Reep (2006, p 134) says that ‘document design refers to the physical appearance of a document’. This includes the layout, colours, fonts, text and images combined. There are several things that make a good document design, and I have included six below.
Having balance means having comparable visual “weight” on both sides of a page or on opposing pages in a longer document. Consider that big weighs more than small, dark weighs more than light, and colour weighs more than black and white.
Proportion is the size and placement of text, graphic aids, and format elements on the page. The proportion of each page element needs to be appropriate for the subject. For example, a sub heading needs to be smaller than a main heading, and graphics should be small if the text is the main element of the document.
Sequence refers to the arrangement of design features so that readers see them in the best order for their use of the document. Most readers read from left to right, so this needs to be considered in document design, and the design must guide a reader through the document.
Consistency refers to presenting similar features in a similar style. Features such as margins, typeface, colour and indentations must be consistent.
Graphic aids must be relevant to the text. Schriver (1997) recommends 5 ways of using text with graphics. These are
Redundant – repetition of key ideas through identical content shown visually and verbally.
Complementary – different content shown visually and verbally, but both elements are needed to complete the key ideas.
Supplementary – where different content is shown visually and verbally, however one dominates the other, and the other reinforces the main ideas.
Juxtapositional – where the main ideas are created through the different content of visual and verbal elements.
Stage-setting – where the visual element forecasts the verbal, but they still have different content.
The last point is to use format elements to help readers move through the document and to find and retain important information. Format elements can include headings, logos, white space, colour and lists.
This website summarises some key points when thinking about document design.
Reep, D.C. 2006, ‘Document Design’, Technical writing: principles, strategies, and readings, 6th ed, Pearson/Longman, New York
Schriver, K.A. 1997, ‘The interplay of words and pictures’, Dynamics in document design : creating texts for reader, Wiley Computer Publications, New York