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12 most common newsletter design mistakes

By: Roger C. Parker

YOUR NEWSLETTER'S SUCCESS depends on its design. An attractive, easy to read newsletter encourages readers to pay attention to your message. Cluttered, hard to read newsletters, however, discourage readership -- no matter how good the ideas contained inside.

Before they begin to read your newsletter, your clients and prospects will be judging the value of your ideas by your newsletter's design. Effective design pre-sells your competence and makes it easy for readers to understand your message. Design also helps set your newsletters apart from the competition.

Layout problems

Layout problems involve the placement and size of elements that remain the same from issue to issue.

Mistake 1. Nameplate clutter - Design begins with the nameplate, or newsletter title set in type at the top of the front page. Nameplate problem often include:
* Unnecessary words. Words like "the" and "newsletter" are rarely needed. Readers will unconsciously supply a "the" in front of a title, if desired. It should be obvious from the design and content of your publication that it is a newsletter and not a business card or advertisement.
* Logos and association seals. Your newsletter's title should not compete with other graphic images, such as your firm's logo and the logos of trade or membership associations. These can be placed elsewhere on the page, allowing the nameplate to emerge with clarity and impact.
* Typographic effects. Stretched or distorted type, type set in strange shapes, or letters filled with illustrations or photographs, often project an amateurish, rather than professional, image.
* Graphic accents, like decorative borders and shaded backgrounds, often make the titles harder to read instead of easier to read.

Mistake 2. Lack of white space

White space -- the absence of text or graphics--represents one of the least expensive ways you can add visual impact to your newsletters, separating them from the competition and making them easier to read. Here are some of the areas where white space should appear:
* Margins. White space along the top, bottom, and sides of each page help frame your words and provides a resting spot for your reader's eyes. Text set too close to page borders creates visually boring, "gray," pages.
* Headlines. Headlines gain impact when surrounded by white space. Headline readability suffers when crowded by adjacent text and graphics, like photographs.
* Subheads. White space above subheads makes them easier to read and clearly indicates the conclusion of one topic and the introduction of a new topic.
* Columns. White space above and below columns frames the text and isolates it from borders and headers and footers -- text like page numbers and issue dates -- repeated at the top and bottom of each page.

A deep left-hand indent adds visual interest to each page and provides space for graphic elements like photographs and illustrations, or short text elements, like captions, quotes, or contact information.

Mistake 3. Unnecessary graphic accents

Graphic accents, such as borders, shaded backgrounds, and rules -- the design term used for horizontal or vertical lines -- often clutter, rather than enhance, newsletters. Examples of clutter include:
* Borders. Pages bordered with lines of equal thickness are often added out of habit, rather than a deliberate attempt to create a "classic" or "serious" image. Page elements, like a newsletter's table of contents or sidebars -- "mini-articles" treating a point raised in an adjacent article -- are likewise often boxed out of habit rather than purpose.
* Reverses. Reversed text occurs when white type is placed against a black background. Reverses often make it hard for readers to pay attention to adjacent text.
* Shaded backgrounds. Black type placed against a light gray background, or light gray text against a dark gray background, is often used to emphasize important text elements. Unfortunately, the lack of foreground/ background accent often makes this text harder to read instead of easier to read.

Graphic accents should be used only when necessary to provide a barriers between adjacent elements -- such as the end of one article and the beginning of the next -- rather than decoratively or out of habit. Downrules, or vertical lines between columns, for example, are only necessary if the gap between columns is so narrow that readers might inadvertently read from column to column, across the gap.

Mistake 4. Text wraps

Text wraps occur when a photograph breaks into adjacent text columns, reducing line length. Although often impressive to look at, text wraps can seriously interfere with easy reading.

Text wraps destroy rhythmic reading, the way your reader's eyes quickly move from left to right, scanning and identifying groups of several words at a glance.

Text wraps also interfere with easy reading by creating awkward word spacing and excessive hyphenation. Hard to read headlines and subheads Headlines and subheads play a key role in the success of your newsletter.

Ideally, they telegraph at a glance, attracting your reader's interest and maintaining their interest throughout long articles. Their ability to do this, however, depends on your reader's ability to locate and easily read them.

Mistake 5. Overuse of upper case type

Words set entirely in upper case type -- capital letters -- are significantly harder to read than words set in a combination of upper and lower case type.

Words set in upper case type frequently occupy three times as much space and are characterized by unsightly gaps between certain pairs of letters (i.e., "YA").

Readers depend on word shapes for instant recognition. Words set in lower case type have distinctive shapes. This is because some letters are tall, others short, and some drop below the baseline the words rest on:
* Ascenders. Letters like b, t, l, and d, contain elements that are noticeably taller than letters like a, e, i, o, u, and w.
* Descenders. Letters like g, p, j, and y, contains elements which drop below the line.

Roger Parker Words set entirely in upper case type, however, lack the distinctive outlines created by lower case letters. Words set entirely in upper case, capital, letters are surrounded by rectangles lacking the distinct, recognizable shapes readers depend on to identify each word.

Mistake 6. Underlining

Headlines, subheads, and important ideas are often underlined for emphasis. Unfortunately, underlining makes words harder to read, reducing their impact! Underlining makes it harder to read by interfering with the descenders of letters like g, y. and p. This makes it harder for readers to recognize word shapes.

Not only does underlining project an immediately obvious "amateur" image, it confuses meaning because today's readers associate underlined words with hyperlinks.

The architect Mis van der Rohe, once commented: "God is in the details." Newsletter success, too, lies in the details. Your readers are always in a hurry. The smallest detail can sabotage their interest in your newsletter, interrupting reading until "later."

And, as we all know, "later" usually means "never!"

Roger C. Parker
      Author, coach, design educator, consultant


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