Shirley J. Caruso, Ed.D.
Desktop publishing can be tricky. If you want your desktop-published products (documents or presentations) to have a greater impact and communicate your message more clearly, you must carefully consider several basic design decisions. You may be familiar with the types of products produced by popular software such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Publisher, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Depending on your particular needs, these types of document or presentation-producing software can help you publish a newsletter for your company, write a report, or create a presentation, for example. And each of these software packages are chock full of choices – font choices, graphic choices, and formatting choices. You may have even purchased or decided to use a particular software program for your particular needs based on the number of choices it has to offer. The more choices the better, right? Maybe so. But the more choices of fonts, graphics, and formatting these programs offer can leave you confused about which design would have the most positive impact on the audience it is meant to inform.
Three tips that can help you in creating the most effective documents or presentations are 1) Use a limited number of typefaces, or fonts, 2) Use graphics carefully, and 3) Avoid common text formatting errors. Explanations of how each of these three tips can help improve your final product are set forth in the following paragraphs.
It’s true that unusual typefaces or fonts can help direct the eye toward text, and that’s a good thing when you are trying to inform your audience and maintain their attention. But too many different fonts on a page can be distracting, leaving your audience confused, and some fancy fonts may be difficult or impossible for your audience to read. Take scripted fonts for example. These are the types of fonts that look like handwriting, or cursive writing. Can you be sure that every member of the audience for whom your published product was intended can read cursive writing? In many schools across the nation, cursive writing is no longer being taught. Imagine sitting through an entire presentation not being able to read one word that is projected on the large screen! Would you admit to not knowing how to read cursive? Probably not. So although there is an almost endless variety of fonts to choose from, it’s best to stick with the less fancy ones.
Even with the less fancy fonts, there are quite a few choices. You may find yourself using one type of font in one section of your document or presentation, and another type of font in the next. This practice, too, can work against you. If you combine too many fonts within the same document or presentation, they’re almost certain to draw attention away from the content of the words and pictures. Our eyes and brains are more comfortable with consistency rather than variety. Even when you’ve chosen to include only one type of font for the design of your document or presentation, it is best to remain consistent. In other words, maintain the size of the font and be consistent with the line spacing throughout the document or presentation. So how many fonts are too many for one project, and how do you when your design may be at the tipping point? A good rule of thumb is to limit the number of different font types to three or four. And it may very well be that you feel your design should include more than four. As with any rule, there are exceptions. Ask yourself what the reason is for using more than three or four different types of font. If you have a reason, and the reason is a good one, you’re your design can certainly serve the purpose for which it was intended. One way to know for sure is to test your publication out on at least three people who are representative of the audience you are trying to reach. Ask them specifically about the various fonts you have used. Feedback before the document is published or presentation is presented will give you the opportunity to create a document or publication with the most impact.
Not only does the word processing or presentation software offer use an abundance of font choices, there are countless graphic choices. Anything from pre-loaded pictures, to shapes, to charts and graphs can be selected or created. But remember, our brains are wired to take in information, including graphics, in small doses. You should therefore limit your use of pictures and designs to direct attention and express information. The use of too many elaborate pictures or graphic designs, included just to make your document or presentation look more “decorated”, can be distracting to your audience members. Here, too, the lesson of less is more applies. Instead of many small images, consider using just one or two large images to convey your message. Overloading your audience with images usually comes in the way of using too many scattered clip art images, decorative bullets, text boxes, or ornamental borders all on the same page of your document or slide of your presentation. It is best to choose one or two main images that complement your text and use them to direct the attention of your audience to a point you are trying to make.
Avoid text format errors.
Even if you have reduced the types of fonts you are using down to three or four, there are still so many different things you can do to the appearance of your fonts! One thing in particular that really detracts from a document or presentation is angle text. As with the scripted or fancy text type, angling the text can make it difficult or impossible to read. For most audience members, it becomes a challenge for them – a bit of a puzzle of mystery to figure out. Instead of focusing on your presentation or content of your document, their focus is directed toward solving this mystery. Stay away from angling text and oddly-shaped text boxes.