Visual Proofreading: 10 Rules

by Fred Showker
WE HEAR A LOT ABOUT PROOFREADING. And, although it is a vital part of any publication, there's another kind of proofreading that can make as much (if not more) difference in the success of your publication. There are visual mistakes you can make just like typos. However, these visual mistakes can govern the way a reader approaches the entire project.

Visual Proofreading

1. Is the layout simple?

What elements you can remove without losing the message?
Systematically remove visual elements from your layout, one by one, and evaluate. Start with the more insignificant ones like borders, rules or drop caps.
Does it still work?

2. Does the layout hold together?

Test your layout by squinting at it.
Is the layout seen and perceived as a single, unified whole?
Are there things that just don't feel right?

  • Hold the layout up to a mirror... now how does it look?
  • What's out of place?
  • See any holes?

3. Does the most important element dominate?

Is there a single visual element that commands the first attention.
Hand it to a fellow worker, or a friend.
Ask them what was their first visual impression.

4. Is there an obvious and logical visual flow?

  • Does the visual flow work with gravity? Or against it?
  • Does the eye flow from one element to the next the way you want it to?
  • Count the steps it takes to get to the message. Are there more than two?

In "flash-card" fashion, show the layout (quickly) to an unsuspecting viewer...

  • What's the first thing they saw. Next? Next?
  • Is that what you intended?
  • ... Does it reinforce your copy line?
  • Did they get what you wanted them to get?

5. Are all the graphic elements visually balanced?

Where is it heavy? Where is it light?

  • Is the spread top-heavy or does the weight fall too low?
  • What is the item next to the heavy spot?
  • Is that where you want your reader to look next?

Now, go back and evaluate your answers. You'll learn a lot about your design. Once you've made corrections, and adjusted things, continue with the next five steps...

6. Is the space attractive?

  • Is the division of space within the layout attractive?
  • Is something too large? Too small?
  • Are there holes in the layout.
  • Once again look at the piece in a mirror.
  • Does everything look right?

7. Is there white space?

  • Is it properly positioned? Is it toward the outside?
  • Does it visually "push" what you want it to? Once again, squint.
  • Are there any holes? Can they be moved to the outside?

White space can be used in two important ways:

  1. to separate elements of the design that should not be closely related to each other, a barrier, so to speak;
  2. to point to, or draw attention to an element.

When an element is separated from the rest of the content by white space, that element automatically becomes more important. It calls attention to itself by virtue of its isolation. The trick is to make sure you've utilized the white space to fulfill one of those two purposes. When white space becomes disorganized, or chaotic, then it's fighting you, not helping you!

8. Do the headlines have impact?

  • Have you avoided overly long headlines.
  • Are the lines broken for quick, logical reading?

Have someone read your headlines to you, out loud. Did they read them in a single breath? Did they stumble? Did they make sense... to you? To the reader? (If the uninitiated reader stumbles or has problems flowing through a headline when reading out loud, then that's a red flag that the headline needs work!)

9. Is there a visual storyline?

Sometimes it sounds strange to think of "visually" designing a story line. But consider this: if the reader feels comfortable with a beginning, a middle and an ending to the visual story, they're much more likely to be pulled in.

You'll also have a better chance to pull in the typical browser who doesn't like to read at all. So ask: does the "visual story" progress to the desired ending?

10. Does the whole layout feel good?

When the layout "feels" good, you know your readers will be comfortable with it.

Now, take one more pass at the specific illustrations, photographs or graphics that have become part of your layout.

  • Is the illustration or photo appropriate?
  • Do visuals support the personality and "ambience" of your message?
  • Do visuals offer meaning, even if the reader doesn't read the text?
  • Do the visuals need captions or explanation?
  • Do the graphics send a visual message? Is it the correct message?
When you have completed your visual inspection and proofreading, go back and evaluate your answers. Make the necessary corrections and revisions and pass it back to a new, uninitiated reader for testing. What you've learned through this exercise arms you with a knowledge base that will aid you in future designs.

After you've done this a number of times you will begin to instinctively design those relationships into your layouts without asking. Visual proofreading will become less tedious and more pleasurable. Your publications will also become more effective.

Thanks for reading

Fred Showker

If you like this, let us know, or give us a tweet, or you can write your own! Note: This was part four in a continuing series about the creative processes involved in designing a publication. I was prompted to begin this series by the discussions and questions asked by attendees of my Newsletter Design workshop recently in Dallas. Part One gave an introduction and revolved around getting fresh ideas. Part Two dealt with the "Window of Approach." Part Three introduced axis, and reader eyeflow.