7 Strategies to Boost Readability in Any Design

Sometimes it’s easy to get so involved with the details of a design, we forget to step back and take a “big picture” look. Here’s a quick checklist to help you evaluate your design’s appearance – and catch any flaws before your client does.

  1. Rivers of white space – This happens with justified type (type that lines up on both the right and left sides of the paragraph) and narrow columns. You’ve probably seen it in newspaper articles – white space flowing down through the columns. The eye tends to focus on the white space, which makes reading difficult.

    Solve this problem by changing the text size or the column width. You can also use flush-left alignment (where the type lines up only on the left side of the paragraph).

  2. Gray pages – Columns of text, such as in a magalog, need sufficient breathing room. If the columns crowd each other or the edge of the page, or if the text gets too close to the graphics, the page will feel claustrophobic.

    When you hold a crowded page at arm’s length, it will look gray. To give the text breathing room, move it away from the graphics, make the columns narrower, or reduce the font size if necessary. Don’t go below 10-point type, however, as that’s too small for most people to read.

  3. Too many typefaces – There are thousands upon thousands of typefaces available to us, and one of the most common mistakes designers make is trying to cram too many into a design. To make matters worse, we can bold the text, italicize, underline, and use small caps and all caps.

    You’ve probably seen sales letters that look like the designer used every font she could get her hands on – NOT great for readability. Not to mention, it looks amateurish. Too many typefaces slow readers down, and that’s a perfect invitation for them to quit reading altogether.

    Avoid this problem by limiting your use of different typefaces. A good rule to follow is to use one highly readable serif font (Times, Garamond, Georgia) for the body copy. And use one or two readable sans serif fonts (Arial, Helvetica, Myriad) for the headlines, subheads, captions, and similar short-run copy.

    Adopt a consistent style structure for the various elements of your designs (headlines, subheads, body copy, and the like). Use the “Styles” function of your design or word processing software to make it easier. This will ensure that you’ll always produce pages that look clean and lead readers through the copy systematically.

  4. Tombstoning – This happens when headlines (or subheads) that appear side-by-side in parallel columns are too close together and look almost like one wide heading. This is not only hard to read, it drastically reduces the impact of the words. You can either move the columns further apart, or put a vertical line or graphic between the heads to separate them.

  5. Whispering headlines – Headlines should be larger and bolder than the copy they introduce. They should SHOUT for attention! Small, whispering headlines don’t do the job they’re supposed to do, resulting in a drab, gray page. This tells the reader there’s nothing on this page of importance.

    Bump headlines up to about 3 times the size of the text (i.e., 12-pt. text would have a 36-pt. headline) and increase subheads to between 2 and 6 points larger than the copy (i.e., 12-pt. copy would have 14- to 18-pt. subheads).

  6. Jumping horizons – On a multi-column page, jumping horizons occur when the columns start at different distances from the top of the page. This uneven effect distracts the eye and slows reading. Easy to avoid. Just make sure you look for it when you give your design a final check.
  7. Floating subheads – It can be confusing to readers if a headline or subhead is closer to the preceding text than to the text that immediately follows it. To anchor a floating head, use appropriate line spacing to separate it from the text before it and close the gap with the text that comes after it.

Paying attention to these little details will help you create a piece that’s inviting to read, has a clean, professional appearance, and moves the reader effortlessly through the sale.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: November 29, 2007

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