Newsletter Basics


Long ago – in the dark ages before personal computers – newsletters were pieced together from narrow columns of typing. If the newsletter designer had extreme patience, rub-off lettering was used for a nameplate. The resulting pages were transferred to an offset press and copies were made.

Rudimentary word processing software made the process a bit faster. At least the typing was much easier. Photocopies replaced the offset and company newsletters grew in popularity.

But it was the Hewlett-Packard LaserJet that truly allowed newsletters to proliferate. The IBM PC AT, WordPerfect 4, and a LaserJet were all any office needed to produce a superior newsletter. At least is was superior to past efforts. Yes, the Apple Macintosh led the way, but businesses were slow to catch up, and Apple was never able to push into the business market.

Today we have scaleable fonts, scanners, color laser printers, graphical interfaces, and dedicated layout software. IBM PC users owe a lot to the Apple Macintosh for leading the way to real in-house publishing of newsletters. Before the Macintosh, PC users thought of computers as glorified typewriters and adding machines.

Purposes

Newsletters serve a variety of audiences. You might design for your coworkers, for clients, or for potential clients. These different audiences expect different materials.

Internal News

Often disparagingly called cheerleader or cruise director newsletters, internal publications are meant to inform company employees and stockholders while putting on a happy face.

Internal newsletters – assuming that it is not one intended for stockholders – offer designers a chance to experiment. Because these publications seldom decide your future, exercise creativity.

Happy Talk

Internal newsletters exist for happy talk. Happy talk includes who is being promoted, who is lucky enough to retire, and other back-pats. Employees should want to keep copies of the newsletter when they are mentioned.

For stockholders, be sure to mention increases in sales, productivity, et cetera. Let them know what the company is doing to excel in business.

For non-profit organizations, focus on increased membership, successful events, and other good news. Happy talk might also include favorable legislation, awards, and public opinion polls.

Customer Service

“How-to” – with our help – describes customer service newsletters. Customer service newsletters are like the recipes on the back of cocoa cans; every recipe just happens to use cocoa. Since the information is useful, the promotion is not intrusive.

Customer service newsletters are ideal for people in white-collar professional fields. Consultants demonstrate their expertise by offering bits of “free” advice to existing clients. Large investment firms routinely mail such newsletters and label them Investor Bulletin or Financial Chronicle. Each article mentions that the reader might want to talk to his or her personal representative for more information.

Purely Promotional

Rarely, but with increasing frequency, newsletters exist to attract new clients. This form of newsletter is difficult to design and fill with content. Deciding what impresses an audience of potential clients is challenging.

Consider with whom these clients currently do business. You need to present a newsletter proving your strengths, but not harping on your competitors’ weaknesses. Your competitors cannot be terrible – they each have clients you want. Be positive, but differentiate your company.

Use promotional newsletters to offer profiles of your company and employees. Explain why you are the best. Testimonial interviews with existing clients work well. Try to collect testimonials from companies your potential clients know and trust.

Promotional newsletters should also have your name, phone number, and address on every page – or even within nearly every article. To avoid repetition, you might give individual phone extensions of sales personnel. You do not want to mail a great newsletter but make it difficult for readers to contact your company.

Elements

Newsletter designs feature several basic elements. We have discussed these elements in detail in earlier chapters. Putting these basic elements together to design a newsletter requires more patience and skill that you might initially think.

Nameplate

A nameplate is the name of the publication, which may or may not be accompanied by an artistic logo. Traditionally, nameplates are one to three words placed in large type at the top of the first page. Magazines favor one word nameplates, while newspapers seem to favor two words.

Positioning

First and foremost, a nameplate should be visible. Make it big. A nameplate should occupy from a quarter to a third of the page. The nameplate can be placed in the traditional location – at the top of the page – or in any number of other positions.

Many newspapers now place the nameplate two to three inches from the top. This leaves space for either a major article or teasers for features inside of the publication. Be careful when trying this – a headline across the top might confuse readers.

A few brave designers place nameplates vertically. Most often, vertical nameplates run down the left-hand side of the page. Rotating text is dangerous; you do not want to force readers to rotate the publication. Running letters down the page, but not individually rotated, is even less effective in most cases.

