Sunday, 22 May 2016

Designing the Page: Presentation Is Everything

Now that anyone can produce a professional-looking document on a computer, how a piece of writing looks is as important as how it reads. In much the same way good grammar allows your readers to focus on the content of your writing, good design will keep them from being distracted by eye-pinching paragraphs or mystifying font choices.

Sure, this page is pretty, but it could use some paragraph breaks.

Spacing: the Final Frontier

Do not put two spaces between your sentences—or anywhere else, for that matter. I know that’s what many of you were taught, and it’s a hard habit to break, but there is not a style guide in the world that will support you on this.

Double-tapping the space bar after a period is a relic of the typewriter age. At one time, it helped reader comprehension, but now that we’ve moved beyond Remingtons and Underwoods, the double space is no longer necessary or desirable. If your fingers refuse to relinquish their bad habits, a simple Find and Replace All will clean up your documents after the fact and save you from copy editors’ dark looks.

Spaced-Out Paragraphs and the Art of the Indent

Your word processing program likes to put spaces between paragraphs, doesn’t it? This format is the convention for business documents—letters, memos, reports—but it doesn’t fit all occasions, regardless of what Microsoft may think.

The advantage of separating paragraphs with spaces is that it presents content in easily consumed chunks, like informational dog biscuits. You’ll find this paragraph style in business documents, manuals, textbooks, and anywhere clarity is paramount. This is also the style most often used in websites (including this one), where a long wall of text is likely to send readers screaming. Short paragraphs surrounded by lots of space are friendly, and easy on computer-weary eyes.

The other type of paragraph is the indented style, which is what you see when you open any novel or newspaper. These paragraphs are not separated by spaces; rather, each opens with an indent, created automatically or by hitting the Tab key. These indents signal a minor break without interrupting the text’s flow.

This style is all about flow—about a lyrical train of imagery or a complex argument built up over several pages. It invites the reader to settle in and get lost in its words. It is immersive. (Note that in this style when you do put a space between paragraphs—as a section break, for example—you don’t need to indent the first line of the new section. Nor do you want to indent the first line of a chapter or story.)

Nothing identifies a self-published novel as quickly as the use of space-style paragraphs instead of indented paragraphs. Unless it’s using both at once—spaced paragraphs with indented first lines. Designers everywhere will shudder at the thought.

Choosing a Font: I Shot the Serif

There are millions of fonts floating around out there, but they can all be divided into two kinds: serif and sans-serif. Serifs are the tiny tails that poke out at the ends of letters. See how the little feet on this m almost form a line? Those feet are serifs, and they help a reader’s eye follow the lines of the text.

Sans is French for “without,” as in sans-souci (without a care) and sans-culottes (without underwear). So, sans-serif fonts are, unsurprisingly, fonts that lack those little tails. Comic Sans is probably the best-known example; use it if you want to give designers an aneurysm.

    •    Serif fonts look like this.
    •    Serif fonts look like this.
    •    Sans-serif fonts look like this.
    •    Sans-serif fonts look like this.

Designers usually recommend using serif fonts for long lines or dense pages of text, as they’re easier to read without losing your place. Sans-serif fonts are often used for smaller, harder-to-read text, such as captions or Wikipedia. In either case, keep your reader in mind when choosing a font. The coolest font in the world will do you no favours if it gives your readers a headache.

Like good grammar, good design doesn’t call attention to itself. It is a frame, a place setting. It’s there so you can enjoy the meal.

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