When your document is something that is going to be used over and over and seen by many people, you should consider having it professionally formatted. If that’s not an option, you can still create more professional looking documents on your own.

Why is it important that your documents are designed well? Manuals and guides need to be easy to use and navigate because they are often there to replace human guidance. When creating a document, you should always think about what the user wants to know, THEN think about what you want to tell them. A well-designed document makes it easy for them to find the information they’re looking for (what they want to know) and then answers questions they didn’t know they had (the stuff you want to tell them). This builds trust and reduces frustration.

High school course registration can be overwhelming for students and families. Faribault Public Schools (Minnesota) has a guide for their students as they register for their high school classes. The original document was simply done in basic word-processing software and it got the job done. It wasn’t bad by any means – it just had room for improvement.

When I designed the new guide, I thought about who will use it, the questions students might have as they register, how they might navigate the information, and how I could lay out the contents to make the guide as easy to use as possible. Here I’m giving you few basic techniques I use that you can use to make your documents look more professional too.

Slide to see a sampling of pages – the before and after

5 ways to improve your documents

1. Invite them in

Think about your audience and what would engage them. In this case, I designed the cover and introductory pages to give a less sterile feel because we’re trying to engage high school students. Some ways I achieved this:

  • Put the school’s branding and colors to work
  • Gave the introductory pages a more casual look
  • Added images of current students
  • Used white space strategically to break up the content

These simple changes give a more welcoming, but still academic, vibe to what is a pretty (let’s face it) boring document.

Font choice matters too. If a document will live online, sans serif fonts* are a better bet because they are generally easier to read on a screen.

*Serif fonts have the little lines or feet at the ends, called serifs; sans serif fonts have no serifs. In the before and after images above, you can see that the original document was done with a serif font; the one I designed was done with a sans serif font.

2. Shorten line lengths

Did you know that using the full span of the page for each line usually makes the information harder to read? That’s because it’s hard to keep your place when your eyes drop down to the next line and going allllll the way back to the left. Creating multiple columns on the page and/or shortening the line length makes it easier for the reader to quickly read the information without losing their place. Using multiple columns on the page often allows you to fit in more information too.

3. Create strong headings

Strong headings divide content and make it easier to scan and quickly find the information you’re looking for. In this case, bold bands of color define the sections of the document. Large subheadings within each section allow the reader to scan and zero in on the subject they want to read more about.

4. Use lists and tables

Bulleted or numbered lists and tables make it easier to grab the small (but important) bits of information, rather than losing them within paragraphs of content. When making lists, it’s good practice to use bullets when the information does not have a hierarchy and numbers when the order matters. In tables, use varied line weights to create division, and make sure your headings stand out from your content.

5. Make forms simple

Users should be able to glance at a form and immediately understand what they need to do. By increasing white space, giving lines in the table varied colors/weights, and differentiating the headings and the content more, this form is now more inviting and easier to use.

Image of high school registration forms - one before my design efforts, the other after.

If you’re interested, you can find the full registration guide living its best life here. Taking a look at examples like this may help you find more ideas to design your own professional looking documents.

Tip: basic word-processing software like Microsoft Word has its strengths and its place in the world. Creating longer publications or forms, especially if it has images, is best done in more advanced software. Microsoft Publisher is probably the easiest to transition to if you are used to Word; it will get you further and allow you to create more professional looking documents.

If you decide your project is best left to a professional, I’d love to take it off your hands. Contact me today!

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