Basic Page Layout

However modest your life, odds are that at some point you’ll need to do some basic design or page layout. Whether for a business card, a brochure, a newsletter or a “lost dog” poster it helps to understand basic concepts such as white space, alignment, contrast and typography. If you use a computer it also helps to understand a little bit about page layout and how to use any program for good design.

Principles of Good Design

In her excellent 1994 Non-Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams discusses four principles of good design: contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity, giving clear examples of how such things add to and extend the basic message and meaning conveyed by pictures and text. Whether you are just laying out a simple memo in a word processor or designing the template for a magazine, this and a basic understanding of fonts can go a long way to making your message clearer and making you look good.

Serif and San Serif Type

One of the most basic things computers make possible is a choice among many letter shapes and styles, popularly known as fonts. The technology of fonts has changed across the centuries with technology, but the basic rules have been in place since the middle ages, as inspection of illustrated manuscripts, shows. Design conventions such as drop caps, pull-outs, multiple columns and captions have been around for hundreds of years and the conventions first used by medieval monks are still visible on the front page of USA Today.

Chief among these is the use of “serifs” on fonts. Serifs are the little “wings” on the tips of some letters and help the eye to fly along lines of extended text. The general rule of thumb is that serif fonts are used in body text and that fonts without serifs (called “san serif”) are used for headings and text elements designed to “stop the eye.” Newspaper and magazine stories are laid out in serif type, while single-word signs such as “stop” and “go” and “yield” are almost always in san-serif, block type. The presence or absence of serifs is one of the primary characteristics of a font and a reason to use or not use it for a given purpose.

Proportional and Monospace Fonts

Another key characteristic of letter forms is their proportionality. “Monospace” fonts such as those used by mid-century typewriters are such that each letter is equally wide: a capital “w” takes up the same amount of space from side-to-side as a lower-case “i” or “n” for a word such as “win.” In a proportional font, these letters would have different widths, and the width of a word will vary not only on the number of letters it contains, but which letters. Monospace fonts are frequently used when arranging tabular data or rows of numbers, while proportional fonts are usually used for text. The typeface “Times,” for example, was designed for The Times of London in 1931 for printing the maximum amount of text legibly on poor-quality newsprint. Almost all modern fonts are proportional, but monospace fonts are often still used for mathematical tables, text which mimics a typewriter or to display computer code (in emulation of monospace computer monitors).

White Space, Alignment and Asymetry

“White space” refers to intentionally empty area within a design to let the eye “breathe” and set the various portions of text and graphic elements off from one another. White space can include large areas of empty space or much smaller areas such as the “kerning” between letters, the “leading” between lines of type or the trailing and leading spaces before, after or between headlines, subheadings, body text, graphics and captions. Insufficient white space is the main design error that most people make, as they try to place as much on the page surface as possible, rather than change the size of certain elements to allow white space so each element is clearly visible.

Too much unorganized white space, however, can also be disorienting and seem disjointed. One of the basic tricks to using white space well with text and graphics is to align graphic elements in a way which supports their organization. When a typewritten letter is left-aligned in full block style with a single point of alignment down the left side with space between paragraphs and a “ragged right” edge, portions of the letter such as date, addresses, body and salutation lines are easier to distinguish. Each element within the design is distinct, but the many parts are also united through consistent alignment.

Good design is almost never symetrical, though, so if pictures or graphics are placed on the page they should almost never be centered or clustered together in repetitive or formulaic ways. Setting a graphic off at an angle (with its far-right edge aligned to the text margin), for example, creates a sense of motion and dynamics. Some consistency and uniformity is created through alignment and consistent spacing within paragraphs, but each page should contain some asymetric elements as well.

Lastly, like things should be grouped together in close proximity. A caption should be near the picture it describes and related address information should be in close proximity. A numbered or bulleted list may have spaces before and after it, so that the list elements clearly go together. Looking around you at design which works, notice how design elements work with or against style, readability and grace.

