“You eat with your eyes first” is a popular aphorism among chefs and foodies. If food looks unappetizing, your brain is primed to taste it as unappetizing, too.
Now, “You read with your eyes” is more than just an aphorism—for most people, it’s a statement of fact. Design is not merely a first impression of something we are about to consume. It controls how we consume content, from the order we read elements on a page to the shape and spacing of the letters. If a paper or presentation looks cluttered, unfocused, or unprofessional, your audience will be much more likely to interpret your content as such. These five tips will help you avoid this fate.
1. Consider how your work will be consumed. Your report or presentation does not exist in a vacuum. It will be read by specific people, on specific media or devices. Reading a hard copy on 8.5 x 11-inch sheets of paper is a very different experience than reading the same content on a tiny smartphone screen.
So before you start thinking about design, think about how your typical end user expects the information to be packaged and distributed. If most of your users view content on their smartphones, even a nicely-designed PDF will be hard to read. So will large infographics or charts designed for larger screens.
2. Give your content room to breathe. Whether you are creating a presentation, a website, or a PDF report, a liberal use of “white space” can help avoid a cramped, claustrophobic appearance. For text, adjust the line spacing. You certainly don’t need to go so far as double-spacing—a subtle adjustment up to 1.2 or 1.3 can greatly improve the experience of reading.
For visuals, such as charts and images, surround them with big margins. Leaving extra space around visuals helps draw attention to them—just like speakers use extra pauses to emphasize important points.
3. Funnel your reader’s focus. Research shows that multitasking is a myth. Our brains can really only focus on one thing at a time. This fact is especially important to consider in design. If there are too many elements on your page, your readers will not absorb everything at once. Instead, they’ll waste precious moments figuring out where on the page to direct their attention.
Your design should serve to funnel your readers’ attention onto a single, dominant element—a bold chart, a striking photograph, or even just a large title that breaks up a long block of text. You may include additional visual elements on a single page, but make sure your dominant element is significantly larger than the rest.
4. Make sure your visuals support your narrative. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so the saying goes. Along the same lines, a good chart is worth a thousand cells of data. But when you place visuals next to text, you must ensure that those thousand words are not shouting in cross-talk with your story.
For example, there are many stock image sites with plentiful free, high-quality images. But before selecting a stock image, think about its context in your work. If you are creating a report about skyrocketing drug overdoses, for example, a bland stock photo of a smiling doctor may come off as jarring.
5. Highlight your content’s structure. Every piece of writing, good and bad, has structure. At minimum, writing consists of a structure of words arranged into sentences. We string sentences together to form larger structures of thought: paragraphs, which are in turn further structured into sections or book chapters.
Human beings seem to have an innate preference for consuming information in discrete chunks of information—which likely explains the popularity of the so-called “listicle” format for online content. If your content’s structure is not readily apparent, use subtle design choices to draw it out into the open. Even a judicious use of bolded text for section titles, for example, can help divide up your writing into human-friendly chunks of information.
For more information on writing and design, see our earlier blog posts:
Cover photo by Brooke Lark.