How to create professional-looking documents
January 26, 2007 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I want to create a publication to send to customers, but don't know the best way to make it. Is there any program, tool, or template that I could use to make a professional-looking "Getting Started Guide" or informational booklet?

I want to make a short booklet (roughly 10-15 pages) that basically walks our clients through our services. I've tried Word and am having trouble customizing it like I hoped. I want to include a mix of screenshots and text and be able to draw arrows, highlight different sections, etc. I will also be making brochures, Newsletters, and other print publications in the future. Any suggestions for how I could create a visually appealing, professional-looking publication? Any and all suggestions are much appreciated!
posted by CAnneDC to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The tool you require is called "a designer".

(I'm not snarking at you, but if you don't want your business to look amateurish, don't let amateurs present it).
posted by bonaldi at 10:02 AM on January 26, 2007

I use OmniGraffle to do it, but I agree with Bonaldi - if you don't have the experience or expertise to do it, pay some designer a few hundred bucks to lay it out. (I have the tools and the years of layout experience that are necessary.)
posted by SpecialK at 10:05 AM on January 26, 2007

The software a designer would use to create the kind of project you describe is called InDesign by Adobe.

This isn't an inexpensive tool. It's designed for professional page layout. I agree with the above comments about hiring a professional designer (though a couple hundred dollars is much too low). InDesign isn't especially difficult to learn, but knowing how to use it isn't enough. It's like the difference between knowing how a hammer works and knowing how to build a deck.
posted by Jeff Howard at 10:16 AM on January 26, 2007

Response by poster: Clarification: I recognize that only a professional can make a truly professional publication, but we're a small company and unfortunately that's not an option.

I'm not talking about producing something that is worthy of mass-distribution, but I want to create something that is a little nicer looking than a Word document. We have online resources like FAQs, video tutorials, screen casts, etc. but feel that we should also have this information in print for those who prefer.

(It may be that the only way to create a newsletter or booklet is to hire a professional, in which case, I can go back to fighting with Word)

posted by CAnneDC at 10:29 AM on January 26, 2007

I'm an InDesign diehard, but it's total overkill to recommend something like this to someone making a short business document.

If your business owns MS Office, try using the program Publisher. It will let you do some rudimentary drawing, place pictures and screenshots where you like, yet still use the familiar text-editing functions of Word.

When you start to bump up against its limitations (designers out there will be thinking "after, oh, seven minutes"), you can think about moving up to a professional tool like InDesign.

One tip on the design side: keep a clippings file of newsletters and other publications you find visually interesting or that seem "competent" to you. DO NOT rip off their designs--that's completely not kosher--but use them to pick up ideas for spacing, organization, headline sizes, colors, etc. You have to start to determine for youself what makes a publication in your field look "professional" and what doesn't--no free template will do that for you. Best of luck!
posted by bcwinters at 10:30 AM on January 26, 2007

Jeff - In my experience, the charge to lay out something where you provide all of the content (screenshots, edited text, etc.) in a timely manner and provide samples of how you want it laid out, such as sketching where arrows should point to, should only take a three or four hours, maybe a max of 6. I produced entire eight-page tabloid newspapers in college in less time. For a typical independent designer that charges $45-65 per hour and works from home without requiring face time, you would only expect to have 5 or 6 hours of work max, which would be $390. That's a few hundred bucks. You can usually post to Craigslist in an urban area and find a designer that works for less. Don't outsource overseas for something like this, the savings aren't worth the communication issues and inability to spot flaws in your work.

Dude, don't scare him into doing it himself. The reason most people choose NOT to use a desinger is the cost.

CAnne, if I were you I'd lay it out in an amateur fashion and then give the resulting files in PDF or whatever format to a designer who can polish them, along with all of your original content files (plain text in word, image files) and a list of changes you can make. Get your ducks in a row in other words. Then have the designer send you the resulting files in PDF format, and you can print or email it from there.

On Preview:

You're right that you should have it in print. I always prefer to print things. You're going to need two tools. One is a layout program. Many are available; MS Publisher 2003 or 2007 (You can download a trial here.) Then you're going to want to output it in an Adobe PDF so that everyone can see it on various platforms. You'll use Adobe Acrobat to output it, which costs money.

