The Secrets of Reader-Friendly Design

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This is part two of a three-part series.

Meaningful sales messages are transmitted through language. So while it is the copywriter's job to craft selling copy, it is the designer's job to encourage and support readership of that copy.

Consider how the principles of the reading process translate into common-sense rules for reader-friendly design:

• Assist left-to-right eye movement. In most cases, this means using serif type. The serifs - those little horizontal lines on the tops and bottoms of letters - help lead the eye smoothly along lines of copy. Setting type so that it reads up or down is a bad idea because it disrupts natural eye movement.

However, a small amount of text at a slight angle can be used effectively to add excitement without sacrificing legibility. Do not overdo the space between lines of text because that makes it harder for the reader to move from one line to the next.

• Avoid unnecessary fixations. The fewer stops or fixations a reader makes, the faster and easier the reading. Random design tricks, such as widely spaced words or unusual type treatments, introduce stops without any compensating benefit. However, you should introduce stops at points of textual significance, such as headlines, captions, toll-free numbers, calls-to-action and subheads. In these cases, italics, bold text, underlines, bullets, colored text and other design techniques are appropriate.

• Work with the natural eye span. Notice that well-designed publications (such as the one you are reading) set body copy in multiple columns, often with as few as five to eight words per line. This allows the eye to take in a line with less eye movement, greater speed and reduced eye fatigue. Whenever possible, you should do the same with ad copy.

• Divide copy into logical thought units. If you have a headline that reads, "Now you can have 12 issues for $12," you can improve comprehension by breaking the copy into two visual parts: "Now you can have" and "12 issues for $12." You can do this by putting each on a separate line or by using a second color, italics, bold type, etc. Ellipses and dashes also help divide copy into easily absorbed chunks better than commas, colons and semicolons. More importantly, you should avoid dividing copy into illogical parts - for example, "Now you can have 12" and "issues for $12."

• Stick to standard word configurations. Every word has a shape. The faster that shape is recognized, the easier it is to read. Use lowercase as often as possible, including for most headlines, because that is the standard configuration for most words. Reserve caps for the beginnings of sentences and important words. Do not use all caps for long lines of text, and do not space letters too widely. Because numerals have less distinctive configurations than words, spell out numbers that are not important, and use numerals for numbers that should draw attention.

• Use familiar type. Usually the more creative you get with type, the harder it is to read. Because Roman and serif faces are what most people are used to seeing, these faces are best for most body copy. Roman faces also have more irregular features that make words more recognizable. But what is familiar depends on the context. Courier may be more familiar for consumer letters, for example, but Times may be more familiar for business letters. Unfamiliar type should be used sparingly for special effects, such as bursts.

• Make reading fast and easy. Remember that most people are slow readers, often reread text to compensate for reading difficulties and quickly experience eye fatigue. Use type of about 9 to 12 points for body copy, but slightly larger type for older or younger readers. Break up long copy into smaller chunks, indent paragraphs and space between paragraphs. Opt for black type on white paper, in most cases, for optimum contrast. If you must reverse type, keep it short and use 10- or 12-point sans serif because ink can fill in small serifs. Avoid overly glossy, hard-to-read paper. Avoid text over tints and pictures unless there is enough contrast. Use bullets to organize lists.

A designer must create the "body language" of a message, help establish credibility and value and illustrate the promise of the sales proposition. However, nothing is more important than legibility. Ever.

Next time, we will look at a few more general principles of effective direct response design.

Dean Rieck is a direct response copywriter, designer, consultant and president of Direct Creative, Columbus, OH.
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