When was the last time you came across a really ugly document – one that caught your attention because it was such a mess? It’s probably been quite some time. That’s because desktop publishing has given people the power to create all kinds of documents, from marketing and image pieces to more utilitarian forms and documents, using tools like typography and text line justification.
Desktop publishing has raised the bar for appearance. Today ugly documents really stand out when compared to those that are well-designed. In fact design is now so important that it is integral to document creation. A well-designed document is more likely to be read in part or entirely by the intended audience and increases reader comprehension. Good design also reflects well on the individual, business or organization presenting the document, lending credibility and a sense of professionalism.
Five principles of design
Principal 1: Good design has a purpose. Consider what the document is intended to accomplish, what the audience expects, the image you want to portray, and what reaction you want to invoke. This will guide all your selections – the typeface, the color palette, the layout itself.
Principal 2: Good design makes things simple. A good design makes a difficult concept understandable by guiding the reader to the important points, illustrating them and reinforcing what needs to be learned. This improves reader comprehension and makes persuasive documents more powerful.
Principal 3: Good design holds the reader’s attention. Engage the reader immediately with an eye-catching headline, graphic image, photograph, white space, or unusual layout. Then guide the reader through the important points so nothing critical is missed.
Principal 4: Good design has an underlying logic. Readers will see not only the text, graphics and photographs on the page; they will react to the underlying organizational structure of the document. Be sure you have one, and be sure it is consistent.
Principal 5: Good design doesn’t call attention to itself. One measure of a good design is when the reader gets the intended message without being distracted by the design itself.
Basic elements of design
A good design is built using four tools: alignment, proximity, contrast and repetition. The four are interconnected and work together to communicate the message.
Alignment refers to how text and graphics are placed on the page. Alignment creates order, organizes page elements, indicates groups of items, and emphasizes visual connection. Interestingly, good alignment is rarely noticed by the reader, while misalignment is immediately apparent.
There are two basic types of alignment: edge and center. Edges can be aligned along the top, bottom, left or right. Center alignment can be either horizontal or vertical. When designing a page, be sure that each element (text, graphics, photograph) is visually aligned with another item.
Proximity describes the distance between individual design elements. Close proximity implies a relationship between the elements while lack of proximity separates them.
Like alignment, proximity is a tool of visual organization. Placing elements in close proximity unifies them and communicates a sense of order and organization to the reader. Groups of proximate items on a page immediately convey an impression the page content, even before the text is read.
Contrast adds interest as well as organization to the page and is created when two elements are different. Common ways to create contrast include varying size, color, thickness, shape, style or space. The greater the difference between elements, the greater the contrast.
Besides adding interest to the page, contrast can be used to direct the reader around the page and to emphasize importance or differences. Contrast is only effective when it is evident.
Repetition brings visual consistency to page design. When the same design elements – such as uniform size and weight of headline fonts or use of initial caps to begin a chapter – are used, it becomes clear that the pages are related to each other and therefore part of the same document. In this way, repetition creates unity.
The design grid
The foundation of a good design is a grid – a framework or structure for organizing the elements on the page. A grid consists of margins, columns and guides to which the design elements – text, headlines, subheads, photographs, captions, illustrations, images, logos, etc. – are anchored. The grid creates consistency by ensuring that column width, space around photographs, space between headlines and accompanying text and other visual elements are the same from page to page.
A grid consists of margins, alleys, gutters and grid units.
• Margins define the outside boundary of the page and frame its content. Margins do
not have to be equal on all sides, but must be consistent from page to page.
• Alleys are the white spaces between columns and can run horizontally, vertically or in
• A gutter is the white space on either side of the fold in a two-page or two-panel
• Grid units are the columns in which text and images are placed. The grid units
determine placement, but not necessarily size. For example, a photograph could
extend across two grid units + the alley.
A page layout is the design elements anchored to the grid.
Unless signaled to do otherwise, readers scan a page in a predictable pattern. Beginning at the upper left hand quadrant, the reader scans the balance of the page in a Z-shaped movement – across to the right quadrant, then to the lower left, and end at the lower right. This is a quick and efficient way for the reader to determine within seconds whether to continue with reading the copy on the page, or whether to move on to something else.
The placement of design elements on the page grid can be either in cooperation with the natural eye movement, or to direct the reader to encounter the information in a precise order. Either technique is an effective way to gain and hold the reader’s attention; these are some tools that can be used in either case:
• Use color to attract attention. Color can also be used to evoke emotion.
• Use lines to direct the reader to points of interest, create shapes and forms, and
divide space into sections. Lines can be used to for alignment and to suggest
• Use typography to create contrast or emphasis. As a rule, limit the number of fonts in
a document to two or three, and set a uniform point size for headlines, subheads and
• Use images and photographs to convey meaning and create repetition with body
• Use symbols, charts and graphs to represent ideas or concepts or present
• Use white space to create proximity or lack thereof. White space can also separate elements to make them easier to read.
Design: know when to do it yourself – and when not to
We are supportive of our customers who do their own design work. We know designing documents can be fun, may be faster, and is certainly less expensive than having us do the work. And because we know you want the best possible design, we will be happy to look at your layout and make suggestions.
Despite this, we believe there are certain projects that merit professional design. Our graphic design department is staffed with professionals who have both formal training and years of experience. This means we may be able to complete a complicated project faster than you could, especially if you have the Word files containing text and the digital photo and image files ready to go. We have the tools, skills and experience to get to the finished product on time and within budget.