Well Dressed Writing: Tips For Effective Page Design

Writing is a complex process with a seemingly endless array of choices. What kind of document will you write? What is your purpose in writing it? What point do you want to get across? How will the beginning, middle, and end of your writing be organized? How will you structure each sentence? Which words will you use?

Writers make all of these choices – and many more – although some of the choices are practically unconscious. (If they weren’t, not many writers would have the endurance to get past page one!) Given the overwhelming number of decisions writers have to make, it is understandable that many times they don’t pay attention to page design. Perhaps you are one of them. You may say, “Page design!?! Give me a break. I have enough to worry about with getting the words right, never mind whether the words look pretty on paper.” Fair enough. You’re a writer, not a designer. But ignoring layout may be doing your writing a real disservice. Simple design elements, when used thoughtfully, can give your readers a better experience, which will enhance your message’s effectiveness. More importantly, twenty-first century readers are quite sophisticated interpreters of subtle visual clues. Using layout, your piece can communicate a great deal more without adding a single word. Conversely, flawed page design can significantly damage the impact of high-quality written content.

What can good page design do for your writing? Page design can strengthen a document’s structural elements, such as organization and arrangement of ideas. It can also provide emphasis where you want it, drawing the reader’s attention to your document’s main points and minimizing the need for weakifiers. Finally, the aesthetic component of solid design can amplify a reader’s positive reaction to your work. Page design thus represents an opportunity for your writing either to shine or to stumble. Consequently, it makes sense to consider page design decisions as you write rather than after you write. Just as you do with writing, you’ll evaluate design options based on what the readers would prefer. The following are some simple design elements to consider when you’re constructing your next proposal, economics paper, novella, or blog post.

1. Font – Which typeface will you use? What size? What style? There are two basic typeface styles: serif and sans serif. Serifs are the little horizontal feet that you can see at the top and bottom of the letters in some typeface styles. Examples of serif fonts include Times New Roman, Garamond, Baskerville, and Palatino. Sans serif fonts do not have serifs. Examples include Helvetica, Verdana, Geneva, and Folio.

For a document people will read on paper, serif fonts are usually preferable for body text, while sans serif fonts are preferable for headings. This is because print is relatively high resolution. Gone are the days of the dot matrix printer. Higher resolution helps the serifs do their work, which is to draw the reader’s eye comfortably through the text. In contrast, sans serif fonts are preferable for headings because of their cleaner lines in high resolution. We read online text directly from computer screens, however, which are relatively low resolution (text formed by pixels, etc.). As a result, a sans serif font is generally preferable for online documents. I have been using Verdana here at Writing Power, for instance.

2. Headings – How will you differentiate among title, section headings, and subheadings? Headings should have emphasis that is 1) hierarchical and 2) consistent. For example, headings for an entire document should be most prominent. Headings for major sections should be second most prominent, and all major section headings should have the same design. Subheadings within major sections should be third most prominent, and all subheadings within (and, in most cases, across) major sections should have the same design.

An easy way to get started designing various headings is to select design elements for each heading. The highest level heading uses the most design elements, with each lower heading level getting progressively fewer elements. For a three-level heading design like the one I described above, the document title would use three design elements, the major section headings would use two, and the subheadings would use one. Examples of design elements from which to choose include: color, size, typeface style, alignment (centering the heading on the page, for example), spacing, bold type, italic type, underlining, capitalization, bullets, and numbering.

3. White space – Can you use less to get more? Just as a cluttered physical environment can drain energy and decrease quality of life, a cluttered document is a chore to read. Too much of anything in a confined space: small text crammed into every spare inch of the page, too many images…. Overusing any one design element can make a piece feel cluttered. If the whole page is filled with the design equivalent of bells and whistles, all you get is noise. If everything is emphasized, then nothing is emphasized.

One of the best page design techniques is liberal use of blank space. Blank space – often called white space or negative space – gives the reader’s eyes a rest, which fills the reader with relief and goodwill toward the considerate writer. Blank space also acts as a simple partitioning device: for example, at Writing Power I define paragraphs not by indenting, but by putting white space around each paragraph unit. The blank space helps to highlight the impact of the page’s other design elements: in a cluttered room, no one notices the window treatments. However, in a clean, simplified living space, the window treatments will draw much more attention. Page design can be a powerful ally in your quest to communicate in writing. What are some of your favorite page design tips?

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6 Responses to Well Dressed Writing: Tips For Effective Page Design

  1. Arman says:

    Nice post! It touched a nerve :)
    I also consider design to be an important element in writing. I think writing is a type of design. While a graphic designer, for example, may use visual symbols to communicate, a writer uses words to communicate. The ultimate aim of both designers and writers is to communicate clearly using minimum elements such as a line or a word. I expect a good writing to be well designed, because then I know that the writer cares about me on the visual level of communication. He or she wants to make my life easier by making the design clearer.
    In my case, I use templates from the latest version of Microsoft editor – Word 2007. They are professionally designed and allow me flexibility of choosing from a variety of colour and font schemes. Using Word 2007 templates saves me so much time in trying to fiddle around by myself to come up with something nice. The design schemes are one of the best additions to Word 2007.

  2. loren says:

    Hi, Arman — great point about the shared goal of designers and writers. Solid page design is one more way a writer can foster the reader’s good will.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Adam says:

    I can see how this can be applied to any type of artistic endeavor, or to any job at all.

    Visual design is important to software development. After all, what use is a program, even a technically perfect one, if the users can’t stand to look at it?

    This article sparked a lot of thought. It seems that the surest way to stand out is not only to be among the best in a crowd, but to also do things that others in the crowd don’t do. To stand out as a writer, learn basic typesetting. (Fortunately, we have desktop printers and do not have to worry about typesetting a printing press.) To stand out as a software developer, learn graphic design.

    I have heard of taxi drivers who offer their riders free espresso before starting the trip, and my grandfather, who was a painter, would make his own frames and stretch his own canvas, rather than buying the supplies pre-built from a store. It seems that if we stretch the application of this idea, it doesn’t need to only be applied to visual design.

    I’ll have an article expanding on these thoughts next week. I think that I’ll also give reverse-outlining a try as well, with the “says and does” method. I will let you know of my results, although I’m certain that the differences will speak for themselves.

  4. loren says:

    Hi, Adam —

    I like the point you’re developing: in essence, it’s about honoring both your audience and your own hard work by considering ways to showcase it to its fullest potential.

    I’m looking forward to hearing how you like the “says and does” technique!


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