5 design elements for writers to consider

Yoh. Content gets prettier every day. Back in 2008, when I started blogging, my highest priorities were capital letters, full stops and paragraph spacing. Today, we’re not in Copy Kansas anymore, Toto.

Every day I become more aware of the extent to which writing is designing1, of how our primary goal as content creators is not actually informing. It’s bringing clarity (while simultaneously helping to make the copy look nice on the page). To illustrate, consider some of the sexy print ads of the past. Like these:

Avis: We try harder; Apple: Beige / Absolute Power; and Volkswagen Beetle: Lemon

In those heady days, copywriters worked with designers and account execs to synthesise the product’s value proposition or feature messaging into copy. And no copy was more important than the headline (called a “tagline”). The headline was the hook that drew readers’ eyes to the ad. That captivated them.

Things are different

But, today, things are different. Are we trying to educate our readers? To intrigue them into exploring further? To charm them into signing up? Or to make the complicated simpler for them? It’s all of these. Bloody hell.

So, here’s the thing: A little attention to text layout takes some time but it goes a long way with readers. And you don’t need to be a “grid demon2“ — or even a designer.

I’ve been thinking about this lately (and reading two fantastic books: Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug, and Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience by Michael J Metts and Andy Welfle), and I’ve compiled a shortlist of five basic design elements for writers to think about. (You’re welcome.)

#1. Alignment

In early August 2021, I posted the following on LinkedIn and people went bananas:

“Justified text is THE WORST. Please, my people: Left-align your Word documents. Here’s why: Straight vertical margins on the left and right of a column of text make it much harder to read. Don’t believe me? Believe an expert:

‘…[S]ubtle word-spacing and letter-spacing algorithms are needed to make justified text look ‘good’, and Word’s aren’t up [to] the job. So it’s not really the column width that’s the problem, but rather limitations in the software. Many beautiful books are set in single-column justified pages, but they have been properly typeset. Word documents simply should not be justified.’ — @ellenLupton

“The defenders of text justification will tell you it looks ‘professional’. But it’s a fake professionalism, because it comes at the expense of readability, which should be the first priority of any and all word processing. Okay? Thanks.”

That post got more comments than anything else I’ve shared this year. Because people have feelings when it comes to text alignment.

The rules of design3 state that we should align copy and visuals in a consistent manner, so as to avoid a jumbled look or “the feeling of puzzle pieces scattered willy nilly” (Writing Commons, 2021). So, you could extrapolate that, as long as you pick an alignment style (left-aligned or justified) and stick with it, you’re okay. Nah. Sorry. I’m here to tell you, writer, that if you’re not a layout professional, you should never, ever force-justify. This can create text with huge gaps between words, which looks awful and drives copy editors completely batshit.

#2. Contrast

Well-designed text has an obvious structure and hierarchy; in other words, the relative importance of different pieces of content on the page is clearly conveyed. A headline, for example, should always be more visually important than body copy.

Bearing in mind that online readers consume only 20% of the content on a page4, it’s important that you use lists and subheadlines (subheads) to help guide readers’ eyes towards the most important info and make it easier to absorb.

Lists make your content easier to scan. Choose numbered lists when the order, sequence or relative priority of items is relevant, and bulleted lists when items can appear in random order. In both cases, try to keep your listed items roughly equal in length, because this helps to create a balanced weighting.

Internally, bold is useful for making a word or phrase pop out, while italics can emphasise a point, imply tone, or even convey dialogue. But be aware that underlining is tricky when used on screen, because it may be confused for a link.

#3. Balance

When it comes to balance, the mandate is to place design elements in relation to other design elements, with those on the left, right, top, and bottom quadrants of the text equally weighted to achieve visual harmony.

How does this affect copy? We must strive to create balance a) between text and visual content, and b) within text. The former is easier if you stick to this rule. In terms of weight, visuals and text should feel somewhat equal across the scope of most projects: printed, on screen, large and small. The latter? Not so easy. Here are some basics:

  • Mix up your content. In general, try to give readers a break from blocks of text every 250 words or so. Use visuals, gifs, or even big block quotes.
  • Take the time to format your text internally, per Tip #2: Contrast, but take care to spread the formatting evenly throughout the copy.
  • Remember that, if good design is a balance between positive and negative space, well-designed copy must include negative space. It gives the reader visual breathing room. Use shorter paragraphs; more paragraphs; and hard returns between paragraphs and bulleted items, and before and after heads.

#4. Repetition

In design, repetition can bring a strong sense of connection and balance to a layout. The idea is that, by re-using a motif or treatment, you can provide a reference for the reader so that disparate areas feel part of the same overall composition.

In writing, a strong idea or point sometimes deserves repeating. Because people scan. Attention spans are short. And the repetition of an idea or unique selling proposition builds emphasis and reduces the odds of a reader missing it.

Repeating key points three times in copy seems to be the sweet spot, although there is good and bad repetition5. Here are some tips:

  • When writing emails, link thoughts from the subject line to the email copy
  • For landing pages, use sidebars, block quotes, or other call-outs
  • In sales copy, tease the key point upfront then bring it to life in the body text, re-state it in the call to action, and sneak it into the guarantee or a PS

#5. Ease of use

This last one, ease of use, is not a design element. You won’t find it anywhere in the design world. Because I made it up. And it’s important.

As writers, we must try to make the reader think as little as possible and do as little work as possible. This is the best way to get them to read and digest our stuff.

The Nielsen Norman Group is an organisation that conducts user experience (UX) research and one of its 10 important techniques for user interface design is this: It’s key for writers to understand “recognition over recall” — in other words, to make plain the object, action and options a reader has, so they needn’t remember it.

For example, if you label an action Delete in one area and Erase in another, the words may mean the same thing but readers have to pause to think about it. Picking one and using it consistently will help readers to recognise the action, when they see it, while being assisted by what they can recall from the last time they used it.

The bottom line? Do what’s best for your reader. A cogent and well-thought-out conclusion would give this article good visual balance — but I’m on 1312 words now, life’s too short and I have nothing left to say.

I care about you, reader, so this is Markman, out.

1 Metts, MJ and Welfle, A, 2020, Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience. Rosenfeld Media
2 99designs.com/blog/tips/history-of-the-grid-part-1
3 writingcommons.org/section/design/design-principles
4 econsultancy.com/why-visitors-only-read-20-of-your-web-page
5 paigemoultonwrites.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/repetition-its-good-and-bad-yes-good-and-bad

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on words and writing. Want some?

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