Document design

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This page refers to the design of the layout of the printed page (or screen). This is distinct from the structure of the information on that page (which is discussed under Structuring information, although the two are closely connected).

Document design is quite rightly a separate discipline in itself, and is not something that can really be summed up in a list of bullet points. Unfortunately, an eye for design is something that you either have or you don't. However, there are a couple of key principles that you can bear in mind, which will help you to lay out documents that are aesthetically-pleasing if nothing else.

  • Style and layout is often governed by use of the documentation (see Determining how the document will be used).
  • Printed matter, such as a technical or scientific publication, should be without distraction.
  • Page design and typeface should be unobtrusive

Initial considerations

There are three things to play with:

  • Typography
  • Illustrations
  • (White) space.


  • Equipment available (production method)
  • Environment in which the communication will be used
  • Purpose of communication (way in which information is to be gleaned)
  • Page size - may be predetermined, or may be able to choose depending on the amount of information and the 'levity' of the document

Arranging information

  • Develop a typographic reference grid.
  • Chunking and labeling
  • Consider mock-up pages (including mock-Latin or 'greeking' for text-layouts).

Basic document design

Four primary factors to consider:

  1. Contrast
  2. Repetition
  3. Alignment
  4. Proximity


Choose fonts carefully - consider:

The image you want to portray.

When selecting multiple fonts, make sure that they contrast and don't conflict. Try not to use more than 2 'types' on a page (or in a publication), from the following categories:

Purely for eye catching, informal publications, and used only in moderation (e.g. headings only) [Example: Hobo]
Not good for lots of text. Suitable for stylish titles [Example: Bodoni]
Lacks any distinguishing characteristics that would get in the way of reading. Good for large amounts of body text. [Example: Times New Roman]
Sans serif
Good for headings - clean appearance [Example: Arial]
Can give an 'expensive' or 'formal' look But use sparingly [Example: Lucida Calligraphy]
Slab serif
High readability; useful for extensive text. Also used a lot in children's' books because they have a clean, straightforward look. [Example: Futura]

Common convention uses sans-serif for headers, and serif for body text.

When choosing different sizes, make sure they can be clearly differentiated at a glance (e.g. don't use 10pt body text and 11pt headers!).

Presentation of information

  • Use a grid to define page layout
  • Beware of changing fashion
  • Consider numbering of sections/pages/paragraphs
  • Decide how to flag notes, warnings, etc. (see below)
  • Positioning of illustrations (opposite page, flyouts, etc.)
  • For parts diagrams with a separate parts list, the numbers should start at about 7 O-clock and then go round clockwise.

Recommended books


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