How to create professional looking documents

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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how to get people to read what you send them

You want people to read what you send them… or at least skim it and pull out the most important parts. We all do, or we wouldn’t send stuff in the first place. We’ve all felt the frustration when you carefully craft your message and someone asks a question that is answered in the information you originally sent. Of course you want to help, but if they had just read the original message…

You need to remember:

It isn’t about you.

It’s about THEM, and they’re busy. They have 100 things competing for their attention; they don’t have the time (or interest) to dig through and find the most important pieces of what you’ve sent them.

So, how do you lay it out so it is more likely they will actually read what you’re sending? Let’s walk through it using a recent example.

Hockey letter: Before

This is a simple informational letter the Mankato Area Hockey Association sends out to hockey teams who have signed up to play in a their hockey tournaments. Here is the original, formatted in Microsoft Word (click to get a closer look):

How to get people to read what you send them: image of letter before edits have been made

Things I noticed right away:

  • Bold text: When you bold a lot of text, that text no longer stands out from the rest of the content. If it’s all important, none of it’s important.
  • Unorganized text layout: When your content isn’t organized and laid out well on the page, it’s hard to follow. Your reader will struggle to follow along and move from item to item. Group related items together, and use bulleted or numbered lists with indents to help the user easily navigate the information.
  • Lack of headings and hierarchy: Break content into smaller groups and add headings to help the reader quickly identify the sections. Then they can choose what is important for them to read and respond to right now and what they can refer back to later. (Pro Tip: When you format the document carefully, they will prioritize the content that YOU want them to.)
  • Partial sentences and symbols: Your organization will look more professional when you write in complete sentences and use words rather than symbols. For example, spell out the word “number” rather than use the symbol “#”.

Hockey letter: After

Here is the version I submitted back to the committee, still formatted in Microsoft Word. This is a basic framework for them to build from as they finish adding information and finalize the content.

How to get people to read what you send them: image of letter after edits have been made

Changes I made:

  • Reduced bold text: I limited the use of bold text to just what I want the reader’s eye to be drawn to when they are scanning. This allows them to pluck out what is most important.
  • Created lists: I paired the bolded text with the list format to really make the items clear and call out what the reader needs to do. Readers mentally check off each item as they move through it.
  • Added headings: I added headings and subheadings to help break the content down into smaller pieces. I wanted to help the reader know what needs to be done before the tournament, and what they will need to know when they travel to the tournament. Subheadings also help pull the reader through the material.
  • Rewrote text: I rewrote the text to add a friendly but professional tone to the letter. I also wanted the content under the bullet points to be consistent in format and the information easy to understand.
  • Other changes: As I worked, I thought about what elements produced even small barriers for the reader. Some small changes that may make a difference:
    • I included the email address that teams are to send information to right with the information they need to send. Sure, they can just reply to the email, but this eliminates any question of where it needs to be sent.
    • I typed the rink address in one line so readers can easily copy/paste it into their map app on their phone.
    • Since tournament apparel is available by pre-order only, I moved that information to the “Prior to the Tournament” section. Also, when the original letter referred to the apparel orders, it did not reference the attachment with additional information. I added a quick couple of words to help the reader make that connection.

The goal

Ultimately, the goal of this letter is to make sure the tournament registration, check-in, and weekend goes smoothly. Tournament organizers want more teams to submit their pre-tournament materials on time, be prepared at tournament check in, and know important information. As the tournaments start rolling, we’ll find out if these changes will help the committee better achieve those goals.

Any time you send out information, there will still be people with questions, there will still be people who don’t read the information. That’s a given. But, I’m confident that making changes like this will make it easier for your audience to read what you send, thus reducing the time you spend answering questions.

MANY thanks to the Mankato Area Hockey Association Tournament Committee for trusting me with their communications!

How will you put these ideas to work for you? How can I help? What questions do you have? Please comment below or send me an email

cover photo credit:

taking your communications to the next level

start somewhere

You don’t have to be perfect to get started.

This is something many entrepreneurs, especially women, struggle with. We want everything to be *JUST* right before we put it out in the world.

I’m here to say again: It is OK to not spend money on professionally-designed materials when you’re first getting started. It is just fine to start with a free tool like to create your lead magnet or other communications. You can find templates, articles, and more that will help you use basic design principles so what you create has a more professional vibe than if you just try to go-it alone.

