10 Vital Tips for Visual Info and Document Design

In an earlier post, I discussed ways to improve the content of your writing. And while a document’s content is important, this is irrelevant if people are turned off by the document’s overall design. Content should always be produced in an attractive and clear manner; this not only keeps audiences reading your documents, it also helps them remember what they read.

So, when I took “PWR 480 – Advanced Workshop 1: Visual Info and Document Design” at Seneca College, I learned many important principles for optimizing the appearance of my documents. My professor, the excellent Sharon Winstanley, was very enthusiastic about the content, and she hammered each of these points into us until they were second nature.

Any professional writer looking to make clean, clear and concise documents should definitely take note of these important tips for document design:

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when choosing fonts.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when choosing fonts. (University of Calgary)

1. Choose the Right Font: While font choice may be menial to some, every designer knows that fonts are one of the most important parts of a document. Fonts greatly vary depending on readability and legibility; naturally, document designers select fonts that are very easy to read. Fonts also have distinctive personalities; we can immediately gauge the formality of a document that uses Times New Roman versus one that uses Comic Sans. Make sure that you choose the right font for the document you’re designing.

2. Consider Word and Letter Spacing: In many contemporary word processing programs such as Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign, you can adjust the overall spacing between words, lines and letters. The space between these elements is called local white space, and it affects the readability and legibility of a document. At times, words or letters may be too close together, at others, too far apart. Document designers should try to making text too dense, but should simultaneously use the space available efficiently.

3. Use Headings, But Use them Judiciously: Headings are a great way to organize information, as they describe what paragraphs of text are about. Headings are especially helpful for longer documents, as readers can quickly go to the appropriate heading to extract the information that they need. While headings help make documents more functional, document designers should be aware that too many headings can clutter a document. Readers who need to memorize a document will have a harder time doing so if there are too many headings.

4. Use Lists Effectively: Lists, like headings, are great way to easily identify groups of information. When using lists, document designers should be careful whether to make them vertical or horizontal; studies do show that vertical lists have a greater readability. Document designers should also decide between bullets and numbers; bullets usually work better for shorter lists, and numbers for longer lists. Lastly, be sure not to overload your audience with too many list items.

5. Pick the Right Image for the Job: Images are a fantastic way to convey visual information, but document designers must remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Each image in a document should serve one of three functions: it can be decorative (improving the overall aesthetic of the document); informative (a chart or graph that helps explain a complicated idea) or emotive (a touching photograph that adds emotion to the content). Please ensure that you’re not needlessly placing images if they don’t complete a specific function.

6. Introduce, Identify and Interpret Your Images: Remember, text has to work with an image in order for both elements to reach their maximum potential. When using an image, be sure to introduce it by describing what it is. You should also identify the image via an appropriate caption and title (for example, “Figure 1.1”). Lastly, interpret your image by stating its relevance in the text. This three-step method emphasizes clarity, which is very important for audiences.

7. Use Colour Effectively: Colour helps create unity in documents, both through images and text. For example, document designers can colour-code headings depending on the content they cover. This helps readers identify and group this colour-coded information together. Also, a document with multiple images might have all of them use the same colour palette. This creates aesthetic unity. Document designers can experiment with colour and use it to their advantage.

8. Create Global White Space: While I talked about local white space earlier, I also want to bring extra consideration to global white space, which is the overall white space of the document. An ineffective use of global white space can make a document too dense or too sparse, so document designers need to be weary when placing images or paragraphs on a page. There should be an ample amount of space between the separate parts of a page; this helps the document look clean and allows each part to be easily read.

The "F-Shaped Pattern" tracked via web browsing.

The “F-Shaped Pattern” tracked during web browsing. (Nielsen Norman Group)

9. Keep the “F-Shaped Pattern” in Mind: I’ve attached an image of the “F-Shaped Pattern.” This was created using technology that tracks human eye movement when a person reads a document. Often, people “scan” documents rather than reading them all the way through. As you can see, people are more likely to read the areas that are “hot spots” when they scan the page. Therefore, document designers should keep in mind that these “hot sports” are good places to put important information.

10. Avoid Underlining: This last one may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but this was one of Sharon’s professional (and personal pet peeves). We, as readers, are used to seeing and using underlines for emphasis. However, Sharon suggested that there are cleaner ways to emphasize a phrase, such as bolding or italicizing it. An underline actually makes the text less legible, and it also interferes with local white space. At first, I was skeptical about this, but after my experience in the course, I do feel that underlining is obsolete, as there are always cleaner options for emphasis and identification. Document design is a fun and creative experience, and I encourage all of you to play around with some of these elements to get a feel for what looks good and what doesn’t.

Of course, there are many more strategies for improving your documents. Thinking with Type is a great place to start, and there are tons of other resources online or in book stores.

If you’d like to ask me anything personally, feel free to leave a comment or contact me on LinkedIn.