ITS 311: IT Communications

Chapter 4: Designing and Producing Documents and Presentations


This chapter discusses basic document layout choices. Objectives important to this chapter:

  1. Document design options including fonts, styles, layout, margin, color, headers, and footers
  2. Presentation features including front and back matter, index, and bibliography
  3. Production decisions

Chapter 4 begins with an overview of several features of document design. In actual practice, you may want to make these choices before you consider the graphics options in chapter 3.

The layout options for a document are numerous. The author begins with a suggestion that the design of the first page of a document is crucial to the reader's perceptions of that document. This is similar to the idea that a reader will judge a book by its cover. If the reader is not interested in the document right away, the document may be ignored and your work on it wasted.

One of the first, and easiest to implement, ideas in the chapter is chunking. This means using a recognizable pattern in your document. It also means to break up the document, to use headings and white space that let the reader take in your material in chunks. In these web notes, for example, I have placed the course and chapter references at the top of each page, the navigation buttons at the upper left, the chapter objectives under the chapter title, and the lecture material under that. A pattern of organization that is repeated in your document helps the reader find material quickly.

The next concept is called queuing by the author. Her use of that word is unusual. What she means is to impose a visual structure on the document. For example, make your headings larger, darker, and aligned differently from your paragraphs. Make your quoted material different in another consistent way, such as indenting long quotations and changing the font used for such material.

A third idea is to use filtering, which means to use visual cues that tell the reader what kind of information is being presented. For example, marginal notes may be used for material that supplements the document, but is not actually part of the presentation.

All of these ideas are related. The text contains several examples that show a variety of chunking, whitespace, queuing, and filtering. You can see much the same thing by looking at a newspaper, a magazine, and a well crafted user manual. Take a minute or two now, and look at these things with this point of view. Think about what the writer is telling the reader by the use of space, layout, font size, etc.

Some traditional publishing terms are introduced:

  • line length - also called measure, this is the limit to the number of characters on a printed line. This is often about 60 characters. Too few characters per line will bore readers, but too many will cause readers to lose their place when they inevitably have to look away and come back to your page.
  • leading - the vertical space between lines of type. This goes back to earlier times, when type was set for a printing press by hand, and lead spacers were placed between the lines of characters. Word processing and desktop publishing programs let you modify the leading of a document. Most users will not need to do this. In general, increase the leading for small type to make it more readable.
  • kerning - the horizontal space between characters on a line. Most fonts are now proportional, which means that the space before and after a character varies based on the width of the character itself. Let's see that line in a font that is not proportional:
    Most fonts are now proportional, which means that the space before and after a character varies based on the width of the character itself.
    The line above is set in a Courier font, which is not proportional. It is fixed pitch, which means the width of each character is exactly the same. It is similar to old style typewriter output, and considered less appealing to readers. Note: I did not change the kerning of the example line, I changed to a font that uses a different kerning scheme. Changing the kerning in a document should allow you to use the font of your choice. I have some different limitations in this web format.

This takes us to more material on appearance of the document.

  • Headings are discussed. As noted above, they help organize the document, break it into acceptable chunks, and help a reader find material they are looking for.
  • Font choices include size, style, and family. Most fonts fall into one of two groups: serif or sans-serif fonts. This document is set in 10 point Arial. Arial, Helvetica, and Swiss are fonts that have no unnecessary extensions on them: no serifs.
    The Courier font used here has serifs. Note the extra horizontal bits on the N, T, f, p, and other letters. Those are serifs.
    For many years, it was recommended that documents use serif fonts, to lead the reader's eye from one letter to the next. Currently, the fashion on the Internet is to use sans-serif fonts.
  • Margins are another element that add whitespace to a document. They should be considered for that aspect, and for a related one: justification. The text of a document may be justified (aligned) with the left margin (left justified), the right margin (right justified), both margins (full justified), or centered. Each kind of justification has its place. Note that the author recommends a ragged right margin to make it easier for a reader to look away, then find the correct line again easily. This is a feature typical of text that is left justified. Some authors prefer full justification, which produces smooth left and right margins, but this often leads to too much whitespace on some lines.

The author turns to page elements that provide emphasis:

  • This list is an example of a bulleted list. Bullets provide chunking and whitespace. A numbered list does this as well, but should only be used when the items in a list follow a sequence, such as numbered instruction steps. Again, the numbers not only provide chunking, but they help the user who must read a direction, turn away to carry out that direction, then return to the text without missing a step.
  • Specific words or characters may be emphasized with boldface, italics, underlining, and other features. If you choose to use these, be consistent in the meaning you assign to them, and make that meaning clear to the reader. I typically use boldface to emphasize topic words, and italics to indicate foreign words or variables. Italics are also correct for book and movie titles. Underlining is discouraged on web pages, because links are usually underlined. Underlining for emphasis gives the reader a false impression that the underlined word is a hyperlink.
  • Color is recommended in moderation. It is sometimes useful, but can obscure your work if readers have color perception problems. An excellent web site for experimenting with color choices is the Visibone Webmaster's Color Lab. Take a trip to it, if you have not used it. Click several colors on the color wheel, and you will see what each looks like in the presence of the others. Very useful.

The chapter continues with a discussion about material that is only used in formal documents, such as tables of contents, indexes (also called indices), glossaries, bibliographies, and appendices. The actual layout and use of each of these features will vary with the required style of your document. Style requirements are discussed in chapter 6.