Design for Reading
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."
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
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!)
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.
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
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!