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Paul Sweum
Indexer | Technical Writer | Editor | Environmental & Town Planner
Bellevue, Washington
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5 Critical Design Tips for Your Holiday Communications

It's that time of year where many of us fire up those publishing programs to layout our creativity. Document design doesn’t need to be intimidating, and you don’t need to be an expert to put an effective piece together.
Written Nov 21, 2010, read 4106 times since then.


It’s that time of year, when the creative juices and ideas start flowing in the information design world for the holidays.  You have a message you want to get out, and with the end of the year approaching, you want it to pack a punch.  When you’re forming an idea, it’s easy to want to throw it together right away and get it out there. 

That being said, it is easy to rush through a marketing piece and overlook some of the fundamentals of design...we can’t help but get excited about the piece we’re creating!  But acting hastily can lead to goofs in your layout or design, and therefore a failure in getting your message out.

There are many facets to successful business communication, and the presentation of information—through document design—is one of those critical components.  Be it a sales letter, advertisement, greeting card, media kit, newsletter, website, or how you set up your blog page, there are some basic variables to consider in how information is structured. 

Here’s 5 critical design guidelines to follow:

  1. Brainstorm & layout.  Before you start working on your computer, it’s a good idea to sketching out your ideas on paper.  If you’re hitting a wall, it’s okay to borrow ideas and concepts from magazines that are to your liking—after all, those are the pros—and you can always find something slick to get you started.  Don’t get me wrong; technology is a great thing...and many computer programs offer templates to get you started...but more often than not I find many of them to be sterile, unimaginative, and not in concert with concepts I’ve put together on my own.  We want to serve our imaginations.  In my experience, when it comes to brainstorming and writing ideas on the fly, nothing beats the pen and paper.
  2. Grouping through the layout.  When pieces of a design are scattered all over a page, they are difficult to follow and inaccessible to the reader.  Items relating to one other should be grouped close together.  When several items are in close proximity, they become one visual unit rather than separate units.  This helps organize information, reduces clutter, and gives the reader a clear structure to follow.
  3. Contrast through the grouping...but controlled.  Contrast is one of the most effective ways to add visual interest to your piece.  Avoid design elements on the page that are ALL similar in appearance—they should be very different.  Don’t be afraid to exaggerate the differences between type, color, size, shapes and space, but don’t overdo it!  Contrast is often the most important visual attraction on a page; it’s what makes a reader look at a page in the first place.
  4. Consistency through design...and something about color and fonts.  Repeat visual elements of the design throughout the piece.  You can repeat colors, shapes, textures, spatial relationships, line thicknesses, fonts, sizes, or graphic concepts—anything visual that a reader will recognize.  This develops organization and the strength of the unity.  However, to have too many different colors and fonts, for example, will make your design appear busy.  I usually like to work with no more than 3 main design colors—if I use 4, one or two are usually neutral (like grays, creams, or metallic–based) and accent the piece as support to the focal or primary colors for the piece.  In terms of fonts, I usually don’t use more than 2 for a piece, and like to use a serif font (letters with the curves and handles) versus sans serif fonts—typically one each.  Depending on the piece you’re creating, their effectiveness is interchangeable between headlines, bold, and readability of text.  Experiment around.
  5. Visual alignment in your piece...DON'T CENTER EVERYTHING!  It’s easy to want to fill a page with text and graphics wherever there’s space available.  Don’t do it.  Nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily; every element should have some visual connection with another element on the page.  In addition, be sure to allow for adequate white space in the layout.  Working together, alignment and white space help to create a look that’s clean, sophisticated, and fresh.  Contrary to common intuition, DO NOT center everything.  Try right-justifying or left-justifying text and adventurous!  Think outside of the box.  Remember, it's all about readability through alignment while letting your creativity shine! 

It is my hope that these guidelines empower you to take a step back and think more globally about the piece you’re creating.  You should be more successful with the layout and design of your communications.  The information in your pieces will form into something more interesting, be easier on the eye of the reader, and carry more clarity in how you deliver your intended message…and that’s better for your business communications. 

This overview of document design guidelines covers broad concepts that can be very useful—but that’s what it is—merely an overview.  There are many details and possibilities in creating effective information, whether it’s online or in print documents. 

For further assistance in your documentation needs, contact a technical communicator with specialization in the arts of information design to discuss your ideas. 

Learn more about the author, Paul Sweum.

Comment on this article

  • Brand Strategist & Graphic Designer 
Bothell, Washington 
Diane Bridgwater
    Posted by Diane Bridgwater, Bothell, Washington | Nov 21, 2010

    Thanks Paul for your clear communication on the importance of great design. As a graphic designer for 20 years, many DIY'ers have the "programs" but lack the knowledge of how design actually works, it's not about making something look pretty, it also knowing the messaging behind why and who the marketing piece is targeted to which makes for a successful design. Always know who your ideal client is and who will be receiving your marketing piece will make a big difference on the success of the marketing campaign either online or in print.

  • Office Consultant & Organizing Coach 
Marysville, Washington 
Nancy LaMont
    Posted by Nancy LaMont, Marysville, Washington | Nov 22, 2010

    Thanks Paul for sharing your knowledge. And yes, I am one of those DIY'ers who lack the knowledge that Diane spoke of.

  • Chief Strategist at 7 Secrets 
Colorado Springs, Colorado 
Barry McCann
    Posted by Barry McCann, Colorado Springs, Colorado | Nov 22, 2010

    Great tips! One other encouragement I'd add: Put your most important message in The Hot Spot: The upper right-hand corner. I've worked at several catalog marketing companies, and we always put the offer there. Always.

  • Asistant 
Manhattan, New York 
Matiscurtom Ben
    Posted by Matiscurtom Ben, Manhattan, New York | Nov 22, 2010

    Thanks for giving me such great knowledge and about your tips what can I say about it awesome I about to use in my future.

  • Seattle printing, mailing, marketing solutions 
Kirkland, Washington 
David Berkey
    Posted by David Berkey, Kirkland, Washington | Nov 22, 2010

    I like that you included the importance of white space as a design element. I see too many designs where people feel they need to cover every sq. inch of the paper, creating clutter. Another addition might be to utilize a grid to lay out everything. It also helps to organize the design and provide unity. The best communication pieces I have been involved with, whether annual reports, brochures, banners or catalogs, have all been well planned, noting when copy or images are of primary importance to the communication.

  • QuickBooks And Xero Outsourced Contractors Bookkeeping Services 
Lynnwood, Washington 
Randal DeHart, PMP, QPA
    Posted by Randal DeHart, PMP, QPA, Lynnwood, Washington | Nov 22, 2010


    Your insights on marketing are valuable and required a second read. Very useful, thank you.

    Warm Regards,


  • Indexer | Technical Writer | Editor | Environmental & Town Planner 
Bellevue, Washington 
Paul Sweum
    Posted by Paul Sweum, Bellevue, Washington | Nov 23, 2010

    Thank you everyone for your comments...and those added suggestions will be really helpful to readers!

  • Technical, Marketing, and Travel Writer 
Seattle, Washington 
Cheryl Landes
    Posted by Cheryl Landes, Seattle, Washington | Nov 27, 2010

    Excellent post, Paul! These tips are very helpful to anyone designing their own materials, experienced or not.

  • SEO Consultant 
Jersey City, New Jersey 
Elvis Arias
    Posted by Elvis Arias, Jersey City, New Jersey | Feb 02, 2011

    very interesting piece, you have a new follower