Professional and Technical Writing/Design/General

General Design Concepts


Designing Reader-Centered Pages and Documents


You build your communications out of visual elements: the dark marks of your words, sentences, and paragraphs against the light background of the page, as well as your drawings and graphs and tables. Your readers see the visual design of these elements before they read and understand your message. And what they see has a powerful effect on the success of your communications, on its usability and persuasiveness.

Here are ways that good design enhances usability.

• Good design helps readers understand your information.

• Good page design helps readers locate information quickly.

• Good design helps readers notice highly important content.

Here are some ways good design affects readers' attitudes, thereby increasing a communication's persuasiveness.

• Good design encourages readers to feel good about the communication itself.

• Good design encourages readers to feel good about the communication's subject matter.

A Reader-Centered Approach to Design


Because page design can have such a significant impact on your communication's usability and persuasiveness, you should approach design in the same reader-centered manner that you use when drafting text and graphics. Think continuously about your readers, including who they are, what they want from your communication, and the context in which they will be reading.

Design Elements of a Communication


It is helpful to think about the building blocks of a page design in the way that professional graphic designers do. When they look at a page, they see six basic elements.

Text. Paragraphs and sentences.

Headings and titles. Labels for sections of your communication.

Graphics. Drawings, tables, photographs, and so on -- including their captions.

White space. Blank areas.

Headers and footers. The items, such as page numbers, that occur at the top or bottom of each page in a multipage document.

Physical features. These include paper, which may take many shapes and sizes, and bindings, which come in many forms.




  1. Identify places where graphics will increase your communication’s usability.
  2. Identify places where graphics will increase your communication’s persuasiveness.

Note: Make sure not to add graphics to areas that will alter the flow of the document/communication. Add graphics in places in between paragraphs or other logical breaks in the document.


  1. Select the types of graphics that will best support your readers’ tasks.
  2. Select the types of graphics that will effectively influence your readers’ attitudes.
  3. Select the types of graphics that will best support your case.


  1. Design graphics that are easy to understand and use.
  2. Design them to support your readers’ tasks.
  3. Design graphics that your readers will find persuasive.
  4. Keep your graphics simple enough for easy use.
  5. Label content clearly.
  6. Provide your graphics with informative titles.
  7. Address the graphics with a sort summary of results or caption about the graphic.

Using Color

  1. Use colors to support your message.
  2. Use color for emphasis, not decoration or too distracting from the body text.
  3. Choose a color scheme, not just individual colors.
  4. Provide high contrast between text and background.
  5. Select colors with appropriate associations.
  6. Limit the number of colors.
  7. Use color to unify the overall communication.

Integrating with the Text

  1. Introduce each graphic in the text first.
  2. Tell your readers the conclusions you want them to draw from the graphic.
  3. Provide all explanations your readers will need in order to understand and use each graphic.
  4. Locate each graphic near its references.

Addressing an International Audience

  1. Check your graphics with persons from other nations for clarity when possible.
  2. Check your graphics with technology for problems when intra-converted between computer systems.

Using Graphics Ethically

  1. Avoid elements that might mislead your readers.
  2. Obtain permission from the copyright owner of each image that is not in the public domain.
  3. Give credit to all involved in the development or research of the graphic.
  4. Be sure the graphic will benefit the document overall and will not just add unnecessary clutter.

1 From Paul V. Anderson’s Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach