The key to good document design is clarity and readability. Your document is the delivery device for your message, so the goal is to produce an uncluttered, visually appealing document your audience can read and navigate easily.
This post explains how you can use layout, formatting, colour, and more to create professional, stylish documents that give your audience a clear reading experience.
Why is good design important?
Good design is important because it determines how much time your audience is willing to spend reading your document. It will keep your readers’ attention, help them understand your content, and notice important messages. People tend to scan documents, so a well-designed document helps them find the information they want quickly and easily.
Many people don’t notice the design of a document. They’re more interested in reading the content. However, people do notice bad document design which is characterised by inconsistent layout, haphazard formatting, and cluttered pages.
A poorly designed document diminishes your credibility and personal brand. If you don’t care enough to present your content in the best possible light, why should your audience care enough to read it?
What are the main elements of page design?
- Layout – also known as formatting – refers to page structure and how text and graphics are arranged on the page. This structure includes characteristics such as page size and orientation (portrait or landscape), margins, columns, and header, footer, and page number placement.
- Fonts – also known as typefaces – are sets of text characters displayed on screen or printed on a page. A font is usually part of a font family where the same character set is available in different weights (e.g., regular, medium, bold) and styles (e.g., italic, condensed, expanded). Some common fonts are Times New Roman and Arial. Whenever you see text, you are seeing a font.
- Text is the most important element in any document because it’s what your audience reads. The way your text looks will determine how much your audience engages with it. If you want to captivate your audience and make them want to read more, then take time to format your text properly.
- Colour is self-explanatory. There’s plenty of online information about colour psychology and which colours are suitable for your industry and audience. However, we’ll look at the colours you have in your document right now.
- Graphic elements are charts and graphs, images, lines, borders, icons, etc. These elements need to be stylistically consistent in colour and style. This will give your document visual cohesion.
Layout: first impressions count
Document layout is the first impression readers have of your document. So it needs to be designed in a way that is visually pleasing and invites them to read your material.
Pages crammed with dense blocks of text are a turn-off for your readers. Don’t be afraid to use white space in your layout. You create space by using generous margins and well-designed text styles with ample line and paragraph spacing.
A picture really is worth a thousand words. Keep your image shape and placement consistent to avoid unnecessary distractions. Use charts and tables wherever possible to convey information graphically and add interest to an otherwise text-heavy page.
Make your document easy to navigate by including a header, footer, page numbers, and a table of contents into your document. These properties help readers know where they are in the document and how to find the information they want quickly.
To do: Adjust page margins to create more white space. Add page numbers, a header and footer, and a table of contents to help readers navigate easily through your document.
Fonts: more than pretty (type)faces
Too many fonts in a document are distracting for your readers and can make your work look haphazard and unfinished. Using two fonts – three at the most – will automatically give your document a more cohesive look.
Depending on the kind of publication, you might choose, for example, a sans serif font for headings and a serif for body text. You might also use a third font for breakout box text. The fonts you use can make a big difference in the overall look and feel of your document.
Choosing a lighter font for body text and a heavier font for headings gives your pages tonal variation and makes them more visually interesting. If you choose wisely, each font family will have enough weights and styles to cover most document requirements such as regular for body copy, bold for emphasis, and italics for quotes and captions.
To do: Limit the number of fonts to two or three. Choose a light/heavy font combination to provide better visual contrast and more interest on the page.
Text: the building blocks of content
Break up large blocks of text with headings wherever possible. This will not only make your pages look better, but also help your reader find the information they need easily.
Bullet points create emphasis and focus the eye. They are used for lists but consider using them within a long paragraph to provide concise explanations of specific points and break up a lot of copy. It’s important too that bullet points are properly aligned.
Use bold for words or sentences you want to highlight. Don’t be tempted to use bold, italic, and an underline. It’s too much; keep it simple. Save italics for quotes and captions. Underlined text is a holdover from typewriter days and is best left for URLs.
Body text looks better aligned left. Justified text creates dense blocks of type that are boring and harder to read. Additionally, indented paragraphs are better suited to book layouts. Create a ‘space after’ setting on your paragraph styles to let them breathe.
Check your line spacing too. Generally, you should allow at least two extra points (or more) over the font size you’re using so the text doesn’t appear too tight, e.g., if the font size is 10 points the line spacing should be at least 12 points.
The overall line length of your text will also make a difference. Text spanning the width of an A4 page is too wide. Reduce it by a quarter or a third, and it will be easier to read because the eye doesn’t have to travel as far across the page and back again reading each line.
To do: Use headings and bullet points to break up large blocks of copy. Increase line and paragraph spacing if needed. Reduce the line length of your copy if it spans the whole page.
Colour: less is more
If you have brand guidelines, the colours are already selected. However, if you don’t, think of using a couple of colours that work well together to create a cohesive look. Too many colours can distract your reader from your content.
Consider using a third colour as a ‘pop’ to highlight breakout boxes and important information. Use tints or shades of the selected colours in charts and tables and other graphic elements. But be aware of how they print (if this is a requirement) as opposed to how they appear on screen.
Use a dark colour for body text for maximum contrast and better legibility. Careful use of colours in headings, graphic elements, and bullet points enhances your document’s visual appeal.
To do: Choose two or three colours that work well together. Use their tints/tones if you need variations in tables, charts, etc.
Graphic Elements: cut from the same cloth
If you’re using lines or arrows, make sure they all have the same line weight and colour. If some icons or shapes have a drop shadow and some don’t, choose a style and make them all the same. Charts, tables, and graphs should appear with the same font sizes, spacing and colour.
Think about what each element is doing. Does it serve a purpose? Charts and graphs convey data. Breakout boxes bring attention to important information. But do you really need a page border and bits of clip art that have no relation to the text? Removing useless elements immediately creates more white space, reduces clutter and makes your content easier to read and navigate.
Keep the size and shape of your images consistent throughout your document for a cohesive, stylish look. Different shapes competing with each other visually are distracting and look untidy. Add captions so your reader understands what they are seeing.
To do: Check graphic elements for consistency in line weight, style, and colour. Think about what each element is doing. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, get rid of it.