But either way, please do think about having a designer work on things. Even if you're a small company, you can still find a way to fit professional design into your budget -- if you can't spare a few hundred bucks every now and then out of your marketing budget (hey, tax write off!), you should probably reconsider your business's profit margin.
posted by SpecialK at 10:39 AM on January 26, 2007

I want to create a publication to send to customers

How is it going to be printed? Office printer, a few copies at kinko's, what?

If you are doing ANYTHING other than printing on the office printer, i.e. you're going to pay another business to print it, then pick someone and ask them what you should, based on the kind of file you can output.

But since you don't have money for a designer, I'm assuming you're going to print it inhouse.

Ok, what IS your budget? Are you on a PC? Whoever is going to do this stuff, what do they know about page layout? What KIND of information are you trying to present, what's your business? There are all kinds of templates, so being a bit morespecific can help narrow down what you need.

Also I'd second bcwinters idea for a clippings file.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:55 AM on January 26, 2007

Start digging...

(pdf converters included)



How much is your time worth?
posted by dpcoffin at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

If you want to stay in Word and you want to do it yourself, try laying your text and graphics the way you want them in tables that do not have borders. A complex table can usually be manipulated more easily in Word than various text boxes and picture boxes all over the place. Word can be quite ornery to work with when it comes to anything beyond basic word processing, but working in tables tends to help.

Is there a Word expert in your office that could help? That could make all the difference.

I speak from over seven years of professional experience of formatting materials to look professional. I do work in MS Office and Quark (and I want to get into InDesign soon) so I do know the differences between word processing and page layout software.

Some of the materials I've been forced to keep in Word for editability by non-designers would break your heart, but for the purpose they served, they worked fine. This document can be done in Word with the right layout and attention to design and detail. Please feel free to email me if you'd like more details on how to do that.
posted by melissa at 11:08 AM on January 26, 2007

I want to create something that is a little nicer looking than a Word document

I'm a graphic designer, and when the project requires it I can produce some pretty kick-ass looking Word documents. Hire a designer to build Word templates with clean backgrounds and organized stylesheets; then you can add the screenshots and arrows yourself.
posted by junkbox at 11:16 AM on January 26, 2007

I'm a publication designer and I'm all about lobbying for folks to support the business. But layout for a simple brochure is a good general skill to have and you can do it yourself if you spend a bit of time on it. You don't need a professional for this. You just need to decide if you can afford to spend the time on it.

Take a stroll around, and collect brochures from businesses similar to yours or those you like. Using a more sophisticated program than word, if possible, try to mimic your favorite booklets as closely as possible, but change things slightly so you aren't totally ripping them off. You will learn by this imitation, and someone else will have done much of the layout work for you already.

(And it's a bit tacky to pitch your services in an askme thread—how is the asker supposed to consider your advice unbiased?)
posted by lovejones at 11:27 AM on January 26, 2007

lovejones - I was saying "This is why I reccomend hiring a designer", not "Hire me! Hire me!" ... I would've been a lot more blatant about it if I was trying to get work. I'm not a graphic designer, I write software and happen to lay out my own user manuals.
posted by SpecialK at 11:46 AM on January 26, 2007

Response by poster: How is it going to be printed?
Office printer
what IS your budget
The cost of the special paper products.
Yes, we do put money into marketing and have hired professionals to create and print documents before.
-Then why not just hire a professional to do this then?
1. This is a rouge mission. We are a tech company providing an online service and I have trouble convincing others of the merit of the printed word. I, however, prefer reading a printed copy over a screen or video and want to make these resources available to our users.
2. As we are a growing company, we are constantly introducing new features, improving old ones, etc. so the content and screen shots of this publication will need to be updated frequently.
How much is your time worth?
This is (obviously) out of my field of expertise, but I have decided to try to improve our customer support in my spare time (so this won't take away from my real work.)
Are you on a PC?
I am indeed, but we have Macs & Linux machines too if that helps ...
What KIND of information are you trying to present, what's your business?
We are a free, rental housing listing service that lets property managers and individuals create detailed listings of their properties. I want to walk users through creating a listing, managing their properties and company account, and other basic things.

