10 Common Graphic Design Mistakes to Avoid

April 15, 2020 6 min read

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The following excerpt is from Robert W. Bly’s The Content Marketing Handbook. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble or click here to buy it directly from us and SAVE 60% on this book when you use code MARKET2021 through 4/3/21.

Design plays an important role in the success of your content. Long before they read your words, readers will begin judging the value of your content by its appearance.

Here, according to desktop design guru Roger C. Parker, are 10 of the most common mistakes and how to avoid them:

1. Overuse of Color

The overuse of color does a disservice to readers who print white papers on inkjet printers. Avoid solid-colored backgrounds behind the text. Such pages can cost several dollars each in ink supplies. In addition, bright colors can create distractions that make adjacent text hard to read. Finally, text set in color is often harder to read than black text against a plain white background.

2. Missing Page Numbers

Many white papers lack page numbers. But readers depend on page numbers to track their progress through a publication. They also rely on page numbers to refer back to previously read information.

3. Long Lines of Type

Many white papers are hard to read because the text extends in an unbroken line across the page, from the left-hand margin to the right-hand margin. But long lines of type are difficult and tiresome to read. In addition, the resulting left and right margins are very narrow. White space along the edges of pages provides a resting spot for readers’ eyes and emphasizes the adjacent text.

4. Inappropriate Typeface

There are three main classifications of font: decorative, serif, and sans serif.

  1. Decorative fonts like Constantia or Broadway are heavily stylized and great for attracting attention or projecting an atmosphere or image. The use of these should be restricted to logos and packag­ing, however, where image is more important than readability.
  2. Serif fonts like Times New Roman and Garamond are ideal for extended reading. The serifs, or finishing strokes at the edges of each character, help define the unique shape of each letter and lead the reader’s eyes from letter to letter.
  3. Sans serif fonts like Arial and Verdana are very legible. Their clean, simple design helps readers recognize words from a long distance away, which is why they are used for highway signage. Sans serif typefaces are often used for headlines and subheads combined with serif body copy.

5. Wrong Type Size

When type is set too large, at 14 points, for instance, you can’t fit enough words on each line for readers to comfortably skim the text. Conversely, the details that help readers identify each character become lost when type is set too small. Type set too small also requires too many left-to-right eye movements on each line, which causes eye strain over time. The most popular and readable type size is 12 points.

6. Difficult-to-Read Headlines

Headlines should form a strong contrast with the text they introduce. Readers should have no trouble locating or reading them. And never set headlines entirely in all capital letters—it makes them harder to read than headlines set in a combination of uppercase and lowercase type.

7. Failure to Chunk Content

Chunking refers to making text easier to read by breaking it into manageable, bite-size pieces. The best way to chunk content is to insert frequent subheads throughout the text. Subheads convert skimmers into readers by “advertising” the text that follows. Each subhead thus provides an entry point into the text. They also avoid the visual boredom created by page after page of nearly identical paragraphs.

8. Poor Subhead Formatting

To work, subheads must form a strong visual contrast with the text. It’s not enough to simply italicize the subhead text. They should be noticeably larger and/or bolder than the adjacent body copy. Never underline subheads to “make them more notice­able.” Underlining makes them harder to read because it interferes with the descenders—the portions of lowercase letters like g, p, and y that extend below the invisible line the subheads rest on. Also, limit subheads to a few key words, and avoid using full sentences. Subheads work best when limited to a single line.

9. Distracting Headers, Footers, and Borders

Headers and footers refer to text or graphic accents repeated at the top or bottom of each page. Page numbers, copyright information, and the publisher’s address should be smaller and less noticeable than the main text. Large, colored logos on each page can also be very distracting, without adding meaningful information.

As for borders, pages are often boxed, with lines of equal thickness at the top, bottom, and sides. Boxed pages project a conservative, old-fashioned look. A more contemporary image can be created using rules, or lines, of different thickness at just the top and bottom of each page.

10. Widows and Orphans

Widows and orphans occur when a word, a portion of a word, or a partial line of text is isolated at the bottom of a page or column (an orphan) or at the top of the next page or column (a widow). The worst-case scenario occurs when a subhead appears by itself at the bottom of a page, isolated from the paragraph it introduces, which appears at the top of the next page. Some software allows you to automatically “lock” subheads to the text they introduce—make sure you use this feature.

When someone downloads a white paper from you, within seconds they will either feel a glow of pleasure or a sense of disappointment. Readers check out the cover and glance at the text, and then either say, “Aw, just another hard-to-read, look-alike white paper” or “Wow! This looks really great!” Whether your white paper receives the attention it deserves and paves the way for future sales or (worst-case scenario) is instantly deleted or round-filed depends to a great extent on its design.

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