Over the years, I have noticed common layout mistakes in documents, web pages and PowerPoint slides. Avoid these mistakes and you’ll produce more professional documents.
1. Don’t just fill up space
Just like you need darkness to appreciate light, you need white space to make your documents 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 whitebspace is used.
2. Beware of stuff overload
Volume does not equal quality. So edit ferociously to keep your content tight.
Refrain from gratuitous decorations. As a general rule, use at most two typefaces and no more than three different heading sizes. Avoid colours and images unless they are pertinent to your material.
Remember, your intention is not to show off the weirdest typefaces you have, or the vastness of your clipart collection.
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, make their widths obviously different.
Left-justified headings are neater and easier to read than centred headings. On some web pages, 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 web pages, right-justified text can be invisible on smaller screens.
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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 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.
Do not put your logo on every page or every slide. Your logo should not be a space filler. If your message is useful or interesting, 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.
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.
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. Multimedia is annoying!
Just because you can, does not mean you should. When used inappropriately, animations, videos and sound all scream “Amateur”. And they are usually poor quality, to boot.
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.
Keep it simple. When in doubt, don’t format anything! The styles in the various default MS Office templates do tend to produce good results.
The result will be documents that are easier to read, transfer between computers, share, upload to information systems and integrate into workflows.
Do you have any other pet layout mistakes?