How to Design for Optimum Readability

Your prospect is a busy person with a thick stack of mail to make his way through. And he can be easily distracted away from your sales package.

So, no matter what format that sales package assumes – brochure, sales letter, or newsletter – you have only a few seconds to grab his interest and pull him into the message.

Because of this, you want to make sure the entire package looks … and is … easy to read. If he thinks he's going to have to put in even a little bit of effort to get through it, your reader will toss it for something else … perhaps even for a competitor's package.

Here are 8 things to watch out for to make sure that never happens.

  1. Spell-checkers don't catch everything.

    A misspelled or misused word will stop your reader dead in his tracks, so double-check the copywriter's spell-checker. If in doubt about the correct usage of a word, check a reliable resource like Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Watch out for offenders such as:

    • they're, there, & their
    • its & it's
    • our & hour
    • were & we're
    • for, fore, and four
    • threw & through
  2. Too many boxes and rule lines look cluttered.

    Boxes and rules help emphasize text, but too many make the page look messy. They also make it hard for your reader to find the most important information or to skim for items of special interest.

  3. Centered text is hard to read.

    Centering is fine for headlines and subheads, even for a sentence or two. But more centered text than that slows reading considerably, because the eye can't track it smoothly.

  4. Too many fonts look chaotic.

    Stick with one font family for headlines and subheads, and one for text. A sans-serif font for heads and subs and a serif font for text make a very readable combination.

  5. Use manual leading.

    Leading is the amount of space between individual lines of text. Most word-processing and layout programs have automatic leading – but automatic leading does not always give you the most readable spacing. So it may be necessary to adjust the leading manually.

    Fonts with short “x” heights (such as Baskerville Old Face) take less leading, while fonts with tall “x” heights (such as Antique Olive) need more. Start the leading at two point sizes larger than your font size and adjust from there.

  6. Use a single space after a period.

    Using two spaces after a period is a holdover from the old typewriter days. Computer programs now automatically set the correct spacing, and if you use two spaces after a period (or a colon), it looks awkward.

  7. Use “curly” quotes.

    Curly quotes (also called smart quotes or printer's quotes) are nicer looking and easier to read than straight quotes. Save straight quotes for marking inches or feet.

  8. Do not use hard returns between paragraphs.

    Separate paragraphs by using your program's “Space Before” and “Space After” settings. If you put hard returns between paragraphs (by hitting the “Enter” or “Return” key), I guarantee the spacing will be uneven. This not only looks unprofessional, it's also more difficult to read.

Use the above checklist whenever you're dropping copy into your design, and you'll avoid common mistakes that can stall your reader … and make him put your package aside only partly read. There goes the sale!

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The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: November 2, 2006

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