes and suffixes listed below generally do not require a hyphen when joined with other words:










Time and Money Savings

You can save time and money by:

  • Submitting your 508 compliance captions file when you submit the first draft of your communication product, reports, brochures, technical flyers, etc. Both the draft and the 508 captions can go through the editorial process at the same time.

  • Ensuring that employees and contractors working on your publications are familiar with the Section 508 Web sites and the specific rules that apply to each of your projects.

  • Communicating the "simple table" concept to your employees and contractors. (A simple table contains only one row of horizontal and one row of vertical headers). Complex tables with more than a single row of headers can add a tremendous amount of time to converting a document into HTML.

  • Planning a project from the start with Section 508 in mind to save money and time in the long run.

Chapter 3—Policies Affecting All Publications
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