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Design for reading

We want our writing to help people get information, comply with requirements, and apply for benefits with the least possible burden. Dense, cluttered writing deters people from taking the time to read.

We’ve heard from many readers that when they get a dense, uninviting letters or notices from the government, they often put it in the “read later” pile, even though they know they should read it right away.

Designing for reading is an important part of developing effective communications. Writing that legible and well-organized is far easier to understand than more traditional styles. Even with regulations and the limits of publishing in the Code of Federal Regulations, you can use design elements to help users read and understand the information.

Organize the information

  • Limit the page to five or six sections (about two per printed page).
  • Add useful headings to help people skim and scan the page.
  • Use lists to break up the text and outline steps in a process.
  • Avoid having lists within lists or several levels of information.
  • Use tables to make complex material easier to understand.
  • Write short sentences and short sections to break up information into manageable chunks.

Use simple typography

  • Use ragged right margins where possible, rather than centering or justifying your text.
  • Set the leading (space between lines) to be 2 points larger than the type size. For example, 12 over 14.

Fonts

  • Select a serif font for the body text (like Times Roman).
  • Don’t mix fonts within the body.
  • Don’t use more than one or two typefaces.
  • Select a sans serif font for the headings (like Arial).

Shading and borders

Use shading and borders only to accent graphs, charts, etc.

Headings

  • Use uppercase and lowercase (not all caps).
  • Set headings in bold.
  • Justify to the left margin.
  • Triple-space before headings and double-space after (for example, 19.2 points before, 8.4 points after).

Bullets

  • Use standard bullets (if you choose others, like diamonds or arrows, be consistent).
  • Generally, don’t use more than two types of bullets.
  • Use numbers only if there is a sequence to identify.

Emphasis and styling

  • Highlight important concepts with simple text formatting.
  • Use bold for emphasis (not underlining).
  • Use italics for parenthetical information, like citations of laws.

Before you finish

  • Take a long look at the appearance of the letter for eye-appeal
  • Be sure the letter does not look visually confusing
  • Don’t overuse layout and typographical devices
  • Check for odd shapes (the “hourglass effect”) that may have unintentionally been created as you composed the letter

Sources

  • Schriver, Karen, Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers, 1996, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ.