Pretty Up My Word
July 8, 2009 9:37 AM   Subscribe

How can I make my Word documents look less....boring? Seeking tips & tricks from people with an eye for design.

As part of my job I have to write a lot of Word documents...reports, summaries, proposals, etc. These are for mainly internal consumption, but still, I hate the way they look: dull, and always the same. I don't know many ways to use design to state things like: this is important. This is professional. This is hip. I am proud of this product. This is for sharing.

Are there any simple tweaks I can use to avoid handing out page after page of 12-point Times New Roman? It would be great if things that come from my desk look like someone actually thought about their appearance.

I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks!
posted by Miko to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
First off, stop using Times New Roman. It's a horrible font. I recommend Garamond, or Palatino Linotype.
posted by Phire at 9:47 AM on July 8, 2009 [11 favorites]

For one thing - stop using Times New Roman! It's a servicable typeface, no doubt, but there are better alternatives. Even Microsoft realised that TNR was boring, so now they're shipping their OS and applications with quite a lot of new fonts, some of which are actually really nice.
For reports and summaries, try Constantia or Cambria. Or go wild and sans-serif, and pick Segoe or Corbel. (No, no Arial. NO! NOT COMIC SANS!)
Depending on where you work, an even better option would be to spend some money and buy the font you need. Pick one that looks rather normal. The fact that it's not TNR will make a lot of difference.

Another thing - why Word instist on 12pt being the best size for type I'll never understand. Proffessional reports, books, magazines - all have type smaller than that. 11pt is fine, 10 even better.
posted by Sourisnoire at 9:55 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out this book. It addresses your issues in a straightforward but lighthearted manner, providing guidance that will make a very big visual difference in a very short time.
posted by DrGail at 9:58 AM on July 8, 2009

Pages and pages of grey? At the very least, you can: break it up into shorter paragraphs; add subheads in another, contrasting/bolder font, eg, Futura X Bold Condensed subheads with Palatino body copy; format it into 2 columns or 2 columns plus a sidebar; add graphics or callouts...

I use a page layout program so I'm not sure what Word is actually capable of.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 10:00 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

When working in Word the key is subtlety.

No more than 2 fonts per document (even that might be 1 too many) this does not include bold or italics, which you should use to suggest hierarchy in your document. Underlines don't look good. 12 pt font looks clunky, choose a smaller font (serif for the office and for readability), but not too small so that people will have a hard time reading it.

My go to font is Garamond. I think it looks professional, but has a bit of uniqueness to it.

Experiment with the spacing between paragraphs to give the document hierarchy. Instead of hitting enter once or twice between blocks of text or headings, decide what looks best AND makes sense.

(10 pt spacing)
paragraph 1
(8 pt spacing)
paragraph 2
(8 pt spacing)
paragraph 3
(12 pt spacing)

The single most important thing you can do to make a document look 'professional' is to print it on some nice clean quality paper (no water marks) I like 32lb paper for nice stuff. You might want to use a lighter weight if you are printing out thick packets though.

These are just some basics. Don't go overboard, remember subtlety!
posted by comatose at 10:10 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

A simple page border can do wonders.
posted by Billegible at 10:15 AM on July 8, 2009

When I taught technical writing, I would teach my students to use headers of varying sizes and bullet points to break up large chunks of text. Not only does this look better, but it's much more readable.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:23 AM on July 8, 2009

Word 2007 has these great one click 'style' settings: I've had folks chastise me for wasting time 'prettying it up' when we were still in the draft stage. (I didn't correct them.) I think there are user-generated styles, too, for when the ten default options start to look too familiar.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:26 AM on July 8, 2009

Sorry, I see there's some difference between themes and styles. Here's an overview.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:41 AM on July 8, 2009

Simple, consistent use of headers and footers can work well. For example, company logo in the header, report name, section title, and page number in the footer. This depends on the size and shape of your logo, because it can look lopsided or too busy... play around and see what looks good.

I think the key is, define your style (really you should have an organization-wide style guide) and use it consistently. It makes everything look professional. (Unfortunately my organization's style guide dictates Times New Roman body and Arial for headings, but it is nice to have everything that comes out of our office look consistent.)
posted by misskaz at 10:45 AM on July 8, 2009

Response by poster: really you should have an organization-wide style guide

As my mom would say, we should have a lot of things! In reality, we're a small place and just not there yet with systems like this. The website and print materials have their own look and feel (including sans serif font), but they're not something I can peronally replicate in working documents that have not been through design.

These tips are really great - thanks. I appreciate the advice and will start to experiment.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on July 8, 2009

This question isn't really about Word; it's about design and layout. In a pleasing, harmonious layout, everything matters, from your margins and their proportion to the typeface(s) you're using, the size and leading of the type, headers and subheaders, etc.

Suggested reading:
The Elements of Typographic Style
The Art of the Printed Book (hard to find)
Making and Breaking the Grid

I know this is probably a bit much if you just want your work reports to look nice, but there is a huge difference between applying a default style on Word and making your documents look really professional.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:12 AM on July 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Please go easy on the doodads. Avoid borders, colors, crazy fonts.

I try to increase readability. Setting margins to 1" all around and 2" on the left usually makes the line lengths pretty reasonable. Then you'll want to set line spacing to a little more than 1.5 times the font size (I start at 1.5 and usually nudge it up a point or two). And, as others have suggested, pick a good conservative font and leave it at 11 or 12 point (the older I get, the more I appreciate 12pt). One font for body text, one more for headings, and no more.

Think elegance and readability instead of prettiness and decoration.
posted by booth at 11:18 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the Robin Williams book is great for someone new at this. The Elements of Typographic Style by Bringhurst is fantastic (although not targeted at neophytes)—one of the few books that has made it with me through two trans-Atlantic moves.

That said, my first inclination is to suggest focus on things other than typefaces. Although Arial and Times New Roman suck, everyone you send your documents to will have them. Personally, I have given up using anything else for anything I plan to distribute in formats other than PDF, which means anything I want to even collaborate with someone on, even to the point of them making Track Changes alterations to the document. There's just too much that can go wrong, and you will curse your choice of an elegant typeface that your neighbor lacks when the document comes out looking totally different on her machine. And I always double-space stuff I expect others to edit. Ugly, but far more utilitarian. Remember that. Focus your design skills on stuff that is almost complete and external-facing.

The thing about most word processors' default settings that really bother me is the inflationary indenting—0.5 in of indent is way too much. Bringhurst suggests using one lead (the amount of vertical spacing between baselines). A professional-looking document will have 1.2 times the em size (akin to the "font size") as its lead. So you might try 11 pt text with 13.2 pt vertical spacing and 13.2 pt first line indent. (I have not verified that these settings actually work in Word.)

You could always take one of your documents, replace the text with lipsum and post it here for suggestions.
posted by grouse at 11:27 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

My biggest gripe with getting Word documents from coworkers: Don't use space or the tab key to align things! Learn to use the tab markers on the ruler, man that makes a world of difference.
posted by rhapsodie at 11:45 AM on July 8, 2009

Margins: Please don't do the full justify margins. Word does a pretty horrible job of spacing the words. It ends up being much more difficult to read. If someone sends me an soft copy, it's the first thing I eliminate.

Negative Space: When you look at a document, look at the negative space. Do the white areas clearly convey paragraph and section breaks? Do you have enough "breathing room" between the lines of text?

Fonts: Be careful about jumping between serif and sans serif fonts. Some of Microsoft's templates do that. Take their junky fonts and then muddle together sans and serif fonts, what you'll end up with is an ugly mess. A skilled layout person can mix fonts effectively, but it's challenging for most people.

Whatever fonts you select, make sure they scale elegantly. In Word, some fonts look completely different if you vary the point sizes - verdana has this problem. In a graphic program the scaling is more refined; in Word it's a bit rough.
posted by 26.2 at 11:47 AM on July 8, 2009

Yes, rhapsodie brings up an interesting point here. You should use styles for everything you do, rather than manually setting fonts everywhere and indenting using the tab key. That way you can easily change, say, all of your Heading 1s later in the game when you are ready to get serious about the look of the document and no longer have typeface or editing restrictions.
posted by grouse at 11:48 AM on July 8, 2009

Please, please, please use Styles. If you don't know what I mean, with Word open press F1. Search for "styles". Please.

I have the book DrGail mentions upthread as a PDF, along with a few others. If you'd like, I can email it to you. Just send me a MeFi message with your email address.
posted by Houstonian at 1:37 PM on July 8, 2009

To create interest I'll use columns and text boxes to organize pages, as well as pictures. You can do a lot with pictures in Word-- wrapped text, behind, in front, watermarked, and various graphic treatments. Vis-a-vis someone's suggestion upthread about a company-wide "look" I've actually convinced the very hidebound powers-that-be to let me create dedicated letterhead, based on our corporate letterhead, for each type of recipient, so everyone gets subtly personalized documents that change over the course of the year (for instance, new press quotes as each show goes up, or updated promo photos, etc.). So the look stays the same, creating continuity, but the content changes for those who are paying attention (plus, it makes people pay attention).

As far as fonts-- I really like Arial Narrow to give documents a readable, contemporary look. Plus, if your boss is anal about 12 point font, 12 point Arial Narrow is in an 11 point let, so you can follow the letter of the law and still use a smaller type. Arial Black (don't use bold) Small Caps makes a really nice heading.

I also always use a large picture and 50 word lead in 16 point type as a cover on multi-page documents, so the recipient has an in-your-face thumbnail of what they're about to read.

We get a lot of comments about the nice look of our proposals and fund appeal letters. One of the things I like least about the trend of foundations to only accept proposals on line is that you can't make these personal design statements, which I think says something important about an organization.
posted by nax at 5:32 PM on July 8, 2009

No snark here, just an honest question: why do so many people dislike Arial font?
posted by Majorita at 7:29 PM on July 8, 2009

Seconding Robin Williams' books. Quick reads from which you will learn enough to make your docs look dramatically better.
posted by not that girl at 8:28 AM on July 9, 2009

No snark here, just an honest question: why do so many people dislike Arial font?
posted by Majorita at 7:29 PM on July 8

It's Microsoft's rip-off of Helvetica (so they don't have to pay license fees, I'm guessing); it's almost identical to Helvetica with maybe a dozen major changes across the font. All of these changes are bad or ugly or both.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2009

I must second the advice to not use weird fonts, even if they are much more attractive unless you control the display (as a PDF or hard copy). My company's marketing people chose a designer font. If it isn't installed, Word defaults to any one of four or five options, depending on version and what is installed. This is a nightmare as every document looks different (and paginates differently) on every machine. Our marketing people are switching back to Arial finally after seeing the stuff being sent out to our customers.
posted by bystander at 3:16 AM on July 13, 2009

If it isn't installed, Word defaults to any one of four or five options

Here's how to prevent that:
1. With the Word document open, on the Tools menu click Options.
2. On the Options dialog box, view the Save tab.
3. Select the Embed TrueType Fonts check box.

This will make your document size larger, because you are saving the font with the document, but it does work to make sure that whoever opens the document sees the correct font.
posted by Houstonian at 8:59 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I just turned in a report in Palatino with two levels of headers and custom margins. It looks ...different and great, definitely says "finished product that someone worked on with attention."

I'll keep trying more of your recommendations and, if I have time, do some more studying of document design. A true education in design would be great, but since I haven't got too much time for that, the direct suggestions you all made have been wonderful. Much appreciated!
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

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