Design Do's & Don'ts:
how to look good in print
by Ken Fermoyle
Some people seem to think that making print material look good means getting fancy with
design tricks, fonts and splashy graphics. Not true! Especially when you aren't a trained,
experienced professional. Often, as in son many areas, less is more, simpler is usually
better than complex. This is certainly true for those who now have impressive publishing
tools as close as their computer keyboards, but have not been schooled or worked
professionally as designers or layout artists.
These thoughts surfaced recently while preparing for a Desktop Publishing/Word Processing
SIG meeting of my home group (TUG-NET, in California's San Fernando Valley). They were
solidified by comments made and questions asked during the session, which also covered
many of the basics of designing for print. I decided to consolidate those basics into a
sort of "10 Commandments of Design" and share them with you.
I've synthesized the following do's & don'ts from years of experience in publishing
and many sources, including Looking Good in Print, a classic book on the subject by Roger
C. Parker (Ventana Press). Thanks also to Nancy Cottrell, editor of The MUG Monitor (Macon
PC Users Group) and partner in Cottrell Computer Services, who generously shared with me a
presentation of the same name.
Most of these fundamentals apply to Web publishing as well as to printed material.
1. Don't use more than two different typefaces in a given document or publication. For
variety, use different sizes (10, 12, 14 point, etc.), weights (light, regular, bold or
heavy), and styles (normal or roman, italic, bold, small caps, drop caps). Experts often
recommend using a serif face (e.g., Times Roman or Garamond) for body copy, a sans-serif
face (e.g., Helvetica or Arial) for headlines, subheads and captions.
2. Don't use underlines except in very special cases. Underlining was one of the few means
we had to emphasize words or phrases with typewriters. Now we can use italics, boldface or
small caps for emphasis, and we should.
3. Do be very careful of overprinting type on a colored background, or reversing type out
of a colored tint block. Light blue type overprinted on a dark blue or black background
won't cut it; too hard to read. Type reversed out of a background should be in a very
light color or, preferably, white. Strong, bold, sans -serif faces work best.
4. Don't try to cram too much material onto a page. White (or negative) space is a
valuable design tool; use it well. That means allowing adequate margins and gutters (the
space between columns) as well as leading (space between lines). It's very important to
keep spacing consistent! Uneven spacing between heads and body copy, or between
paragraphs, can be distracting to a reader.
5. Do use lead-ins, subheads and lift (sometimes called "pull quotes")
paragraphs liberally to break up large blocks of type. Subheads and short summaries or
lead-ins can provide a transition between headlines and body copy. Subheads also break up
body text into sections, and identify the subject of those sections. Lift paragraphs
consist of text pulled from the body copy and placed in a screened box or between rules,
usually in a font heavier or otherwise distinct from the body type, to break up a
6. Do eliminate widows and orphans. Widows are very short lines, one or two words, at the
bottom of a paragraph. Orphans are short lines at the top of a column. Usually minor
editing, adding or cutting a few words will eliminate the line or pad it out to almost
full column width.
7. Do use clipart and other graphics to brighten up your pages, but don't go crazy with
such art. The old "too much of a good thing" adage definitely applies here. You
also want to be consistent with your art. Cartoonish clipart may clash with
straightforward line drawings or illustrations when used on the same page our in the same
section. It's usually pretty obvious even to non-designers when art styles don't blend
8. Do not use photos unless they are of good quality and you're sure they will reproduce
well in the print medium you use. They don't work well in newsletters or fliers that are
run off on copiers, for example.
9. Do reduce hyphens to a minimum, even if this means overriding the automatic hyphenation
performed by your publishing or word processing program. Just as in the case of widows,
orphans and rivers (see below), a bit of judicious editing will solve the problem.
10. Do watch for "rivers" in your body text. There are areas of white space that
run vertically through body copy on your pages. (These are far more common today that in
the old "hot type" days when experienced linotype operators produced most body
text.) They are very obvious, unprofessional and distracting to readers, so avoid rivers
like the plague.
These very basic rules of thumb apply to everything from simple letters to newsletters and
books. They really are quite simple to follow, even for novices, but they will give your
work a professional look.
One last piece of advice: when you're agonizing over the design of a document or
publication, remember the old KISS motto...Keep It Simple, Stupid! It works for me.
Copyright 1998 by Ken Fermoyle, Fermoyle Publications.
Ken Fermoyle has written some 2,500 articles for publications ranging from Playboy, PC
World and Popular Science to MacWeek & Microtimes. He was cohost/producer of a radio
show on computers and a partner in a DTP service bureau during the '80s. Ken's Korner
articles are available free to User Group newsletters and Websites. For permission to
reprint this article, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.