Graphic Design and the Technical Communicator

“I do neat, not pretty.”

That’s what I tell all my visually minded friends and coworkers. My idea of doing something different is changing up the fonts on the standard Word templates, so I’m obviously not the guy you go to if you want something visually awe-inspiring. And, mercifully, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in organizations where I could work with a graphic designer.

So what could I possibly have to say about graphic design in a technical communication environment? More than you might imagine, actually.

What is a technical writer doing graphic design for, anyway?

In one- or two-person proposal shops, you don’t always have the luxury of having a graphic designer on hand to help make things neat and pretty. Take heart–if the project were that demanding of graphics, the company/department would hire one or bring one in for a special project. But for regular documents, such as correspondence, reports, or proposals, there aren’t always a lot of pictures, but there is a need for some graphic design.

Text Formatting

U.S. Government proposals usually have a set format:

  • 8 1/2 X 11 inch paper
  • 1 inch margins all around the text
  • 12 point font for body text (typically Times New Roman, but if not, you can try something else like Book Antigua, Georgia, or Calibri)
  • 10 point fonts for captions
  • Headings for individual sections

Given all these basic features, it’s important to be acquainted with the basic formatting features in Microsoft Word–still the default word-processing program for much of the U.S. business world. These basic functions, then, include setting margins, fonts, and headings.

Also, if you’re not yet acquainted with Styles, I highly recommend working with them. Styles are automatic templates for things like body text, heading levels (Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3), titles, and captions. They save you the trouble of having to reset the font size, color, boldness, italicizing, etc.

As an extra bonus, MS Word’s Table of Contents function generates an automatic TOC based on styles. Therefore, if you’ve done your heading styles correctly, all level 1 headings will align to the left margin, level 2 headings will be indented one notch, level 3 headings will be indented another notch, and so forth. If you’re not careful with your Styles function, you can find entire paragraphs recreated in your TOC. (To fix that, go back to the original paragraph, select it, and change the Style back to “Normal,” which is your default body text style.)

Some general font guidelines that I follow:

  • Make your heading fonts distinct from your body text to make the page more easily navigable for the reader. However, don’t use MORE than two fonts (also called typefaces) in a document.
  • There’s ongoing debate about this, but I prefer using sans serif fonts for headings and serif fonts for body text. (See the image below for what this means.) I’ve seen studies that show sans serif fonts are more readable for long periods of time, but I know I get a headaches reading whole pages with nothing but Arial on them. Again, when in doubt–especially on a proposal–stick with slightly boring Times, Times New Roman, or Cambria serif fonts for body text. Typical sans serif fonts for headings include Helvetica, Arial, and Calibri. If you have a in-house style that has more fashionable but still customer-acceptable typefaces, by all means, go for it!
  • Avoid underlining in headings or body text unless told to do so–usually by an academic institution or specific magazine publishers. Use italic, bold, or both.

Page Layout

Okay, so you’ve gotten your fonts and styles to behave as you want. You’re all set, right? Not quite.

One thing to pay attention to is spacing (that is, the amount of space between lines of text in the same paragraph, space between paragraphs, and space between headings and paragraphs). Spacing between lines is often measured in points. 12 points is approximately equivalent to one full row of regular text. You can fully align your text along the left margin if you have a full 12-point gap between your paragraphs. If you have zero points between lines, paragraphs should be indented .25 or .5 inches.

You don’t want to crowd your text all together, so standard single spacing usually works just fine (again, with your paragraphs indented). If you’re printing something that others need to mark up with the dreaded red pen, you might go to 1.5 or double spacing.

Another item that I argue with engineers about is text alignment–left justified (“ragged right,” as this post is using) or full-page justified, where text stretches from margin to margin. My engineering friends prefer full justification because all the texts align with the margins; I favor left-justified because the spacing is consistent. Bottom line: unless you are given a guideline, there is no “rule” about justified text–just keep things consistent.

Last thing: don’t use Comic Sans for official documents. I’m not entirely certain why, but Comic Sans is the Rick Astley of fonts, and your graphic designer will lose her mind if she sees it on the page. Just trust me on this.


Proposals sometimes get very few visuals, either due to page constraints or lack of time and money to develop the images. If you’ve got the time and the space, however (and graphics are permitted in the proposal), you should take the time to add them. Graphics, like white space, break up the page and give the reader a visual point of focus. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then it’s also important that your graphics help tell your proposal “story.” This is especially important if you’re proposing a complex piece of equipment that is difficult to describe.

A note on captioning graphics…one of my managers in the defense industry reminded me early in my time there not to just post a picture of a horse (for example) and label the caption, “A horse.” Captions should add some value, either explaining the graphic (“Control panel, top view”) or explaining why the subject of the graphic is important or interesting (“The Ares I-X test vehicle is the tallest launch vehicle NASA has flown since 1972”).

FSE Sep Test

This image, while visually interesting, doesn’t require a full-page treatment but could be inserted on one side of the page.

Images should be cropped and sized to best fit the page. A highly detailed graphic, such as an image with embedded text or multiple steps, could fit across an entire page width.

Ares I-X Flight Test

A detailed graphic like this would best be displayed across the full width of a page, or perhaps even given its own page!

Parting Thoughts

Again, the point with graphics and layout–especially in a proposal–is to make your pages visually interesting, neat, and readable. It can be easy to get carried away with lots of colors, fonts, and borders. If you’re showing off your company’s graphics capabilities, more power to you. However, if your goal is to tell a clear, understandable story, it’s better to err on the side of minimalism: two to three images per page, one big graphic, or a full page of smaller graphics–aligned in a way that doesn’t distract throw off the alignment of the text. If you’re creating a marketing brochure, you can of course get more creative with layout, colors, or text alignment. Visual appeal is useful for telling the story you want to tell; but your visuals shouldn’t distract the reader from what you’re trying to say.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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