Headers, Footers and Rules

If your documents will be longer than one page, don’t forget to include headers, footers and rules as part of your design. Will your pages include dates or page numbers? How big and where? Will right and left pages mirror each other with a central “gutter” for binding, or be designed for one-sided printing and staple-binding? Will your design include graphic elements such as logos or a rule to divide the page into sections? If there is color, will the same design also work as a grayscale photocopy or a black-and-white screen print? If you use a word processing program for most of your documents, it is worth your time to establish a complete style sheet for that program as mentioned in an earlier article on word processing basics.

Page Layout Programs

One of the things which page layout programs make possible is the design of “master pages” to include graphics, text, headers, footers and more. If you have certain kinds of documents or reports you are constantly creating, taking the time to find or create a good template which incorporates good design is a huge time saver, or have a professional graphic designer create templates for you with a few clear fonts and rules. It is unusual for a good design to contain more than three or four variations in typography, for example, including minor variations such as size or letter style as different types. Emphasis and contrast is achieved, instead, by artful placement of graphics and text on the page.

Master Pages and Templates

Many page layout programs include a variety of sample documents to get you started, and it is worth taking a look at these, whether to use or just examine for ideas and to see how the program can be used. Sometimes called “templates” or “stationery” or “starting points” in a “project gallery,” such documents don’t merely include a variety of paragraph styles, but different page types: left, right, cover, index, glossary and so on. Of the commonly available page layout programs for ordinary users, the Pages program in Apple’s iWork suite has the most sophisticated selection of templates, with a variety of master pages within almost all of them. Once you have your own designs down, be certain to create and save master pages in a template of your own.

Text Boxes, Graphics, Placeholders and More

One fundamental difference between a word processor and a page layout program is the concept of text and graphic boxes which allow one to “place” such objects next to each other and attach them to the page or each other in various ways. There is even a special kind of gibberish text called “lorem ipsum” that is often used placeholder text, to show a design and allow layouts to be created without specific content.

In the days between movable type and desktop publishing (DTP), graphics and blocks of text were trimmed using razor blades and pasted onto large grids of paper called “flats” to be photographed. With DTP computer programs replaced these physical objects with text and graphic boxes, which could then be rearranged on the page in various ways, allowing text “flows” from one box to another across columns on the same page or as “jumps” to other pages, as is common in magazines.

This concept of placeholder boxes and objects is fundamentally different from the word processing single-column model, where most text and graphics fill a single text box which spans the entire page and automatically “jumps” to the following page as needed. One of the things modular design with text boxes and graphics allows is the ability to “wrap” text around a graphic or place text and graphics above or beneath text, perhaps with various degrees of transparency or opacity. The details of how this is done vary from one program to another, but it helps to understand that it is possible. It is also possible to “anchor” a particular text or graphics box to another or to a particular place on the page. One may wish to anchor a caption to its graphic, for example, or anchor a headline to a particular place on a front page.

Export and Pre-Flight

If your work is to be printed on anything more sophisticated than your $100 inkjet printer, you will want to check with your production person or printer to see exactly how they need the job delivered. Professional designers are constantly performing such esoterica as creating color separations, registry or cropmarks, and extracting fonts to deliver with a job as part of a process generally known as “pre-flight.” If your job is merely going to the local copy center, you probably needn’t do anything more complex than create a PDF, but it is always a good idea to check with your printer early, to be sure.

On Mac OS X it is trivial to create a document using Adobe’s portable document format (PDF): from any print dialogue box simply select the “Save as PDF” option in the lower-left corner. For fancier programs such as Illustrator, Quark or InDesign this will work, but you can get much better results by exporting in various ways to specialized PDF documents or formats such as encapsulated postscript (EPS). Check with your printer or production person, as they may be able to give you settings or special parsed printer description (PPD) files which can dramatically improve the quality of your print job on their printers, imagesetters or other equipment.

As always, for more instruction on basic page layout or computer workflows, please consider phoning Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.

Happy layout!


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