Why it matters:
- A well-designed document invites your readers into your text. A poorly designed document pushes your audience away.
- Your readers are time-challenged. You can’t manage their schedule, but you can help them get your message quickly.
- Good layout can improve the accessibility of your writing; poor layout can hinder it.
From time to time we all need to assume the role of writer even if we’re not trained for it. In Contextual Design projects, interaction designers, graphic designers, and anthropologists find themselves drafted to write everything from reports for customers to articles for the company newspaper and website.
So, what is a non-writer to do? First, write clearly-but then make your message accessible through good document design. It’s simple to create documents that showcase your message rather than obscure it. Just focus on the following four elements of document design.
Use plenty of white space
Chunk your text into smaller paragraphs as mentioned in my previous design corner, Clear, concise text: Is it an impossible dream?, to give your readers quickly comprehensible content. Then make sure that you provide for white space around your text. This makes it easier to read and gives visual interest to the page.
Give your reader enough content to be credible, but not so much that it is too dense. You don’t want the manager responsible for deciding to fund your project turning away from your document in disgust because he can’t scan it and doesn’t have time to wade through the filler to find the important information.
There is also a balance between text and white space that grants your document credibility. Too much white space, especially when combined with too large a typeface, results in an air of immaturity. Sometimes clean is too clean. Look below to see some examples of good and poor usage of white space.
Remember the Z-diagram
All readers read in a pattern. Knowing this pattern will help you plan your pages better so that you can capture and maintain your reader’s interest. The Z-diagram represents how people who speak languages that read from left to right read a printed page.
We first focus on the upper left-hand corner of the page, travel toward the right, and then move through the page on a diagonal to the lower left-hand corner of the page. Finally, we read the last line of the page and end in the lower right-hand corner ready to flip to the next page.
Keeping this diagram in mind when designing your pages will make reading your document an easy exercise. You don’t want to put anything on the page that will disrupt the reader’s travel through your document.
Place your graphics with care
Take a look at the placement of the graphics elements across the following pages. The graphics on the first page distract from the text, while the graphics on the second page enhance the message and lead the reader’s eyes through the page.
Keeping the previously mentioned Z-diagram in mind, you don’t want to place your graphic elements in the upper right-hand corner or the lower left-hand corner of the page. You want to design them so they direct your reader into your document (take a look at the arrow in the left-hand example). You don’t want the pictures to be the only things your readers are looking at.
These same principles apply to documents written in languages that read from right to left-just in the reverse.
Create visual distinction between your text styles
So you’ve written clear, concise text. You’ve designed a page with good white space and haven’t disrupted the Z-diagram of your page. The last step is to create visual distinction in your text to help your readers scan the page and know where to focus their concentration. If you look at the diagrams above all you really see are the graphic elements.
Your use of white space starts to create distinction between the parts of the page. You can create even more visual distinction by wisely adjusting the size and weight of your type. Just remember-use bold and italics sparingly. In fact, keep them in your headings and try to avoid using them in your text.
Visual distinction also comes from using a different typeface for your headings and text styles. A good rule to stick to is one serif typeface, like Times or Garamond, and one sans serif, like Arial or Helvetica. Take a look at the example below.
Keeping these four principles: using white space, remembering the Z-diagram, placing graphics with care, and creating visual distinction with text styles in mind when planning and writing your documentation will help you create informative and, most importantly, usable text.