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

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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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design with the end in mind

The content for my most recent large project took years to compile. In one weekend, I took that content and turned it into a 300-page book, ready for journaling and processing some difficult issues that have been woven into the fabric of our country for centuries.

The book is called WRITE on RACE to be RIGHT on RACE, and it is the heart of authors Bukata Hayes and Stacy Wells, supported by the Greater Mankato Diversity Council. WRITE on RACE started as a community journaling initiative in 2016; a way for people to challenge their biases and examine aspects of race and social systems they hadn’t considered before. I am so grateful for the opportunity to support Bukata and Stacy in their important work. I was honored to take their words and create an engaging and usable journal that allows people to examine race and how it intersects with our social systems.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog post is not about the important work the authors and their organizations are doing; I will leave the explanations of their work to them. I hope, especially in the context of the death of George Floyd and so much more that has happened in recent weeks, you will take a minute to learn more about the work they’re doing at the links above. I will share the links again at the end of this post.

Here, I am using the context of the book to explain how we were able to take complex and interconnected topics and lay them into a book in a way that is engaging and allows for deep thought and processing of ideas.

Design decisions

The key to this book is usability. This isn’t a book that the user will curl up under a blanket and immerse themselves in. This is a guided journal with online resources that pull the user out of the text, then they’ll need to go back into the book and find their place again. This context helped guide my design choices.

Section breaks

The book is divided into sections, each examining different social systems, including the criminal justice system, education, income, housing, and health. We decided to color-code the different sections, as each section contains several chapters within it. The color-coding helps guide users through the journaling process and through the different topics. All sections begin with a full two-page spread. To help accentuate these section breaks, I used a light color gradient, a tab in the upper right hand corner, and the text is in the chosen color for that section.

Section break, always a two-page spread

Chapter breaks

All chapters start on a right-hand page with that same color-coded tab in the upper right. This is to help users quickly and easily find the start of a new chapter but keep track of which section they’re in at the same time.

Chapter break, always starts on the right-hand side

Headings & other elements

Headings and rules within each section are also color-coded throughout the book; this was again to help the reader identify their place in the text and separate the different topics within the book. I paired the clean fonts with plenty of white space to make it more inviting and easier to follow.

On journaling pages, the headings are color coded, but the rules are a light grey throughout the book to provide the user with a bit of guidance but not too much rigid structure.

Fonts & typefaces

We chose to use san-serif fonts – Bebas Neue for headings and Proxima Nova for text. The font size is also rather large; again, this was intentional for usability. Because this book is a workbook, not a text book, there isn’t a simple flow to reading it – the paragraphs are broken up with questions, outside articles to read, and images. We want the reader to easily keep their place as they move from the printed book to the online companion resources and back again. You may notice that the header text and page numbers are in a serif font (Georgia); this is to delineate those pieces from the main body.

When the text refers to an online article, the title of the article is bolded, then the link to the article is italicized beneath it. Consistency helps the reader know what to expect; also, the next step is to create a fully usable online version of the book, so this formatting with help with that process as well.

Cover art

I can’t take credit for the cover art of the book, but I did do some tweaking to align it to the clean look of the inside. I removed the drop shadow behind the project logo, took the subtitle out of that box, and aligned the authors’ names to the book formatting and colors.

Project goal: achieved

The goal of this phase of the project was just to get the book to print before the authors were to present at a conference. We have plans for a next phase, which includes creating an all-online version with “flippable” pages and clickable links.

SIDE NOTE: We are also working on a new WRITE on RACE 8-week series on COVID-19 that is being emailed to journalers, allowing them to engage in a deep dive about the global pandemic and its disproportionate effect on people of color. The series of 8 short PDF files follows the same design format as the book, which will allow us to easily compile the series into its own book in the future. (See link below for more information.)

As you can see, this project (like all of my projects) was designed with the user in mind. I make design decisions with this lens: I am always thinking about how the finished product will be used, the environment that it will be used in, and how I can make it easier for the reader.

And that’s what you should be thinking about when you are designing something too, whether it’s a simple one-page document or a full book. Always start (and finish) with the user in mind.

Learn more about the WRITE on RACE project & book

WRITE on RACE project

Purchase the WRITE on RACE book

Join the WRITE on RACE COVID 19 series
(At this link, please provide your name, email address and type “WOR COVID 19” in the comment box.)

Greater Mankato Diversity Council

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