Design guidance for text-intensive documents

Derek Green Thursday, December 21, 2017

A friend asked if I would be willing to cast my eye over an eBook document that they’d created in a popular word processing package. They told me that they were happy with the content, but felt it was lacking something visually. Could I make suggestions on how to improve it?

I studied the document in question. First impressions were that the layout was perfectly functional, although rather basic, and it included some rudimentary typographic hierarchy. However I felt there were several elements that made this publication look like it had been created by a high school senior, rather than a young marketing professional.  

Here are the suggestions that I provided to my friend:

Document Layout
Don’t be afraid to change the default page layout settings in your chosen app. Often margins are too narrow. If the layout only contains one column, then this creates a long line length that people may find difficult to read. For editorial design, e.g. newspapers and magazines, the rule of thumb is between 38 and 50 characters per line including the spaces! Therefore consider a multiple column layout or employing wider margins to create shorter line lengths. It will not only look more stylish but also make reading easier. 

Line Length graphic

Your typeface selection can also assist the reader. Serifs that are found in fonts like Times, Garamond and Bodoni, help to create optical lines across a page. San-serif fonts like Helvetica, Gill Sans and Univers, are more commonly used on-screen. Choosing a font that has a large x-height in relation to its point size is always a good policy. This will enable you to use smaller type sizes and still retain good legibility.

Height components of typography

Chose a font that offers you a wide range of styles and weight variations, for example, Book, Semi-Bold, Bold, etc. Also consider using a serif and san-serif font combination. This is more common than you may think. Avoid using clunky built-in typographic styles, like underline for headings. This evokes memories of bad desktop publishing documents, when font choices were limited and non-creatives didn’t know better. Plus underlined words can now be misconstrued as being non-functioning hyperlinks to other pages or websites. Keep your typographic hierarchy simple. For example: Headings bold; Subheadings bold and smaller point size; Body Text plain and smaller point size; Captions Italic.

Typographic hierarchy

Paragraph Styles and Spacing
As a typographer I find the one and a half line spacing measurement, adopted by most word processing apps, to be rather course. When I start to define paragraph styles, I ensure the line spacing unit is also set to points. The larger the type size, the less leading or line spacing, is required. When using small point sizes, 9pt for example, I tend to make the leading 11pt or 12pt depending on the x-height of the font I’ve chosen. As subheadings and headings increase in point size, so I decrease the amount of leading required. Also consider adding some space after a paragraph. This makes text entry faster, as you don’t have to keep hitting the [Enter] key all the time. With regards to spaces between sentences, the days of putting two spaces between them are over. This method - often referred to as English spacing – is a relic from the mono-spaced typewriter fonts, and is no longer required. 

Effect of leading has on typography

Assist The Reader 
Help the reader to navigate your document. A content page, pagination, running headers and footers, and the use of rules or bars to divide information are useful. Engage your reader through the use of stand-firsts or call-outs, that signpost new sections or a change of topic. Enrich your document by adding images – icons, illustrations, diagrams, tables or photos – but always make sure that their contents work with your words. Finally think about the use of colour. So often text-based documents are produced in black and white. Why? If the document is destined to be read on-screen then there is no limited to the amount of colour you can use. 

To illustrate our thoughts, we’ve typeset some of the text from this blogpost in the style of our friend’s eBook, and again using some of our guidelines above. We hope that this visual comparison will help you to understand our philosophy a little more. 

Same document created by non-designer and a typographer

Depending on the size of your organisation, you may already have been given visual identity brand guidelines by your design consultants. Usually these will tell you what typefaces and type sizes you should use when creating in-house documents. Here at [gawr-juhs] we go one step further, and ensure that type styles are built into all the templates we provide to our clients. If this is an area of interest, and you think that we can assist you, then please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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