Format Design For Readability

Link & Learn

Some paragraphs throughout the course will be marked as examples, activities, required reading, or optional tips


  1. Apply Visual Rhetoric
  2. Choose Fonts
  3. Write Headings
  4. Use White Space
  5. Insert Graphics
  6. Example Bank: Standard Document Formats

picture of two hands holding a letter

Grab Attention

Well-formatted messages are more attractive and accessible to your readers, inviting them to engage. The very act of formatting also helps you clarify in your own mind what you want to say.

When you

  • select fonts
  • write headings
  • use white space
  • insert graphics

you signal to the audience that they matter. Basic formatting makes your document more “brain friendly”: easier to understand and remember.

Your audience will scan your message before deciding whether to read it. That’s just human nature. So what do you want them to notice first?

This chapter covers documents that people read: emails, letters, reports, and infographics. Chapter 9: VISUALIZE covers documents that accompany an oral presentation: slide decks and data visualizations.

Well-formatted messages are more attractive and accessible to your readers, inviting them to engage. The very act of formatting also helps you clarify in your own mind what you want to say.

When you

you make decisions about your message priorities, and you guide your audience—and yourself—toward clearer structure.

Your audience will scan your message before deciding whether to read it. That’s just human nature. So what do you want them to notice first?

This chapter covers documents that people read: emails, letters, reports, and infographics. Chapter 9: SHOW covers documents that accompany an oral presentation: slide decks and data visualizations.

Section OneApply Visual Rhetoric

Quick question: What’s your first language?

No matter what you answer—English, Spanish, Chinese, and so on—you're wrong. Your first language is visual. The minute we’re born, our brains begin processing visual images. Spoken language comes much later, and written language later still. When you create a visually effective document, you’re connecting with your audience’s first language.

Pepsi can

The rules for making visually effective documents are called visual rhetoric, where “visual” means “not text-based" and “rhetoric” means the way we get our point across. Often, we communicate visually without realizing it. A long block of uninterrupted text, for example, communicates the unintended message, “Don’t read this. It’s boring.”

The basic tools of visual rhetoric include fonts, headings, white space, and graphics. Even colors send messages to our audience. In Southeast Asia in the 1950s, Pepsi changed the color of its vending machines from royal blue to a lighter shade called “ice blue.”

Marketers at the beverage company thought the change would make its product stand out. They were right, for all the wrong reasons. Light blue symbolizes death in some Southeast Asian cultures. Pepsi learned the power of visual rhetoric as it lost market share to its archrival, Coca-Cola.

Section TwoChoose Fonts

Unless you’re a typography geek, you probably haven’t given much thought to the fonts you use. Start thinking about them. Fonts combine artistry and science to convey information far beyond the words they render. Fonts communicate not just your personality, but your credibility as a writer.


Activity 5.1

Go to the resume section of Scroll down to see the two sample resumes. After a two-second glance, decide which person you would want to interview, Violet or Trixie. Why?

Read the explanation below the resumes. The resumes contain identical information. Your choice was determined solely by the font!

This section covers some basics you should know about fonts and typography.

Fonts are the voice in which your writing speaks. They can say the following: I am traditional. I am sleek and modern. I am goofy. I am powerful. I am shouting (in all-caps). I am artsy. I don't need to be noticed.
Fonts are the voice in which your writing speaks. They can say the following: I am traditional. I am sleek and modern. I am goofy. I am powerful. I am shouting (in all-caps). I am artsy. I don't need to be noticed.

Typography Basics

picture showing the difference between serif and sans serif fonts, as explained in the text

Serif vs. Sans Serif

Fonts are generally classed as either “serif” or “sans serif.” Serifs are the widened feet at the end of font strokes. Sans serifs don’t have those widened ends.


picture showing different stroke thicknesses

Typography Anatomy

picture showing anatomy of typography. Typical lower-case letters have a standard x-height, which is the distance between the baseline and the median. Some letters, like p and h, have descenders or ascenders.


Kerning is the space between letters. The best kerning is achieved when spacing looks even. In large headings or titles, kerning often needs to be adjusted. Body copy is rarely kerned. When you fully justify your text, however, your software automatically kerns your document. The result is often ugly. To avoid ugly kerning, left justify your text. (See Section Four, “White Space,” below.)

picture showing bad kerning with uneven spaces between letters and good kerning with even spaces between letters

How to Choose Fonts

Readers scan for titles and headings first, so those elements need to stand out.

Generally, choose two different fonts: one for title/headings, and one for body text. A rule of thumb is to choose a serif font for one and a sans serif font for the other. Some reliable pairings are shown in the accompanying box; many more are available at

If you are sharing your document in editable form, your recipient’s device may not display unusual fonts. If you save and share your work in PDF, your fonts will be consistent.