Like I said, we already have video guides and tutorials, as well as help bubbles, and now I want to provide something they can highlight. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions!

posted by CAnneDC at 12:03 PM on January 26, 2007

Scribus is a, in my opinion, very-nearly-ready-for-prime-time open source desktop publishing suite. The learning curve for this kind of software is pretty steep. If you're on a budget but need professional-looking documents, the world is replete with starving graphic design students. The trade-off is that a professional will understand that they need to compromise their vision with your's and they'll be much better at setting and maintaining boundaries and deadlines. A student is likely to go hog wild whether you ask for it or not.

If you go it alone, here are a few of my simple rules for good beginner design:
  • No more than three fonts a page. In fact, three fonts is really, really pushing it. Use traditional, professional fonts. For instance, for the love of Good, no Comic Sans MS, unless maybe your in the business of photoshopping up parodies of Garfield strips for your clients. If you notice the font, then you're doing something wrong. Most of the time you want your client to notice the content, not the font. (i.e. you might still be using a traditional font, but the spacing is off. Figure out how to fix it.)
  • Draw people's eyes onto the page. Keep white space and "heavy" objects balanced. Consider your whole layout when balancing, not just the one page you're working on. Consider both dimensions when balancing, but left-right is a little more relevant. You don't have to go crazy, since a perfectly balanced page is a little awkward, too. Don't have a photo where some joe schmoe is staring off the side of the page, because your eyes will naturally want to follow that. If you look at the page and your eyes naturally want to go somewhere awkward, like off the page, or away from the content, then you're doing something wrong.
  • Don't overwhelm. Create a rule for using whitespace and stick to it. Keep your design simple and use your most relevant content only. My rule is that I keep a pica (that's 1/6th of an inch) boundary of whitespace between any two objects. So, that's a pica gutter between two columns and a pica between an image and text or between two images.
  • Make it easy to read. It's easier to read a column of text that's 2-3 inches wide than it is to read a much wider or narrower column.
  • It should be obvious how to get from here to there when continuing a column of text or seeing that an image is related to that text. If you have to think consciously, even for a fraction of a second, to figure out where to go next while reading, you're doing something wrong.
  • Make sure your photos are all at a good resolution. No need to go nuts, 200 dpi is good and that's less than 2 megapixels printed at 4" by 6". People with 10 megapixel cameras who don't do large format printing are people who like to spend too much money. Just don't go grabbing images off Google Images, 'kay?
  • Center titles. Left-justify articles.
  • Spell check.
So, that's it off the top of my head. For what it's worth I Am Not A Professional Designer. However, I have worked on my student newspapers and at a copy shop and in non-profit marketing.
posted by Skwirl at 12:26 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

OH, you got a Mac? Shoulda said so; this is what the Mac is FOR.


Swift Publisher

posted by dpcoffin at 12:50 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with junkbox, in a pinch a designer can make Word really shine. Word can be forced to do things it wasn't intended to do. Heck, I even remember laying out a document in Excel when it was necessary. (I don't recommend that).

For the skunkworks project you're talking about, Craigslist might be the way to go. But realize that you're setting the bar pretty low. Most people think that design is just picking the right typeface and making sure the images print well. That's not it. Good designers excel at communicating complex information with clarity. They'll look at the overall problem you're trying to solve and then suggest a solution. The right solution might be a brochure, but it could just as easily involve modifying the design of your software so that it doesn't require a brochure.

My advice is not to hire a professional designer if you already think you know how to solve the problem. You want a production artist. Just hire someone off Craigslist to execute your vision. I agree that it should cost no more than a couple hundred dollars.
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:04 PM on January 26, 2007

1. This is a rouge mission. We are a tech company providing an online service and I have trouble convincing others of the merit of the printed word. I, however, prefer reading a printed copy over a screen or video and want to make these resources available to our users.

You're working too hard. You need to get get clients/customers asking your company for a printed manuals so you can get it professionally done. Are customers asking for printed material?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:17 PM on January 26, 2007

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