Illustration by Phil Scroggs

Simple Design Tricks for Non-Designers

In professional communications — whether just words on a page or bullet lists in a slide presentation — it’s not just the words themselves that matter. The visual quality of your words reflects back on your professionalism too. And you don’t have to be a graphic designer to make your stuff look great. You may think you’re uncreative — but here are some magical ways anybody can pass for a design pro.

1. Keep your document decoration to a minimum.

Simplicity is the key. Sure, drop shadows and gradients were all the rage back when Kurt Cobain slipped on his first flannel shirt. But, the current trend is to keep things basic. It’s not the cool clothes or the long hair that make a band great — it’s their tasty guitar licks and barbaric yawps! So, keep the fancyfying to a minimum. Flat is where it’s at. Leave the gradient fills, bevels, drop shadows, glows, and other special effects out of your documents and slide presentations to reach communications nirvana!

2. Use PNG format for logos — NOT JPG.

Never copy a logo from a web site because the image resolution is too low for use in Office documents. Plus, logos are often in the wrong format — JPG (which is best reserved for photographs). Logos with solid colors can look pixelated and blurry in JPG format, especially if enlarged. For best results, use a high-resolution PNG file when displaying a logo in Word or PowerPoint. (“PING”!) PNGs can also have a transparent background — which looks much better than a white box on a photo or colored background. That’s the kind of trick that takes your presentations and posters from “ugh” to “aaah-OOOOOH-gah!” Brilliant.

3. Don’t leave orphans behind.

You’re the type of person who sees a stray pup on the street (“Will fetch slippers 4 fud”) and drops a buck in his bowl. A big-hearted, friendly sort who cares about “widows and orphans” — which, as everybody knows, are actually typography terms for the words that get left stranded in a page layout. A widow is a paragraph’s lone last word or phrase that’s been bumped to the top of a new column or next page. An orphan is a lone word on a line by itself at the end of a paragraph. To fix a widow, just insert a column break or page break to keep the paragraph together. To fix an awkward ending caused by orphans, just add a soft return (shift-Enter) to keep two (or more) words together on the last line. This is especially important when you need to keep together official titles or names that should stay together, like “The University of Washington.” You can also use this trick in a bulleted list to start a new line of text without adding a new bullet point!

Awwww,… look at you… taking care of orphans.

4. Use stylish fonts. (but not too many)

You probably already know that using Comic Sans font will get you voted off the island — or at the very least… a good, long shunning. But, did you know that using a simple sans serif font like Source Sans Pro in your documents will win you a thumbs up from the Suits, a hearty “Huzzah” from that one barista at your coffee shop that you like, and the smiles and adoration of all your fellow colleagues? Sure… Helvetica and Arial are fine if you like vanilla ice cream and watching golf on TV. But why not kick things up a notch? Use a serif font (but not Times New Roman) for headlines and a sans serif font for the rest of your text. Or flip-flop them.

With your brilliant taste in text, you make Johannes Gutenberg look like Lloyd Christmas.

5. Omit the extras when writing out your web links.

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web (we’re talking mid-90s here), it was necessary to use a full “http… colon… slash… slash… dubya dubya dubya dot, blah blah blah slash blahblah dot html…” to write a web address. Today, however, all you need is the domain. “” will do! No preceding https, superfluous dubyas, or trailing slashes and index.htmls.

For keeping it simple: Ten points to Gryffindor!

Put these five tips to use in your next document and let me know how it works for you.

Next up, I’ll give you some more tips for taking charge of your style.

Want a FREE second opinion on a piece of communications you’re creating? Email it to me for a quick consultation. I’ll look it over and send back five ways to make it even better. And if you have other design and branding questions, drop me a line:

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