Choose fonts that

  • Convey professionalism—sorry, no Comic Sans
  • Look good on multiple screen sizes
  • Are large and dark enough for your audience to read easily

Remember, the population is aging. Choose a font size that will be easily readable by your audience.

Safe-Bet Font Pairings

Helvetica and Garamond, Century Gothic and Century, Arial and Georgia, Avenir and Bell MT, Baskerville and Helvetica Neue, Bebas neue and Helvetica Light

Fonts for Headings

Choose fonts for 3-4 levels of text: headings, subheadings, body text & annotations.

Example 1 has Geramond for headings, Helvetica in all caps for subheadings, and Helvetica for body text. Example 2 has Bebas neue for headings, Bebas neue for subheadings, Helvetica Light for body text, and Geramond in italics for annotations.

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Section ThreeWrite Headings

Our brains are attuned to information hierarchy. “What should I pay attention to first? What can I ignore until later?” Give your reader some help by using headings in messages longer than three or four paragraphs.

Because you’ve spent time planning and organizing your document, writing headings won’t be hard. Refer to Chapter 2 where we introduced the SMART outline:

picture of a paper highlighting the headings

Your agenda items become your document’s headings.

The stylized document to the right shows a title and headings that coordinate in color and size. Make sure your headings are also parallel grammatically and that they indicate useful content. For instance: “Why buy from us?” is a clearer heading than simply “Why we rock.”


Remove the extra line after a paragraph heading to keep it close and related visually.

Be Consistent

Write and format headings consistently throughout your document, and make same-level headings grammatically and structurally parallel. Grammatical parallelism means all headings start with the same part of speech: the first words in the headings are all nouns, or all verbs, etc. Structural parallelism means the headings are either all statements or all questions.

Write Grammatically Parallel Headings

Save time by learning and using “styles formatting” tools for titles, headings, and body text. Apply styles to your headings to easily generate an outline or change the style or color of all your headings with one click. Here’s how it’s done in Google Docs: Working with Heading Styles. (Word, Canva, various Adobe products, and other text editors have similar capabilities.)

Place Emphasis

When you need to emphasize part of your text, do it properly. Avoid all caps and underlining. Use bolding, italics, or a contrasting color. Note: If you’re using a sans serif font, italics don’t stand out. Use bolding instead.

Place Emphasis Skillfully

Format Email

In an email, use bolded paragraph headings for scanability. Bolded headings force you to be organized, which readers appreciate.


Three Goals for Our Team Meeting

Hi, Hannah.

Jackie asked us to emphasize three goals to the team at our meeting tomorrow.

Update Cards Daily
We need to update our assignment cards on Trello each day by 5 p.m. Jackie needs to do a company-wide review of project status in the evenings.

Make Seamless Hand-offs
A few projects were accidentally dropped during the staff change last month. We need each project sheet updated before any handoffs.

Harvest Customer Feedback
Treat customer complaints as valuable feedback. Be sure to record the complaint and the resolution in the appropriate log. If you see trends, bring them to Jackie’s attention.

See you at 2:30.


What Font Voice Is Your Email Speaking In?

For daily emails, make sure you’re happy with the default font. Some designers claim that Verdana (san serif) or Georgia (serif) are better choices than Gmail’s default, Arial. If you change your email font, test it by sending messages to friends before using it professionally. Some fonts don’t render correctly across email platforms

Also create a professional signature block that includes your contact information.


Activity 5.2

Change your default font in Gmail by going to “settings.” Choose a font that represents your voice.

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Section FourWhite Space

White space is, of course, just space. But like silence, it is remarkably powerful. A page full of black text with small margins feels daunting and unappealing to a reader, as The Onion so astutely reported: Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text. Don’t make that mistake. To enhance readability, direct attention, and lighten the feel of the page, build plenty of white space into your document.

The next sections demonstrate some practical formatting tips for using space well.

visual simplicity invites your reader's attention

Left-Align or Justify

Text can be aligned four ways: on the left, the center, the right, or spread evenly between two margins. Although “justified” text (aligned between both edges of a column) can look sharp at a distance, text stretching occurs. These distracting, jagged white spaces in your paragraph are called rivers.

Left-justified (also called “ragged-right”) text is easiest to read. Never use center-justified text for anything but titles. Center-justified paragraphs are difficult to read.

Left-justified text should be used most often. Right-justified can be used for short text units. Only use full justification if you use design software or insert hyphens when needed.

Keep Lines Short

Keeping your lines short makes reading faster and easier. Instead of long lines, use generous margins to keep lines shorter. Another great solution is to use columns, which shorten the lines. A good rule of thumb is to keep each line of text between 52 and 70 characters so the eye quickly captures each line.

Avoid Narrow Margins

Margins give the eye a rest, so don’t skimp.

Columns and Margins

picture of page with two columns and wide margins

Columns make lines short.
Use wide margins for visual relief.

