Visual design is often the key to producing professional quality documents in a business setting. This is not to say that content does not matter. A document with excellent form but no substance will be more ineffective than the document with poor form. However, becoming proficient in document layout and design can make document more accessible and effective.
Design can be an issue for an entire document (in terms of page layout-headers/footers, margins, page size, etc) or for a particular page or segment (where a graphic will go, the use of a table or columns in one part of the document, etc). In addition, design factors differ between print documents (like a traditional resume or report) to electronically distributed/printed documents (like a resume sent in an electronic file that will be printed and scanned into a database) to documents that are produced, distributed, and read online (like hypertexts). Yet another factor that often affects the look of business documents is the style sheet for the company for which they are written. Writers must consider corporate identity issues as well as content when they design documents. What follows will be a starting point for discussions about effective design for both print and online projects.
One factor to consider is reading patterns of different audience. In this country, we read from left to right, top to bottom. We should generally design pages that flow in these directions to facilitate reading in English. We should put larger headings to the left and top of our pages, supporting text and graphics underneath. By contrast, we can break this pattern when we want to have our audience notice some particular element on the page. If we place a major heading to the right side of the page, for example, we are breaking traditional reading patterns and the shift will be noticed.
In addition to these patterns, we face readers with different needs from our documents. Some readers skim for specific facts; others read for detail. We need to design documents that will enable the skimmer to find information quickly (headings, lists, notes, breakout boxes, etc.) and still allow the in-depth reader to get through all of our prose (chunk information, don't make paragraphs too long, use both graphics and text, etc).
Generally for print design, avoid the following pitfalls:
With online documents, we still have different readers with different needs from our documents. Yet the metaphor of the page will no longer suffice for design. We must, instead, think of screens of information. It is harder to do sustained reading on a computer screen. Chunking and minimalist design become even more important when readers have to deal with the inherently graphic nature of the interface for their web browser and computer in addition to the design and content of our document.
Generally for online design, avoid the following pitfalls: