Website design

Seven layout and formatting traps to avoid in your documents and webpages

- September 9, 2022 3 MIN READ
Man presenting data on screen for group in office

Over the years, I have noticed common layout mistakes in documents, webpages and PowerPoint presentations. Avoid these layout and formatting traps and you’ll produce more professional-looking documents that get better results for your business.

1. Don’t just fill up space

Just like you need darkness to appreciate light, you need white space to make your documents and presentations more legible.

You don’t have to fill up every square centimetre with text or images: less IS more. Increasing the margins of your typical A4 document by 2cm will often improve the layout greatly.

Being aware of white space takes practice. The next time you come across a nice layout, make a point to notice just how much white space is used.

2. Beware of ‘stuff’ overload

Volume does not equal quality. So, edit ferociously to keep your content tight, whether it’s an article on your website or a business presentation for potential investors.

Refrain from gratuitous decorations – as a general rule, use two typefaces at most and no more than three different heading sizes. Avoid colours and images unless they are pertinent to your material – however, in website articles, ‘readability’ can be improved by breaking up large chunks of text with an appropriate image.

Remember, your intention is not to show off the weirdest typefaces you have, or the vastness of your clipart collection. It is to present your point or proposition in an easy-to-consume and professional way.

3. Don’t overuse symmetry

Using centring and symmetrically-arranged elements tends to create boring layouts. If you have a column of text and a column of images, making their widths obviously different is more visually pleasing than evenly-sized columns..

Left-justified headings are neater and easier to read than centred headings. On some webpages, centred headings can become disconnected from their body copy.

Unless you are working in a right-to-left language, don’t right-justify any body copy. On webpages, right-justified text can be invisible on smaller screens.

woman writing on laptop looking thoughtful

4. Pay attention to detail

Many documents are marred by unintended changes in typeface or type sizes. Use document styles, instead of manual spot formatting, to reduce the likelihood of this.

Other layout mistakes to watch are: heading sizes, margins and ‘orphans and widows’ (single lines of text at the top or bottom of a new page).

Also, use your spell checker!

5. Avoid unclear hierarchy

Documents and articles are generally consumed in a linear fashion, so set up a clear hierarchy of reading. Put the most important information first. Use different heading sizes to differentiate between sections and subsections.

Not everything is equally important. Many ineffective websites are filled edge to edge with minimally-prioritised material. Ensure your highlighted or homepage content is informative, well-written, easy-to-read, and SEO-friendly. Consider removing or optimising content that does not meet these standards.

Do not put your logo on every page or every slide of your documents and presentations – your logo should not be a space filler. If your message is useful or interesting – and well-presented – people will remember you.

6. A word processor is not a typewriter

Unless you work in a monospaced typewriter font like Courier, hitting space twice after punctuation creates ugly gaps in your paragraphs. It also screws up the Full Justification algorithm, if you choose to use it.

Use Paragraph Styles to specify the gap between your paragraphs, instead of hitting Enter twice. Each stroke of the Enter key adds an unnecessary Paragraph Mark to your document. On webpages, this can make your page slower to load – a surefire way to lose your reader before they even read your content!

Don’t use spaces to line up bits of text that should be in a table. A space is used to separate words and nothing else.

7. Use multimedia wisely

Just because you can, does not mean you should. When used inappropriately, animations, videos and sound can scream ‘amateur’, especially if they are poor quality. Common examples are websites that unexpectedly play sound, PowerPoint presentations with a spinning logo on every page, and Word documents that use those blinking fairy-sprinkles Text Effects.

If you choose to include video content on your website or in presentations, make sure it is of good quality and that the video complements the article, webpage or document it appears on.

Keep it simple. When in doubt, don’t format anything! The styles and layouts in the various default MS Office templates do tend to produce good results.

The result will be documents, presentations and articles that are easier to read, transfer between computers, share via email or screen-sharing, upload to information and central management systems, and integrate into workflows.

This article was originally published in 2008 and has been updated for 2022.

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

    'Flying Solo opened up so many doors for us - I honestly don't know where I'd be without it"