When I first started my working life, one of my old school friends was serving a seven year apprenticeship as a typesetting compositor. Together with typographers, typesetting compositors were taught what they needed to know to gain an intimate knowledge of type and the rules of applying them to the printed page.
With the beginning of the “Digital Revolution” the world of typesetting became available to everyone who can use a keyboard. Unfortunately, along with it came a seven year shortcut and bypass of knowledge. With the lack of knowledge of application, many of the “rules” were increasingly broken, ignored or forgotten. It was simply inconsequential for a business owner to require a typist or secretary to acquire the knowledge, instead that role fell to a variety of suppliers, graphic designers, desktop publishers, and pre-press companies.
Which brings me to the point of this weeks blog entry. Today, most businesses have some requirement to produce some text based documents in-house, for instance reports or proposals. Smaller companies generally do not want the added expense of purchasing or subscribing to specialist software such as Adobe InDesign, and cannot always justify having the expense of using an outside supplier, so most use more limited programmes such as Microsoft Word or maybe Apple’s Pages to produce text based documents instead. I thought that it maybe of interest to cover some basic rules which may help set best practice guidelines for producing clean, readable in-house documents which will also adhere to and enhance your companies brand.
My top tips on how to improve your text documents.
1. Follow the guidelines and/or be consistent
If you have a brand identity and guidelines, follow it. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel by “playing” with different fonts, only use those specified in your guidelines. In the event that you don’t have any guidelines, I suggest that you match your font to one which has been used on previously printed material e.g. your business cards or letterhead. But, always ensure consistency and your brand will look more professional and will give the appearance of being more confident in your messaging.
2. Grids and guides.
This is all about margins and columns. In most software programmes these can be turned on or off – leave them on. Most designers work using grid systems as a discipline. This applies not only to print, but also digital and web applications. A grid and guides is a good starting place for laying out your pages in a consistent and organised fashion. One of the main advantages of a grid system is that you can control the line length by placing your text in columns. A single column over a small page area (like a paperback book) is fine, but as the pages or screen sizes get larger and the line lengths become longer, reading slows down and becomes more laborious. So by running the text over columns is not only more attractive visually, it also aids readability.
3. Always ensure legibility
The reason that you are preparing the document, is that you want it to be clear enough to read. For example, thin, orange text on a red background might look sleek, but can be much harder to read. Legibility issues can come in many forms — a font could be too fancy or small or the font and background colours might clash. Long passages of text (body copy) need special consideration in terms of readability. Rather than attract attention, this kind of text just needs to be clear and easy to read. This involves arranging the text in a structured way that makes it easy for the eye to navigate. Font size, tracking and leading and type hierarchy all play a part in communicating effectively.
4. Don’t overdo tracking and leading
This is referred to as character and line spacing in some software programmes. You are in the situation where the text has been written and doesn’t fit the space available. The font size is fine and readable, so why not reduce the leading (line spacing) or tracking (character spacing) and hey presto! it fits. The problem here is that if you overdo either it will impair the legibility and distract the reader. All of a sudden the reader becomes less interested and begins to tire. A much better approach here is to stay consistent and edit the text to fit. A couple of minor changes to the text can make a big difference with copy fitting, without having to change your message.
5. Double-Spacing between sentences
Do not double-space between sentences. Even though many people when learning to type were told to place two spaces after a period (full-stop). This practice is now totally outdated and unnecessary. All double-spacing does is to create “visual breaks” in a block of text that interrupts the readers’ flow. Many programs have tools to locate and replace double-spaces with singles (like Microsoft Word’s “Find and Replace” function). If you are supplied a text with double spacing, strip them out prior to setting the text.
6. Overdoing emphasis
There are times when you may want to emphasise a portion of text, to make it stand out visually – like in a quote, or to show it’s important. There are several ways this can be achieved: italics, emboldening, underlining, caps, font size. Just don’t use them all, for one thing it looks messy rather than meaningful and for another, it in fact makes it harder to get your message across. The occasion should be very rare that you even need to use this method of emphasis.
7. Using ALL CAPS to emphasise
This slightly different to number five and therefore warrants a separate inclusion. Using all capital letters is a common mistake – but is widespread – particularly in conversational settings like on social media and messaging. If you must use all caps, do it purposefully and sparingly – like for headlines. Don’t use them in the body of the text as it makes reading more difficult. Adults do not read character by character, but by the shape of the word, hence they can read quicker than young children. When you set text in capitals it becomes more difficult to read because the characters are of a uniform height with less shape.
8. Using automatic hyphenation and justification
Unless you are very competent at typesetting, never attempt to set passages of text justified (aligned evenly along the left and right margins). Although this can look very neat when done correctly – like in a published book – it can also look terrible when done badly. It can cause what are known as “rivers” in the body of the text. This is where the software increases and decreases word spacing to ensure both margins end evenly. So some lines can have large amounts of white space between words, and others very small spaces. This can be over come with tracking and kerning, but can be very time consuming if done properly. Likewise never have automatic hyphenation turned on, in the very rare event that you would need to hyphenate it is much better to do it manually. Again, doing either will lead to reduced legibility.
9. Special effects
Don’t use them, however playful you feel. This includes effects like 3D or embossing, drop shadows, gradients, or warping. If there is one thing that will make your document look like it’s been produced by a total amateur, this is it. A text document is not an advertising campaign for Foxtel, it is a business document that reflects on you and your brand.
10. Type hierarchy
In some software programmes referred to as H1, H2, H3, Body text. The best reason for having a structured type hierarchy is that it acts like ‘sign posts’ for the reader. It also allows you to break long passages of text into ‘palatable’ sections which can be deciphered more rapidly and with greater insight by the reader. In todays busy world where attention span is dwindling because of information overload, getting your message across quickly is important.
11. Widows and orphans
Different sources have different opinions about these names. It is not important what you call them but it is important that you watch out for them.
Widow – a line of text at the end of a paragraph separated from the rest of the text, meaning that this line is either in the next column or in the next page. It can also appear as an opening line of a paragraph at the bottom of the column or a page, thus separated from the rest of the paragraph.
Orphan – is a word on its own row that end a paragraph, thus creating too much white space between paragraphs.
In MS Word these can be automatically controlled in the ‘Paragraph’ preferences in the ‘Line and PageBreaks’ tab.
12. Proof reading
A final but important point worth noting – spell checking is not infallible. Always get a colleague to read through your text to double check for typographical, spelling or grammar errors. No one is perfect, simple unintentional errors can occur. These can make your documents appear unprofessional and possibly give your readers a negative perception of your message and brand.