Garnish Content with Design

hamburger with garnishes

Like good chefs, writers need to remember that presentation is important.

We could write a masterpiece, but if it’s just a solid block of text, no one will want to read it. It will look like a big lump of meat in the middle of the plate instead of a tasty burger.

Content is important. Yet as visual creatures, we need things that look good to attract us. From medieval illuminated texts to newspapers and magazines to web sites, we’ve understood the need for good design. Here are some of the things to keep in mind when applying design to our writing.

Audience and purpose – Thought you were going to get away from this one? Hardly. It matters who will read our content and why. Will it be a CEO, someone looking for the morning news, a job recruiter, a college professor, or someone just wanting to curl up with a good mystery? Each has her needs and preferences that dictate how we format our ideas.

Type font and size – Don’t get carried away when it comes to fonts. (Say it with me out loud, folks.) One font for the body text only. There is some discussion about whether we should use sans serif (without the curlicues on the letters like Ariel) or serif (with curlicues like Times New Roman). Most of the time I use a serif, especially, for longer works, but sans serif works well for shorter blocks of type. Just stick with one. And never, never use large blocks of fancy fonts like a script or Algerian; they will be unreadable.

The body type should be 11 or 12 points. Too small or too large makes it difficult to follow, and we want to make sure people actually read what we write.

Images – Images are great as long as they have a connection to the content. Don’t use images just for the sake of having a pretty picture. Use them to reinforce the meaning of your content. If it is web content, make sure to optimize the image (make the file smaller) to make it load faster.

Colors – Too many different colors are distracting. Keep to a simple color scheme with one or two complementary colors and one or two shades of each. Much more than that sends readers into visual overload. Be careful of text color also. Yellow, orange, or pink type is tough.

Background – Backgrounds can be a nice accent, but we need to keep them from crowding out the body type. This is an error many people make with web pages. If there is a background with a pattern, it’s a good idea to put the text in a box with a single color background. Reverse setups (say white text on black background) only work when the contrast between the type color and the background color is very strong.

Like good garnishes, design elements should enhance our content, not overpower it.

Next Week: Get an Attitude


Pair Beauty with Substance


“Oh! You won’t believe our new website. It’s beautiful and so professionally done!”

The young woman, a member of a local nonprofit, was very enthusiastic about the organization’s new website, so I eagerly looked it up when I got home. She was partly right.

The site was visually stunning. The photos were superb, the colors were well used and balanced, and there was just enough animation to be interesting without being annoying. It was everything we like to see in a well designed web site.

Then I started to read.

There were serious (and I mean serious) word use and grammar errors. It’s not like they were buried deep in the content, either. Some were right there in flashing headlines.

It was like opening a beautifully wrapped present only to find a moldy, half-eaten PBJ inside.

On the other hand, you could have the best content in the world, but if it looks like garbage, it will be treated like, well, garbage. In that case, it is like wrapping a diamond in wrinkled newspaper that had already been used to wrap fish.

No matter how stellar the words are, we need to dress them up nicely to get people to look. (This can be a struggle. Take it from someone who has discovered that WYSIWYG isn’t always what you get.)

But getting people to look isn’t enough to make it “professional.” The content — the message — has to be clearly and cleanly written. After all, the purpose of a website is to show people what we can offer them. If we can’t explain it clearly (and without blatant errors), they won’t stick around long enough to discover the gems we offer.

This tension between content and design isn’t new to the Internet. It has been around as long as people have presented writing to a public. There has always been a need to balance beauty with substance.

The good news is that, in our electronic age, it’s a lot easier to fix.

Now all I have to do is try to figure out a gentle way to tell all those nice people that they need someone to copy edit their site…