Before Diving In...

Designing excellent business documents requires attention to detail and an artistic vision. Good design sense is not something people are born with, but something you gain over time. Before you begin designing your own documents, you should prepare for the task. We have a few pointers to help you along the way.


The single best thing you can do to improve your design skills is to research the work of other designers. You need to constantly search for the best and worst of documents. The best designers become pack rats and social butterflies. And you thought design was a technical skill.

Read and Study Everything

The best designers are always alert to documents around them.

Never pass up an opportunity to study anything in print or on a screen. No matter where we are, we find something to read and study. Always determine your first reaction to a publication. Initial reactions are everything in business communication. If a client or potential client discards your business card or catalog, your design failed.

Content Counts

Never let anyone tell you that content doesn’t count. While that might be true in politics, in design the finished product is judged in its entirety. Professional designers often forget that the designs they spend hours assembling might become layouts with horrible content. Spelling errors, poor photographs, and confusing charts can destroy even the best design.

Different Angles

Good designs often hide behind bad content.

Studying a layout’s design requires getting past the content. Sometimes the content is difficult to ignore, so try turning the pages upside down or looking at them from a distance. One great way to get past the quality of articles and graphical elements is to trace their outlines onto white paper. A fantastic design might be hiding underneath.

Collect the Best and Worst

Several magazines compare documents. Some magazines also perform before and after surgeries on documents.

You might not be a pack rat, but working as a designer will turn you into one. Set aside a small filing cabinet, paper bags, or whatever you can, and create several divisions. We separate documents by type of publication and by their quality.

Writing a brief summary of your impressions and attaching it to the pages you file makes the clips more useful. We note the number of columns, fonts, and graphic elements. Eventually, collecting reveals trends in both objective and subjective factors. Some layouts are truly awful, while others are filed as bad only because you don’t like them, though they are technically correct.

Do not assume creativity is innate – at most only the seeds are inherited. You develop design skills by watching others and studying their works. Your mistakes are also valuable lessons.

Network with Professionals

Meet with other designers and subject yourself to their reviews.

Few resources compare to other designers. In large cities, designers have professional organizations that accept in-house designers into their folds. To locate these groups, contact local print shops, newspaper art departments, or advertising agencies.

If you cannot locate other professionals to meet with face-to-face, the on-line communities are filled with designers and would-be designers. There are various publishing or art discussion groups on the Web and often linked to art and layout companies' websites.

Balancing Acts

Documents bearing your company’s name convey an image. This image should reflect what your firm does as well as the corporate attitude. Business images can be artistic, even though art is not their primary purpose. In business communication, style is not above substance – and often takes a back seat. As an in-house designer you strive to find an equilibrium.

Avoid shocking audiences unless they expect it. Of course, then they aren’t shocked.

Art, in its purest forms is meant to generate an emotion. Art produces strong reactions to the aesthetics and message of the artist. Business design, however, should avoid strong emotion. The reason is simple: you are in business to make money, not friends or enemies. Your image should become familiar to your customers. What customers feel when they see your logo or other in-house designs should be based on your company’s service.

Clarity Above All

Artistic creativity should not overshadow your message.

Designs for business must be simple and clear. The “ooh” and “aah” factor should not be the sole measure of business design. While image definitely has a place in design, save the “ooh” and “aah” work for newsletters and posters. If you place too much importance on becoming a great artist, you are likely to lose sight of a publication’s purpose.

Artistic Impressions

Now that we have warned against excessive attention to art, you should be aware of art’s importance. In today’s world, image is extremely important. You are competing for attention against television, magazines, and various other media. Just be cautious – there is a delicate balance between clarity and art that few business people have time to master. It’s always better to err on the side of clarity.

Good artwork attracts an audience without distracting from your content.

Artwork, in business designs, strives to attract an audience without distracting. Generally, business cards and letterheads are lousy places for great art because of the limitations of the media. Unless you are in the design business, business cards are meant to be cheap calling cards, not $15 miniature masterpieces.

Save your talent for newsletters, magazines, posters, and glossy catalogs. With these larger format media at your disposal, you can experiment with color and text effects. In fact, there is no rule that your name or logo has to appear on the cover of such items – though we suggest placing your name up front.

Differentiate Your Company

A bit of artistic creativity allows you to set your company apart from the rest. For example, most companies use a standard typeface for their name in logos. Try to modify a typeface and make it a bit more interesting. Do the same with icons or clip art.

Be different – don’t rely upon prepared layouts for your documents.

We understand the temptation to rely on software templates, coaches, wizards, and other such shortcuts. These tools are ideal learning tools, but we warn against using them to create final products. If you must use one of these shortcuts to start a design, be sure to make enough modifications that your publication does not end up looking like hundreds of other documents produced by other in-house designers.

Never Forget

As you design documents, there are a few aphorisms to remember. While these tips seem obvious, it is easy to forget them – especially when a deadline is staring down at you.

Design is Not Timeless

While some designs, such as the Coliseum, are classic, no design is timeless. A professional designers can estimate the time period of any document – even attempts at nostalgia. “Old-style” fonts and artwork usually look contrived. Even the best recreations can be detected by experienced designers.

Nostalgia works only in limited instances. Use old-style typefaces and layouts with moderation.

Pay close attention to trends to avoid creating documents that appear out of step with the times. Be extra cautious if you make use of color. Colors remind readers of time periods, much as fonts do. The Miami Vice color scheme and typeface look passé in new layouts.

Buy the Right Tools

No matter what the task, you have heard the saying, “Use the right tools for the job.” In-house design is no different from any other complex task. If it becomes clear the tools you have cannot produce the layouts you design, buy new tools. We know a lot of amateur designers who force programs to produce desired effects, but this wastes more time than these designers realize.

Poor tools cost designers time and result in frustration.

Many designers use poor tools – especially bad computer software – because the tools for proper design are expensive. While a carpenter might keep a good hammer for a lifetime, a designer is seldom able to retain any tool for more than a few years. Keep current – your competitors will.

Typeset, Don’t Type

Publishing has its own typing rules. Forget your old typewriter skills.

Preparing in-house designs for publication requires that you forget everything you learned in high school typing class. We discuss the differences in using a computer versus a typewriter in greater detail later in this book. However, there are some tips you should know immediately:

  • Use only one space after all punctuation marks,
  • Align items up using special tabs – not spaces, and
  • Do not tab to indent paragraphs, use paragraph formatting.

There are several other differences. If you do not follow these tips, your documents will contain too much white space. The results look unprofessional.

Proofread and Proofread Again

Errors reflect poorly upon you and your company.

Content counts – especially spelling and grammar. Just as you recognize errors in publications, others will undoubtedly spot your mistakes. Minimize the risk by reading all text before placing it into a layout. Check all text again when you print proof pages. Aim for documents with no errors.

If you do not have a dictionary, thesaurus, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White on your desk, buy them. Electronic substitutes are fine if you have your computer on even when reading proofs, but the paper versions are much more accessible.


  • Clear communication is an in-house designer’s primary duty.
  • Art should never overshadow content.
  • Use your designs to be unique. (Think about it.)
  • Great in-house design requires the proper tools.
  • Proofread everything several times.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 21-Oct-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach