Many of us need to create documents on almost a daily basis. Whether you are laying out a book or designing a memo for your boss, you want your documents to look professional. After doing years of professional editorial and design work, these are a few of my biggest pet peeves, which unfortunately I continue to see all the time:
1. Lack of white space. In graphic design terms, white space is the area of the page that does not contain text or graphics, such as the margins or the space in between columns called the gutter. A page should not be so crammed full of text that it’s a mass of illegible type. If you squint at the page and it seems like a homogenous gray blob, you probably have not used white space effectively. The same thing goes for PowerPoint presentations. I’m sure we’ve all sat through presentations with teeny weeny bullet points no one (except maybe the presenter) could actually read. White space also includes the spacing in between lines of text, which is called leading. Increasing the leading a bit can make your document feel “lighter” and easier to read.
2. Too many typefaces. Yes, we all have thousands of fonts on our computers, but that does not mean we should use them all in the same document. Switch to a new typeface for a reason, such as a heading. You don’t want every line or every word to be a different size or different font. (This look is often referred to as “ransom note” design, as its visually reminiscent of the ransom notes you see in books or movies that are cut out from old magazine text.) If you are unsure, stick to using just one or two font families in a document. And please don’t use goofy fonts in professional correspondence.
3. Inconsistent spacing. How many times have you looked at a document and wondered which heading goes with which text? In a long document with subheads, you want the subheadings to be grouped with the text below it, so they form a visual unit. Keeping your text grouped makes it easier to tell which text belongs with which heading. If you have ruling lines, make sure the spacing between the line and the text also helps visually indicate what you are highlighting or setting off using the ruling line.
4. Incorrect spacing. Some conventions are conventions for a reason. For example, now that we don’t use typewriters, please do not type two spaces after a period. Also avoid indenting the first line after a subhead. Indenting a paragraph is designed to indicate a new paragraph. A heading already does that for you, so you don’t need to indent the paragraph below it. Also in lists, adjust the spacing in between a bullet and the text so it looks cohesive. Set the bullet so it isn’t miles away from its associated text.
5. Box-itis. Boxes and ruling lines can be helpful to break up a page. However, don’t go nuts with tinted screens and boxes to the point that you’ve created a visual puzzle. The idea of these devices is to attract attention, so use them sparingly. An old adage says that when you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.
Remember that the ultimate goal of any document is to be read. Look at your document with a critical eye and make sure every design treatment you have included is there for a reason.