Consider Additional Line Spacing

Some people and organizations prefer documents with a bit of breathing room between lines. Single spacing can appear too dense and uninviting. Some of the most popular email and word processing programs use 1.15 or 1.08 as their default line spacing. Check what your organization recommends for internal and client-facing documents.

Single spacing is acceptable, but do not double space your text for any business document unless your boss is a retired high school English teacher. It looks unfinished, undesigned, and unprofessional.

Don’t indent. Indenting the first line of each paragraph by five spaces is another typewriter holdover. Instead, leave an extra line between paragraphs and make all paragraphs begin flush with the left margin.

Write Short Paragraphs

Paragraph breaks are the breath of reading. Don’t force your reader to plow through your text without a refreshing break. Paragraph length can be a formatting as well as a content decision. When writing text in columns, your paragraphs can be longer vertically, but remember: Don’t make your paragraphs so long that they’re uninviting to read.


To keep your paragraphs shorter, use links liberally.

Choose Your Line Spacing


Leading (which rhymes with sledding) is the amount of vertical space between lines of text. You probably know it as spacing.


Leading is the amount of vertical space between lines of text. You probably know it as spacing.


Leading is the amount of vertical space between lines of text. You probably know it as spacing.

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Section FiveGraphics

Sometimes the best way to communicate information is with graphics, not words.

If you are having trouble figuring out which kind of graphic will best display data, try using Piktochart’s 10 Essential Types of Graphs and When to Use Them. We’ll cover the details of visualizing data and designing graphics in Chapter 9, but these resources can get you started.

example graph showing that new MCOM textbook increases life satisfaction

Choosing a Graphic

After you’ve created a graphic, ask someone else, “What does this graphic say to you?” The curse of knowledge can render graphics just as confusing as text.

To communicate about sequence, try a timeline or flowchart. For people, try a photo or org chart. For location, try a map, diagram, or floorplan. For data, try a table or chart. For a trend, try a line chart or bubble chart. For a topic, try an infographic. For an action or concept, try an icon.

Infographic resource: Canva. Database of icons: The Noun Project.

Anchor Your Graphics

Avoid the temptation to use graphics as mere pretty pictures that break up the visual monotony of your text. All graphical elements need to directly promote the recommendation, persuasive statement, or information that you are conveying to the audience.

If the graphic does not contain audience-focused content, leave it out. And never insert uninterpreted graphics into a document—never. All graphics must be anchored in the narrative. Don’t just sprinkle graphics throughout your document; introduce, position, and interpret them.

"Don't assume that two different people looking at the same data visualization will draw the same conclusion. If there is a conclusion you want your audience to reach, state it in words"

portrait of cole knaflic

- Cole Knaflic, Author of Storytelling with Data

Anchoring graphics is a three-step process.



Anchor graphics to the text by writing a clear reference in the body of your document. Give readers a context for what they are about to see and a reason to care about it.



Next, strategically position graphics so the reader’s eye can quickly identify and locate the information. When you insert a graphic, give it an “action” title—one that describes the “So what?” of the data. Always cite the graphic’s source. Citations are usually written in a smaller font than the one used in the graphic itself. Place the citation at the bottom right and if possible, include a hyperlink to the original data.



Finally, inserting a graphic is not enough. Interpret the meaning for your readers. Help them see how your graphic adds to your argument. Move them from “What?” through “So What?” to “Now What?”

The following example demonstrates how to do all three:

The Surface of the Earth is Getting Hotter

hello badge

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration strongly suggest that global warming is a reality. Figure 1 shows the difference, in celsius, of how much each year’s average global surface temperature deviated from the 20th century’s overall average. Since 1977, the average global temperature has never been below the 20th-century average. In fact, the positive deviation from the average has only grown with time.


These data support the premise that our planet’s temperature is rising. For the first 60 years of the study (1880-1940), global average temperatures were cooler than the 20th-century average. Since 1977, however, average surface temperatures have remained above the 20th-century average every single year. Despite an increased focus on green energy in many Western countries, these data show that the earth continues to get hotter.

Figure 1

A graph comparing the change in global average surface temperature from 1901 to 2020.

Source:, June 2022

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ExampleExample BankStandard Document Formats

Business relies heavily on email, but printed business letters and reports are still used. In fact, as more communication becomes digital, the power and durability of a printed document makes it stand out.

Click through the following links to see examples of standard formatting and get some design ideas.

Reports and White Papers

link to a report example


link to a business proposal example


link to a white paper example

Traditional Letters

link to a traditional letter example

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In Conclusion

Formatting a great-looking document takes time and practice, but the payoffs are increased reader access and a more polished professional image.

The next time you write a paper or create a handout, practice choosing fonts, writing headings, using white space, and inserting graphics.

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