Make Your Boring Documents Look Professional in 5 Easy Steps

When you’re given the task to write a report or an essay, do you just stick to the defaults? (You know, like sticking with Calibri, 11-pt. font?) If you’re like most regular folks (meaning, you don’t have a background in design), the chances are you do.

Of course, you do some formatting, right? You indent your paragraphs, you make your headings a little bigger. And you might end up making them bold. But if you don’t take the time to design your document, does it typically end up looking like this?


If you said, “yes,” you should know something: your document isn’t professional. And it’s rather dull. Who wants to read an unprofessional, dull document?

Designer Ludvig Mies van der Rohe once noted, “God is in the details.” One of the great lessons I take from his mantra is that attention to detail makes all the difference. And you know what? For most intents and purposes, a few added details makes a huge, huge difference. In the case of a typical report or essay, with five easy changes, you can take your document from “dull and blah” to “wow.” Here’s how:

Step 1: Put Space between Paragraphs

Don’t double-space the document, but DO double-space between your paragraphs, like this:


Step 2: Get Rid of those Nasty Indents

If the paragraphs are spaced away from each other, indents are unnecessary (and they create awkward white space). So make the document look like this:


Step 3: Use Two Contrasting Fonts (other than the defaults) and Sizes

Using what I call the “Two Font Rule,” you can pull yourself away from the stigma that you only use the defaults (and that you are, by association, apathetic, boring, and/or lazy). Use two fonts that look significantly different from each other, usually from two different font families. So using a sans serif font (the ones without the little “feet” at the ends of the letters) for the headings and a serif font (the ones with the little feet) for the body text is a nice choice. Below, you can see that I used Bebas Neue for the heading (a sans serif font) and ATC Laurel for the body text. I also made the heading bold and much larger (30-point compared to the body text’s 12-point). Here’s how it looks:


Step 4: Shrink Your Line Length

Most of the time, you’ll be printing on 8-1/2 x 11 pieces of paper. Did you know that, with MS Word’s 1″ margins, you have a line length of 6-1/2 inches, much too large for the typical 10- or 12- point font? Think about how magazines, books, and other professional publications are designed. They use columns or smaller pages. Never do they stretch text across the entire page. If you widen the margins significantly, readers are much more likely to want to read the document. It uses more pages, but it sure looks a million times better:


Step 5: Add Some Space between the Lines

In document design, we call the space between lines “leading.” Adding a bit of space (not too much, not the double-space stuff you were taught in high school) increases readability. Like wider margins, increased leading is more inviting. If you want your document to actually be read, make it look nice. A little leading goes a long way:


There are, of course, a few more things you can do. Consider using color for the headings. Insert page numbers for accessibility. But really, if you just do those five quick and easy steps every time you create a document, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you “wow” the people you give it to.

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