Visual Design

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.

general principles
Despite all of the variables, there are a few document design principles that will help writers produce more attractive and accessible documents. As a designer of documents, you should:

  • "design" pages/screens instead of simply "writing" them (use storyboarding and thumbnail sketching to plan page layouts)
  • define the communication area for your pages (size of paper/screens, margins)
  • determine a consistent layout for all pages/screens of a document (where will words and pictures go versus white space, use style sheets)
  • create visual hierarchy in your documents (show importance of elements via white space, bold, and type size)
  • chunk information for accessibility (group similar ideas, use lists, focus segments with headings)
  • use color for effect (be aware of connotations of colors, use for emphasis/don't overdo)

print design
Audience and purpose are key factors for document design, just as they are when you determine content. Thus, the design of a sales pamphlet for your customers about your products will differ from that of a formal recommendation report to management about new equipment or a memo to employees about the new copy machine.

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:

  • inappropriate column and margin spacing (size margins and space between columns proportionately)
  • trapped white space or holes in publications with neither graphics nor text
  • overstuffed pages (tiny type, lots of fonts and too many graphics)
  • headlines that are too small to stand out from the rest of the text or that are so large that the text fades into the background altogether
  • floating elements (headings or pictures with equal amounts of white space around them so that they are not connected to any text or caption)
  • copy-filled pages (short documents, like pamphlets or presentation slides with too much text)
  • inconsistent design for similar elements
  • widows and orphans
    (source: Roger Parker's
    Looking Good in Print, Ventana Press, 1993)

online design
Online documents have different design needs from those to be printed. Recognizing this fact is half the battle in producing more effective online products. By online documents, we mean documents that are native to a computer, like hypertexts. These documents are created, distributed, and read online.

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:

  • too much text on a screen (think carefully before asking readers to scroll down through pages of text)
  • improper graphics (pictures that do not fit the site's image or purpose)
  • overstuffed screens (too many type styles or graphics, lots of color, too much small type)
  • unreadable text (does not stand out from the background image or color)
  • inconsistency in graphics and navigation
  • unclear navigation (can't determine how to get home, link text isn't clear, etc.)
    (source: Steve Bain and Daniel Gray's
    Looking Good Online, Ventana Press, 1996)