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Design for Reading

by Gordon Woolf

Gordon Woolf has written a number of books, including Newspaper Production Using PageMaker 5 and How to Start and Produce a Magazine. For information on these books, see the Worsley Press web pages, or you may e-mail Gordon Woolf.

To design for attention -- and then be sure the message is read -- several lessons can be learned from that most mundane of printed material, the newspaper. Why do newspapers tend to look like . . . well, newspapers? Because their basic design works. Readers buy the paper every day.

Many newspaper design elements which keep readers coming back every day can be applied to other media. Obviously, these design techniques can be applied to flyers and newsletters, but they can also be applied equally effectively to the web pages and CD-ROMs.

Picture, Heading, and Text

One obvious design element is the juxtaposition of picture, headline, and text. Generally, a single picture dominates the page, even though a number of other pictures may appear there as well. This picture leads the eye into the page. If this picture shows a person looking to the left, it will be placed on the right hand half of the page. The picture should be placed first, although the length of any adjacent text will have some bearing on this placement.

The headline attracts and leads the eye into the story, so the text will start under the first letter of the headline unless the designer has made use of one of a limited number of other "tricks."

Reading Ease

Note how the eye will usually be led easily into the text even though the block of words may be long. Perhaps with a drop cap and with the first paragraph set in larger type with more leading (space between the lines), the eye can be guided more easily into the rest of the story. The mass of type can be further broken up with crossheads, break-out quotes, and maybe even a sidebar (a section of the story with its own heading which breaks easily from the main text and attracts the reader).

Type columns are usually narrow to allow the eye to avoid tiring back-and-forth movement as it scans down the page. A column width of no more than six to seven words, or around 30 to 35 characters, is a good working rule.

Small type can be relatively easily read if it is in narrow columns (which is why insurance contracts and contest rules are printed in wide measure!)

Easy-to-Follow Jumps

When the eye reaches the end of a column, it should be led to only one place to continue -- the jump, and this should be automatic. Frequently this practice is broken, and usually by mistake. Without clearly understood jumps, all but the most committed readers will be lost.

Subsidiary heads, subheads, or break-outs which spread over more than one column can cause reader confusion by making part of the story look like a separate article.

Limit Clutter

Often embellishments to a page can seem attractive, but they can confuse the reader or distract from readability.

Before adding a drop shadow to every picture, consider whether the space required for the shadow might not be better used for a slightly larger sized picture that would be easier to see.

Recently I reached a web page which looked good at first, but as I started to read the text, the motion from a small gif file in the corner became disturbing. As I scrolled down past the gif, I realized the background display in a column at the side appeared to be moving the other way -- clever, but I just couldn't read on.

Backgrounds behind text can be equally disturbing. Basic newspaper design calls for reverses and tints to be used sparingly. Many papers have not only limits per page, but also total limits for any issue. However, if you do have type in reverse or on a tint, it must be bold, and it must be a size or two larger than normal body text.

Black on yellow is easy to read -- maybe even easier than black on white -- but black on red soon tires the reader, and under certain lighting just cannot be read at all.

Design for Simplicity

So, by all means experiment, but let one rule apply above all others if you want your design to be read -- keep it simple!

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