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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