The way a text looks matters to a reader, so it should matter to a writer. Letters, reports, and blogs are more than just words on a page or a screen. How ideas are arranged and delivered in physical form, whether electronically or on paper, can make reading seem intimidating, confusing, or downright unfriendly, even if the content itself is perfect. Your text is like a room for your ideas. Sometimes you want readers to get in and out quickly, but often, you want them to sit down and make themselves comfortable, to put their feet up and stay awhile. Whatever the case, you should be in control of the reader’s experience.
And most readers are a lot like TV viewers with remote controls. In a moment, their attention is diverted to another channel if something about your content puts them off. It’s important to garner their attention and hold it. Good content is a key part of this, of course, but the visual presentation of your content matters, too. Reading is a difficult, cognitively demanding task, so if your design helps make your readers’ journey through the text easier, you will hold their attention longer. Give readers reasons to linger, and they will.
Good document design is both science and art. The particular design of a document—what it contains, what color scheme it follows, what alignment strategy it reflects, and so on—is the result of a series of choices made by the designer. It takes a long time to master the finer points of design, and this chapter won’t turn you into a designer, but it will offer some simple ways of thinking to help you strategize about how to make your document intuitive and reader friendly—easy to scan, search, and read.
This is not a section on design per se; rather, it will familiarize you with a few basic truths and a way of thinking that all designers know well. Whether you’re typing up a memo on new safety policies at work, producing a newsletter for your community group, or putting together a booklet describing the new app you just finished and wish to market, you need to think about a few basic elements of document design.
Spend a few seconds reviewing Figure 2; just looking at the front page is overwhelming. The design principles we are discussing are clearly missing from this image. While these design practices are broad, it’s worth mentioning that you already engage in some basic document design practices. For instance, when you format an academic essay, you center your title and regularly break to a new paragraph, which signals to the reader that it’s time for a breather, the content is shifting slightly, or you are moving on to a completely new topic. You illustrate blogs, Web pages, and PowerPoint slides with photos and graphics, animations, or videos. Even small elements of your writing help to guide readers: indentation, changes in type style (bold, italics, underline), or the punctuation at the end of a sentence.
Professional writers, especially those who work for well-funded web sites and mass-market print publications (like newspapers and magazines) are lucky enough to have the services of artists, graphic designers, skilled photographers, and layout experts. But most of us just want to have a cooler-looking blog, a more professional-looking report, or an eBay listing that doesn’t make buyers suspect our credibility.
This section briefly summarizes some fundamental concepts that you should consider as you revise and shape your text, whether it is in print or electronic form. Next, you will read and see examples of basic design principles that allow writers to combine graphic elements and text to convey a message to an audience.
Adapted from “Basic Design and Readability in Publications” by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Basic Principles of Readability
Make Your Publication More Inviting Using Basic Principles of Readability: CRAP
Despite the unfortunate acronym, CRAP is familiar to any graphic designer, and it should be familiar to writers as well. It originated with the influential designer and writer Robin Williams; she now regrets the acronym but not the ideas behind it.
I. C Is for Contrast: Use Difference to Draw Your Readers’ Eyes to and Through Your Text or Publication
You can see evidence of the most basic aspects of contrast in any Web page or magazine. The headline text is always different from the body text. It’s often bigger and bolder; it can also be in a different typeface. Headlines make it easy to skip from one story to the next and get a cursory understanding of the news; news writers make it easy for people to read only the headlines in a newspaper or Web site.
Applying strong contrasting elements to your text is important because the human eye is drawn to difference, not necessarily size. When everything looks the same, it’s difficult to focus on anything. When things are different, they are more noticeable.
When a document has few or no contrasting elements, nothing stands out. The document isn’t easy to scan, and it doesn’t invite the reader to jump in and read. It’s harder to parse, and therefore it’s difficult for readers to glean information from the text easily and quickly, if that is their aim.
Some documents, like business letters or academic papers, have fewer contrasting elements, but even line spacing and paragraph breaks help indicate where a related chunk of information begins and ends.
Contrast helps draw the reader’s eyes to certain elements in your text, and it also helps the reader follow the flow of the information and assess which items are most important and require immediate attention. Contrast creates readability, so you must pay attention to contrast in your documents. The following elements of a text can help you create a friendly, appealing sense of contrast:
Contrast Element 1: Size
Your eye moves toward things because they’re different, not because they’re large or small. Your eye is impressed by novelty more than sheer size or color or any other visual characteristic.
There are all sorts of scientific theories about why this is so, but in short, it’s not so much that making something bigger makes it more noticeable. A person’s height, for example, isn’t so noticeable until the principle of contrast comes into effect.
Both are fierce, but one is dramatically smaller. The contrast in size provides the visual drama, and pictures like these are favorite memes online.
There is such a thing as too much size contrast: think of those websites with huge type or an overly enthusiastic use of the CAPS LOCK key. Less is more, but some size contrast is essential to draw the reader’s eye.
Contrast II: Font/Size/Style/Weight
A typeface is a collection of fonts. The distinction between the terms typeface and font stretches back to the days of typesetting: hand-placing individual letters made of wood or metal, inking them, and rolling paper over them. In the digital age, most people use the words typeface and font interchangeably, though the distinction still matters to experts like designers and typographers.
What’s important to most people is that we all have a huge variety of typefaces, or font families, to choose from: Times New Roman, Arial, Bookman, Georgia, and Garamond are familiar to many of us. It’s important to choose a font (a particular size, style, and weight within a typeface) that fits our purpose. Some, like script and handwriting typefaces, are too hard to read and so aren’t appropriate for body text, for example. Some typefaces work well as headlines: Franklin Gothic Condensed and Caslon are two typefaces often used for newspaper headlines. The “font” chosen (size, weight, style—italic, bold, etc.) will be the designer’s choice.
It’s also important to distinguish between serif and sans-serif fonts. Sans serif fonts, like Helvetica or Futura, are simple and smooth; the letters don’t display the “feet” and ornamentation (serifs) that serif fonts do. Sans serif fonts are often used for headlines, but serif fonts are more likely to be used for body text. Many typographers think serif fonts (also called Roman fonts) make large blocks of body text easier to read. Some of the preference is really just about tradition.
Contrast III: Direction (Vertical, Horizontal, Circular, etc.) or Position (Top, Bottom, Side)
Changing the direction or orientation of text, graphic elements like lines, banners, or screens (smaller transparent or opaque boxes, often in a color that contrasts with the background)
Most students are familiar with how to align type. MLA and APA style, for example, mandate left-aligned body text and a centered headline. MLA Works Cited pages call for a hanging indent of ½ inch. A change in alignment can create visual interest. For example, headlines are often centered to make them noticeable.
Images are often placed in a particular location on a page (or slide) to draw readers’ attention in one direction or another. Consistent alignment with slight variations to provide interest is particularly important in PowerPoint presentations. You will be flipping from one slide to another, and if the text blocks and headlines are not aligned identically, your text and headlines will appear to “jump around” the screen in a distracting way.
Contrast V: Graphic Elements Like Photos, Banners/Bands, Pull Quotes, or Logos
Remember, we’re trying to create contrast, or difference—breaking up huge blocks of text with a variety of graphic elements can really add visual appeal and interest. Just remember—as with the examples below, less is more. Think of all the publications and web sites you’ve seen whose designers thought it was awesome to make text bold AND underlined AND multicolored AND flashing. With a bright yellow background. And too many animated GIFs. It repels readers rather than attracting them. I know you know what I mean.