In the government, we circulate thousands of documents each year. The purposes of these documents vary from helping people apply for services to informing the public about new regulations. But let’s be honest. The government is not known for disseminating easy to read documents. Fortunately, that is quickly changing as agencies are realizing that to be effective communicators of information, they need to deliver information in a way that is both appealing and easy for readers to understand. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that government agencies use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”
The words are not the only thing that matter. Ensuring that documents are visually appealing can also make them easier to digest. Unfortunately, many people take this for granted. So, I sat down with my colleague, Elaine Thomas, who works at the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management. Elaine holds a number of responsibilities, including communicating the work that the Lab does to various audiences. Together, we collected these five tips for how to make your documents visually appealing.
- Incorporate headings.
Many readers’ first instinct is to skim the text and then read for details that appeal to their individual needs. To aid those readers, utilize headings. Headings not only organize your thoughts as a writer, but also split up information, so that it can be easier for the reader to chew. There are three types of headings: question, statement and topic headings. The order of headings is listed based on those most useful in documents (plainlanguage.gov). If you have longer documents, including a table of contents at the beginning helps readers as well.
- Create white space.
Text-heavy documents often result in the audience missing the main point because they get lost in the dense fog of text. White space helps to address this issue. To create an adequate amount of white space, keep the margins large and break down your thoughts and ideas into small, consumable pieces. This can be accomplished through the writing of short sections and sentences. You can also achieve this by creating lists, adding side bars, or pulling out a quote and making it bigger. Keep in mind that having too much white space can take away from the authenticity of the document. So, it is important to find that balance between too little and too much white space.
- Play with typography elements.
Font, color, and font sizes are all elements of typography. Typography helps to highlight important points for the reader. There are two quick and easy ways to make your document visually appealing using typography: employ different fonts and font sizes. Fonts bring character to the document. In selecting fonts, it’s important to choose those that are easily readable. In addition, try to use no more than three different fonts in one document. While this is changing, Times New Roman and Ariel are still two of the most commonly used fonts. Varying the font size can help to draw the reader’s attention as well. Finally, having fonts bolded or italicize are also effective in emphasizing key points that you want the reader to absorb.
- Use visuals.
Not only can visuals help to relate information more difficult to put into words, but they often make content easier to understand. In fact, studies back this up, indicating that “visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information.” For this reason, you should always try to use images in your documents. Depending on what you are trying to convey, different visuals are appropriate. A picture is often helpful when you want to relate emotion or it is difficult to put into words an aspect of the topic you are discussing. Graphs, charts, infographics, and maps can be helpful in further illustrating data described in your paper. Tables are your best bet when trying to convey relationships between two sets of information.
- Test it.
In creating documents, we often focus on what we want to tell the audience, forgetting to reflect on whether the document is constructed in a way that is appealing or easy for a reader to understand. If you want to make sure your document is appealing or easy to understand, you’ll need to test it. There are a variety of ways that you can do this. One is to simply ask a number of people what they think of your document. Another would involve setting goals during the creation of the document. In setting goals, you should ask yourself the question “What action do I want people to do as a result of reading this document?” In order to understand if you’re meeting that goal, you should think about the different ways you can capture success or failure as well.
These are just a few quick and easy ways to make your document visually appealing. To get additional information and training, check out Plainlanguage.gov’s website. It offers free training courses for federal agencies on how to implement these and other techniques into your document. Also, the National Institute of Health has a quick checklist to assist with developing documents from start to finish.
Let us know in the comments if there are tips that we missed!
Blair Corcoran de Castillo is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
Great post, Blair! I really can see myself following these tips for almost any document/presentation/blog etc! Do you have an example of your favorite agency document – particularly using typography elements? Thanks again for sharing!
Thanks Blair! I agree, and color, graphics, and text boxes all make “government documents” more people-friendly and easier to read. When the anticipated audience is the public and/or stakeholders, these techniques are vital.