Document Design Guidelines (partly from Markel)



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Document Design Guidelines (partly from Markel)
A well-designed page is attractive and easy to read. In addition, it emphasizes important material and is targeted to the correct reader.
     Markel’s discussion of page-design concepts begins with an explanation of learning theory and its relation to page design. Next, the section discusses white space, columns, and page grids. White space -- effective use of margins, columns, line spacing, and justification -is an important concept in page design. Margins allow space so the document can be bound or so the reader can easily hold the page, and they provide a neat frame. A multicolumn format enables the writer to increase the number of words on the page, to reduce line length for easier readability, and to facilitate the placement of different sized graphics. Line spacing is used to increase readability, to direct the reader's attention to graphics, and to clearly signal the break between paragraphs. Grids are planning tools that help the writer visualize what the finished page will look like.
    Typography helps you emphasize information for readers and increase the readability of your document.

Basic Principles of Design


To design an effective technical document, you need a working understanding of five basic design principles. (Each of these principles are further explained and illustrated throughout Chapter 13 of Markel.)

  • Use visual contrast to emphasize important information. Visual cues help readers locate what they need, understand it, and remember it. This principle applies to many aspects of document design. For example, black print is easiest to see against a white background; larger letters stand out among smaller ones; information printed in a color, such as red, grabs attention sooner than information printed in black.

  • Use “callouts” when appropriate. These design elements attract the reader's attention. The content of these elements is relevant to the main topic of discussion, but is set off from the normal text, either to emphasize importance or to provide additional information that must be noticed. These include the following:




  • Note: Supplemental, nonessential information.

  • Tip: A special type of note, identifying how best to perform a task, configure things to work together, an so on.

  • Important: Essential information that must not be ignored, skimmed, or otherwise missed.

  • Caution: Identifies situations that might result in the loss of data.

  • Warning: Identifies situations that might cause harm to user, device being documented, software running on device, and so on.

These elements can be very helpful to the reader, if not overused. Too many notes, for example, might suggest that the material needs to be reorganized or that it needs to be fit into the body of the document. In general, try to keep them to less than five or six lines long; a sentence or two is just right.

You can use cautions and warnings in tables, but do not special formatting or graphics. Use the word caution or warning in bold font before writing the text you must call out in the table. Do not put tips or notes in table cells; place them immediately after the table.


  • Use sidebars when appropriate. Use sidebars for information not essential to the body of the document. Sidebars should only be used on the rare occasion that this ancillary information assists the reader with understanding the rest of the material. For example, a historical piece of information that affects how something works or can be used.

They might also be used for information that doesn’t readily fit into the document but is necessary to understand the material being covered. For example, a set of guidelines on how to use something being discussed; in this case, it’s useful to use a word like “Example” or “Scenario” in the sidebar heading. Other useful sidebars are guidelines, checklists, and so on.


In general, sidebars should be no longer than 3/4 of a page in length. If you have a sidebar that is longer than this, consider whether the information is truly ancillary, necessary to the chapter, or if you can point to it as a cross-reference. If it is necessary, consider making it into an actual box that separates it from the body.


  • Use graphics for special design elements. You can use an icon for these elements, a sidebar (a line drawn in the white space beside the text), colored (or gray in black and white printing) text or background, boxes around text, and so on. Use sparingly.

  • Arrange information clearly on the page and in the document. In a well-designed document, the reader should be able to see the relationships between various kinds of information on a page. The principle is simple: things next to each other are related to each other; things distant from each other are not related to each other; the text describing a graphic should be positioned close to the graphic; items in a bulleted list should relate to each other.

  • Establish consistent patterns. Treat the same kind of information in the same way in your design to highlight consistent patterns. For example, all first-level headings should have the same typeface, type size, spacing, and so forth. This common design signals a connection between headings that can make the content easier to understand. Other elements that are used to create consistent visual patterns are colors, icons, rules, and screens.

  • Strive for moderation. Don't fill up every square inch of space with text and graphics; leave enough white space. A cluttered-looking page will be confusing. Use simple graphics to communicate your information and only a few typefaces and colors.

  • Achieve a balanced look. Balance refers to the visual stability of the page; it should not look as if it is tipping to one side or is top-heavy or bottom-heavy. In documents that open to a two-page spread, the concept of balance should apply to both pages.



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