Is your terrific writing impossible to read?

Something as simple as the wrong font or color combination can undermine your potent prose. Follow these simple tips to avoid design disasters.

I recently was invoicing a client and realized I didn’t have his address. I’d worked for him only briefly, by email—we’d never spoken on the phone—but I knew his group had a website.

Quickly, I Googled him to find the “contact us” page and, fortunately, it contained his street address. Better yet, the site was beautiful—it featured gorgeous photography and was easy to navigate.

There was one big problem. The website’s typeface was unreadable. It was way too small—I’m guessing eight or nine point—and, worse yet, it was in “reverse.”

For those of you unfamiliar with typography, type is “reversed” when the letters are lighter than the background on which they sit. This typically means the letters are white (often on a black or navy background. but they might also be a very faint color (say pale green or blue) on a darker background.

There’s no denying that reverse is pretty, and it can be very effective used in limited, small areas on a printed page or a website. But here it was used on a veritable clear-cut of small type. Pages and pages of it went on and on. Even though I’m a writer and an editor—and interested in this particular client’s work—I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It was just too hard.

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So, what’s a writer to do? Well, in this case, the design wasn’t ruining my words—I’d done a different piece of writing—but I still thought it was a waste of the client’s money and opportunity.

Bottom line? Even though you might prefer to work on your crappy first draft, all writers ought to learn some basic rules of graphic design.

Here are five common design issues to watch for:

1. Save “fancy” type—reverse, bold, italics—for emphasis only. It’s best for a word here or there. Notice that in this column I’ve used bold to introduce the bulleted items and for no longer than a sentence, and I’ve used italics for words only occasionally.

2. The strongest color is black. I frequently argue with clients who want to put headlines in red, yellow or blue to “emphasize” them. Unless the type is massively thick, this is almost always a bad idea. Take a page in a magazine with different colors on it, and squint at the page. What do you notice most? For most people, it’s the black.

3. Insist on having enough space to write decent headlines. By my rules, you need a minimum of 32 characters/spaces to write a meaningful one-line head. (Some graphic designers won’t want to give you more than about 15.) I always write headlines after the layout so I can make best possible use of space. Remember, good headlines should tell you what the story is about and should include a verb.

4. Indent frequently, because unless you’re writing a book, paragraphing is not a literary tool, but a visual one. Give your readers lots of friendly white spaces on which to rest their eyes. This may mean paragraphing as often as every two sentences—you read that correctly. (Check a good daily newspaper, and see how frequently the text is indented.) Also look for more opportunities to break up the text. Subheads and pull quotes are other great devices for pulling in readers.

5. Use good quality photos. There’s no defensible reason for using blurry, out-of-focus images. If you or your client can’t afford a professional photographer and you aren’t good with a camera yourself, there are lots of excellent websites for buying inexpensive photos. One of my faves is Bigstock. Remember that the requirements for websites and print publications are very different. Low resolution is fine for the Web, but anything to be printed requires a minimum of 300 dots per inch (DPI).

Granted, the rules of engagement between writers, designers, and clients can be tricky.

The story I told at the beginning of this column had a happy ending: I told the client he was missing a big opportunity with his website, and he agreed. Although this wasn’t my intent, I might get more work from him.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Measurement Standard website.

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