CH 3: Design & Visuals

Visual elements such as graphs, charts, tables, photographs, diagrams, and maps capture your readers’ attention and help them to understand your ideas more fully. They are like the illustrations that help tell the story. These visuals help to augment your written ideas and simplify complicated textual descriptions. They can help the reader understand a complicated process or visualize trends in the data. The key concept to remember here is that visuals clarifyillustrate, and augment your written text; they are not a replacement for written text, but using them may save you having to add explanations and clarifications. If you have visual elements in your document, they must be based on and supplement your written content. Throwing in “gratuitous graphics” just to decorate or take up space can confuse your reader.

It is important to choose the right kind of visual to convey the story you want your reader to understand. If visuals are poorly chosen or poorly designed for the task, they can actually confuse the reader and have negative consequences.

Designing Documents to Enhance Readability

All documents have a purpose—to persuade, to inform, to instruct, to entertain—but the foremost purpose of any document is to be read. Choosing effective document design enhances the readability or usability of your document so that your document is more likely to achieve its intended purpose.

Choose document design elements that make your document user-friendly for the target audience. Keep in mind that people do not read technical writing for pleasure; they read it because they have to; it’s part of their job or they need information. Your job as the document designer is to make their reading process as easy, clear, useful and efficient as possible by using all the tools at your disposal.

Designing a document is like designing anything else: you must define your purpose (the goals and objectives you hope your document achieves), understand your audience (who will read this document and why), and choose design features that will best convey your message, achieve your purpose, and suit your audience.

Document Design

Document design refers to the physical appearance of a document—either in print or online. In technical communication, the goal is typically to convey information—to explain how to do something, describe how something was done, teach something new, or even accept a point of view. Designing your document effectively can help ensure that readers understand how to use it. Your audience sees your document before reading or accessing it; therefore, well-designed documents help readers to navigate smoothly through the information. Conversely, when a reader encounters a poorly-designed document, they may become frustrated and miss important information or they may decide not to read it at all.

For print documents, technical communicators usually focus on page design—text size, font type, color, sections with headers, and the placement of text and images on the page.

For online documents, some of the same design elements are the same, but there are additional elements to consider, such as navigation bars, headers and footers, search pages, links, and FAQ lists.

Document design is the “nuts and bolts” of technical writing. No matter how important the content, if it is not formatted in way that enhances readability, it will likely not receive the attention it deserves.

The following sections of this chapter include information on how technical writers use visuals and document design features to optimize readability, including page design and layout elements such as lists, tables, bullet points, and bold text, as well as the use of headings and subheadings.

The following video from Gregg Learning, “What You Need to Know About Business Document Design,” provides a good introduction to the elements of basic document design:




Additional Resources 

  • Common Page Design,” by David McMurrey and Jonathan Arnett, Open Technical Communication.



"Figures and Tables." Technical Writing Essentials. [License: CC BY 4.0]
"What You Need to Know about Document Design." Uploaded by Gregg Learning, 23 Oct. 2015.



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