Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 5 NO. 6 / FEBRUARY/MARCH 1991



Layout Tips For Good Looks

Desktop Publishing/Word Processing Editor

Words on a page. They all have something in common. Whether they are combined to create a single-page flyer, a multipage newsletter, or the great American novel, the words are produced by individuals who wish to share their messages with others.

But in order to share messages, the words have to be read. That, in part, depends on the manner in which they are presented. A report on important environmental issues probably never will be read if it is presented as a mass of small, closely-spaced text on both sides of a single page. Switch to a multipage newsletter format, with larger text sizes, a few supportive graphics and a triple-column layout, and your audience is more likely to read and comprehend the message. The bottom line is that if your message is important enough to be written, you should give it the best possible chance of actually being read.

This month we're going to examine some layout aids that will encourage an audience to read your documents. These ideas will increase comprehension and enhance communication.

To create a document, begin by establishing layout standards and consistently apply them to each page. It sounds easy, but there are literally dozens of layout decisions you may need to make before producing a single page. (See sidebar.) In order to maintain consistent style, professional publishers typically produce specification sheets for each job. These spec sheets include information such as page size, margins, column format and font size.

wide variety of forms. Each has its
usefulness but those that attract a
readers eye to the beginning of an article are
among the most powerful. The Drop Cap
and upper case letters in the first sentence
are commonly used in many publications.
An example of eye-directing layout

Some programs have the ability to use this information internally as style sheets or templates which can be loaded at the beginning of each session. In addition to a computerized version of your layout standards, a printed sample that clearly describes your specifications is an invaluable tool. You should describe your standards for each page component clearly; Sub-heads: Bold Triumvirate, 12 point, uppercase letters only, no lines between body text and subheadings.

Fluctuating layout standards are confusing and tend to annoy readers. A standardized document incorporates page elements in such a way that readers don't actively notice the page layout. Standardization is only noted on a subconscious level. However, when page numbers are missing or inconsistent fonts are used in the body text, readers begin to pay attention to the page layout- not the text on the page. This not only distracts readers, it can also damage the credibility of your message.

A cue catches the reader's eye and directs their attention.

Long before I developed a passion for computers I was an amateur magician. One of the basic lessons I learned was to direct an audience to observe specific actions while ignoring others. In this way the audience missed the hocus-pocus and beheld the miracle.

Similarly, the desktop publisher can direct an audience to pay attention to important components in a document by using specific graphic and textual devices. Examples include an arrow that indicates that an article continues on the next page, or a bullet at the end of an article that indicates the piece is finished. Some publications capitalize the first few words in an article to draw attention, others enlarge text in the first paragraph to make it stand out. There are many commonly used variations on this simple theme.

Visual cues should be uniform, just as the rest of a page, but the mechanism that makes a cue in valuable is different from that of standardization. A cue catches the reader's eye and directs their attention. A good cue cries for attention. Correctly used, it can convey valuable information through a minimum of space. Symbols become words, phrases and sentences (this is a new article, turn to the next page, this is an advertisement).

Where you place text in a document can be as important as the information itself. For years publishers have effectively de-emphasized important stories by burying them in obscure sections of the newspaper. Stories that have made headlines in major European publications may only be acknowledged with a simple paragraph in U.S. periodicals.

While it seems unfair to produce a document that intentionally buries a message, it is also possible for the
desktop publisher to produce a document that buries a message unintentionally.

Within seconds after a reader picks up a document they decide whether or not to continue reading. Where you place your message on a page is as important as the message itself. An eye-catching headline in a strategic location could make the difference between failure and success. A graphic placed strategically above an article could intrigue a reader enough to look at the article below.

Keep the Z pattern in mind
when placing items.

In planning your layout strategy consider the following: The first place a reader looks on a page is commonly referred to as the optical center. It's about three-eighths of the way down a page and slightly left of center. Take a look at the cover of a newspaper. Where is the headline? It is in the location where it will receive the maximum attention, the optical center.

Westerners read a document from left to right and from top to bottom. Our eyes routinely follow a Z-shaped pattern as we read. This applies even when we don't actually read a document but simply scan a page. Place your page components where they will take advantage of the Z pattern. Locating an item on a page is easier when the pattern is followed.

One of the most common mistakes desktop publishers make is to crowd too much information on a page. They have a lot to say and the tendency is to try to say it in the smallest amount of space possible.

Crowding is usually justified by claims that it saves paper or makes a page look full. However, it can confuse an audience (lots of little items to look at) and reduce comprehension (closely spaced lines of text make reading difficult). Worse, your audience may decide to skip the page completely and read something that contains more breathing space.

If it doesn't all fit on a page, add another. Don't crowd! Check your standards. If the item you're attempting to add to the page won't fit unless you cheat on your standards, then use it somewhere else. Decreasing the size of margins, reducing leading, or squeezing columns of text together to make another item fit is not the answer.

Some sources recommend that as much as 50 percent of the page should be unused space. Unused space, referred to as white space, should be considered a component of the page, not just space to fill up. To insure enough white space, allow a 1/2- to 1-inch margin around the page.

It's true that publications such as newspapers and magazines use a minimum of white space in the margins, but they compensate for it in the balance of page components. Light fonts, increased leading between lines and space between text and graphics are all combined to increase white space in these publications so that the pages don't appear crowded.

  • page size

  • page orientation (landscape or portrait)

  • margins

  • number of text columns

  • gutters (space between text columns)

  • justification (ragged right, fully justified or centered) for body text, subheads, headlines, headers and footers, and captions

  • font style for body text, subheads, headlines, headers and footers, and captions
  • font size for body text, subheads, headlines, headers and footers, and captions

  • emphasis font (bold, italics or different font)

  • leading (line spacing)

  • bullets (styles, sizes, when to use)

  • page numbering

  • format and font for articles continuing on non-contiguous pages
  • paragraph spacing

  • indentation

  • white space between graphics and text

  • line weights and styles

  • shadows (distance from originating object, saturation percent)

  • box style (rounded or squared edges, when to use)

  • box saturation (grey scale, when to use)

  • white space left around box contents