That said… as you grow your business to the next level, you’ll want to make sure your communications grow with you. A well-designed marketing piece will align with your branding and speak to your target customer. It will elevate the impression your customers have when they first engage with your brand and draw them in to learn more about what you have to offer. Professional designers have the ability to make sure your marketing pieces do all of that.

design up(scale)

Taylor Johnson Interiors (Greenville, SC) was at that point. She had used Canva to create the lead magnet for her website a while back; it’s a free guide to shopping for durable, pet and kid-friendly fabrics and decor. Photos engage the reader, the content is valuable, and it has a basic visual appeal.

Taylor referred to this original as “sad”. Although I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment, I do think it needed a boost. The fonts don’t align with her branding, the stock photos and spacing are inconsistent in size, and the visual aesthetic is missing some of the elegance that Taylor employs in her interior design style.

So, we scaled up to better appeal to her target clients and align with her sophisticated brand. Check it out:

I replaced the stock photos with some that Taylor had of a home that she had beautifully styled. Her logo, fonts, and colors are classy and sophisticated, so by employing those in the design, it immediately gave the piece an upscale feel. I increased the white space, giving the images and text room plenty of room to breathe. The original lacked her business name, logo, and contact information, so I added a cover page with her logo and business name as well as a back page (not shown) with her website and social media icons.

Note: I changed/blurred the text in the images to protect Taylor’s valuable content. If you want her tips to everyone-proof your home, you’ll have to visit her website and sign up for her emails. (She also does virtual decorating, so she can serve you wherever you live!)

are you ready for next level design?

So, ask yourself:

Has your marketing kept up with your business? Is it time for a redesign?

I’d love to help polish your communications when you’re ready. If the time is now, let’s get started.

If you’re still in the DIY stage, I’ve linked some of my previous posts that might help you get up and running below.

Any questions? I’m happy to help! Comment below or send me a note:

{Many thanks to Taylor for allowing me to be a part of her growing business!}

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5 steps to reduce your content

As a business owner, you LOVE what you do. You breathe it. Every aspect is important to you – every little nook and cranny, every small detail.

BUT…. is all of it important to your customers too?

I often see businesses and organizations so excited about everything they’re doing, they want to tell everyone about all of it. They want to make sure to include every last detail and nuance so the customer fully understands just how awesome it all is.

The thing is, if everything is important and exciting, then nothing is important and exciting. And if you include all of it? Well, then it’s just plain overwhelming and your audience won’t read it.

So… how do you learn to trim it down?

How do you go from this…

…to this?

1. Start by laying it all out

Put it ALL in there, like I did in the first image above. When I was working with this client, we knew the final version was not going to include all of that text; but by laying it into the document, we could see our starting point. We could see just how much we needed to trim out in order for the pages to look like we envisioned.

2. Ask questions

Keep asking questions to determine what actually needs to be included. Questions like:

  • WHY is this important to include?
  • Does the AUDIENCE care about this? (Not, “Do I want to TELL the audience about this?”)
  • Is all of this information necessary for this particular marketing piece? (Should some be shared at a different time, perhaps further in the onboarding process?)
  • Are these details necessary for understanding the message, or can some be trimmed out?
  • Will someone from my team be present when this marketing piece is being used? (Rather than including all of the information in written form, consider using bullet points and fill in details through a spoken explanation.)
  • How can I say this with fewer words? (Can you shorten/simplify sentences? Use bullet points instead of paragraphs?)
  • Can I tell this part of the story with a photo, image, or graphic?
  • Would it make sense to direct them to a website for more information?

Intentionally asking these kinds of questions will help you think through your content, and you will bring focus to what’s really important.

3. Zoom out and look at it

Without reading the content, determine if the page/spread of pages looks interesting. Do this by asking yourself more questions:

  • Is there enough white space, or is the content all jammed together?
  • Are there headings to break up the content into sections?
  • Does the layout make sense? Does it encourage the reader to move their eyes from section to section in the order that you want them to?
  • Is the font easy to read? (Read more about choosing fonts in this previous post about consistency in design.)
  • Are the images interesting? Do they invite the reader in to read more about what the image is portraying?

4. Get an opinion or two

Have someone outside of your organization take a look at it. You want it to be someone who doesn’t know your product or service well; preferably someone in your target market, but that may not be necessary. Explain the context in which the piece will be used (mailed out, used in initial consultations with clients, etc.), then get their feedback.

  • Does it look good?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Do you know where to go if you want more information?
  • Do you know what you’re supposed to do next?
  • Is there anything missing?
  • Is there anything you don’t like?

5. Final product

That’s it! Being mindful during the content development and design process will result in a piece that engages your audience and helps them fully understand your story. Sharing in manageable pieces (rather than excitedly telling them everything in one breath) will make them WANT to come on your journey with you.

It’s how you get from here:

to here:

cover photo by user: janeb13