Document layout: Hints

December 15, 2008

A colleague asked me for some tips on document layout. So I thought I’d share those I came up with in just a couple of minutes. Before I start, let me state: If there is an organization style guide or template that you must follow, USE IT.

However, if you have full control of laying out a document, then take into account some of these hints:

  • Headings. Make headings clearly stand out from the body text. Use size, color, font, and indent the body text to clearly indicate heading and subheading sections.
  • Styles. Use styles for consistency and so that the ‘look and feel’ can be changed in seconds for both headings and body text. Styles will make creating an automatically-generated Table of Contents much easier too.
  • White space. Don’t be afraid of white space—it makes a document more readable.
  • Lists. For better readability (and depending on the audience), use bullets for lists of items, and use numbers for items in a defined sequence.
  • Fonts. Use no more than two font families. If the document is for reading on paper, then use a serif font (e.g. Times New Roman, Garamond) for the body text, and a sans serif font (e.g. Arial, Helvetica) for the headings. If it’s for reading online only, then use sans serif for both. Use font sizes, colors, weights etc. to vary the look.
  • Copy the professionals. Take a look at some of the computer manuals and other instructional guides or non-fiction reference books you have at home. Just flick through them (don’t read anything; just glance at the layout) and based on a quick gut reaction separate them into two piles—those you find attractive and would like to look at more closely, and those you wouldn’t want to look at again. Now take a closer look at those you’d like to look at more closely. Look at how the book designer used headings, indentation, white space, graphics, graphic positioning etc. And take your cues from this. Chances are, your gut reaction to the readability and attractiveness of a document will be the same as most other people’s.

Layout do’s and don’ts

[This article was first published in the December 2003 CyberText Newsletter]

One comment

  1. Hello,
    Thank you for the good tips you are posting in here.

    I have a question thought that i hopefully can find answer from you.

    I am requested to use Roman numbers for all the pages that come before Chapter one in my dissertation. How to do that in word 2007?


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