If You Want People to Actually Read What You Write…
April 8, 2012
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Whether you know it or not, when you compose an e-mail, you’re designing. When you reply to an e-mail, you’re designing. When you assemble a grant proposal, a business plan, an executive summary, you’re designing.
And good design gives you an edge. How big an edge? It’s the difference between getting read or getting ignored. You don’t have to understand Photoshop or other design programs to be able to create clean business communications. You just have to develop an eye for the difference between visual order and visual noise.
I often get inspired by the work in Communications Arts magazine. The subscription is not cheap, but when you get stuck, it’s great to see how the pros do it.
Everyone could benefit from taking an introductory design course at a local college or reading a great design book, like the aforementioned Communications Arts or A Book about Design- Complicated Doesn’t Make It Good by Mark Gonyea, which can be read in its entirety here.
But if you don’t have time for that, here are some basic rules:
- Blur your eyes and ask yourself, Does this communication have a sense of order, or does looking at it give me a headache?
- Have the decency to shorten your communication. Follow the wise insight attributed equally to Twain, Churchill, Pascal, and Lincoln (“If I had more time I’d have written a shorter letter”) or Richard Bach’s maxim (“Good writing is all about the power of the deleted word”) and remember that length is design, too.
- Clean up messes. If you’re sending someone a conversation thread but only one sentence of it is important, delete the extraneous 42,000 words. Delete automatically generated dotted lines, indentations, and fonts in multiple colors.
- Reduce the number of hard returns, especially in e-mails. They create visual noise.
- Avoid huge monolithic blocks of text. No one will read them.
- Don’t get fancy. If you haven’t taken a design course, stick with a classic font. Don’t use more than three font variations on a page. That means changing typeface, size, or style (italics or bold). Don’t underline.
- For e-mails, pick a font that’s web friendly. (Arial, Helvetica, Lucida Sans, Palatino, Verdana.) That way, you’ll be sure that the way your message looks to you is the way it will appear to the reader.
- Break some rules. Where tradition might tell you to fill every page of your business plan with text, identify the single most important sentence on a page, blow it up to 36-point type, and give it the entire page to itself.
- If you don’t know what the rules are, be careful about breaking them. The point is not to be, or look, rebellious. It’s to be effective.
- Learn to use pull-quotes. If you have a lengthy block of text, pull out the most important sentence and create an easy point of entry for the reader, the way a magazine would.
- Learn to love white space. Don’t fill the page edge to edge with content. Leave room for things to breathe.
- A picture is worth a thousand words. Break up a business plan or a memo with a professional image. Stock photography or illustration houses like istock are your friend.
- Don’t use tacky images. If you’re generally tacky, I can’t help you with that. Just try not to be. Think a nice black Armani suit or cocktail dress versus, I don’t know, a Worldwide Wrestling Federation t-shirt.
- Don’t give people whiplash. Don’t center one thing, left justify another, right justify another, center a fourth, and so on. It makes things look like an obstacle course. Pick one justification and stick with it.
- Be careful with color if you don’t know what you’re doing. You could hurt someone. Stick to one color to be safe — black — and use shades of gray to add sophistication.
If you forget all this, just think simplicity. Less is more. Good design doesn’t add stuff. It takes stuff away. Don’t get fancy, don’t overdo anything, don’t use gimmicks. Simplicity and power are not mutually exclusive. They are often one and the same.
Note: This blog post was adapted from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review.