Typeface

Selecting a nameplate’s typeface is as important as choosing a logo and signage typeface. Remember that typefaces convey an image through their design. Traditional newspapers prefer “Old English” typefaces, while “modern” publications prefer sans-serif faces.

Newsletters and magazine designers have more freedom to experiment. Decorative typefaces often convey more about a newsletter than “plain” faces. For example, a home builder might do well with a “wooden” typeface or one designed to look like nails.

Do not set the nameplate too small or it will blend into the page. Lager type naturally appears more open and airy. You do not want the nameplate to resemble a headline.

Logo

A logo can appear above, to the right, or to the left of the publication’s name. Do not place the logo below the name, nor should you watermark the logo. Watermarking, screening the logo and printing in black or a darker color over it, reproduces poorly. We prefer logos on the left.

A logo should be no taller than the cap-height of the nameplate font. Do not drop the logo below the baseline even if the nameplate contains descenders. Too large and the logo overpowers the publication’s name.

Text

Newsletters must be easy to read. Selecting the proper text font and number of columns affects readability. Just like Goldilocks, you need to find the fit that is “just right” for your design.

Font

As we have stated previously, readers expect to see a serif font used for text. While Times, Dutch, Palatino, and their cousins are safe choices for text, you might experiment with some sans faces just to see if they work. Several magazines use sans-serif fonts with success – and then use a serif face for headlines.

A sans font can be used for text from 9 to 12 points with good readability. Serif fonts work well from 10 to 13 points. With both families, 12-point type is generally the place to begin experimenting. We prefer text from 10 to 11 points, which is close to the size used by book publishers.

Many publications now set first paragraphs and opinion articles in 12-point type and other articles in 10 to 11-point type. The effect is interesting, but trendy.

Columns

Text columns are the basic building blocks of newsletters. They would not be newsletters without text. The earliest newsletters were, in fact, little more than slightly gussied-up letters with headings. Columns look more professional.

Since most newsletters are limited to 8.5-inch wide paper, newsletter designs can range from one to three columns without looking odd. Attempting to use four columns creates narrow column with too few words per line.

Try to average five to seven words per line in a newsletter column. Two and three column layouts seem to work nicely. Some publications now set the first paragraph or two in a wide column, and then place two or three columns underneath. In effect, the first paragraph becomes a long deck. Decks are smaller-type headlines summarizing an articles.

Headlines

Back in the dark ages of newsletters, headlines were merely one line of underlined text. Scaleable fonts now let newsletter designers create miniature newspapers and magazines. Create headlines that truly stand apart from the text of articles. Headlines should also help readers prioritize articles.

Typeface

Use one typeface for main headlines. Consistency is very important when setting headlines, since they are road markers in a newsletter. Headlines should contrast with text. Contrast does not necessarily mean that a sans-serif face is required for headlines if a serif face is used for text. However, do not use the same face for text and headlines.

Sizes

Establish size guidelines. For example, the most important article receives a 36-point headline, secondary stories receive 24-point headlines, and all other articles have 18-point headlines. This consistency helps readers a great deal.

Teasers & Content

Teasers and tables of content draw a reader into the publications. Modern newspapers frequently place teasers above the nameplate and section names. Teasers can be as simple as boxed headlines or as complex as photographs with two or three word refers. A refer “refers” readers to another page.

Magazines often run teasers down the left-hand side, without page numbers. We would love it if page numbers were included, but then we would avoid scanning the magazines.

Newsletters should have a table of contents on the first or third page – any deeper and the table is useless. If located on page one, set the table at the bottom third of the page. It may be on the right, left, or in the center, but it should be at the bottom.

If you decide you want a magazine look, place the table at the top of page three. Magazines often accompany the table with small photos and refers. If your publication is magazine length, then you might use the full page for the table of contents and publication information.

Folios

Folios are the lines of publication information newspapers and magazines repeat on each page. If you want to create a professional publication, you need to include folios.

Other Elements

Newsletter designs use other basic design elements mentioned in the first chapters of this book. Fancy text elements are common, as are graphical elements.

Formats

The format of a newsletter describes what traditional document groups upon which the design is based. Your selection of a format dictates your design’s underlying grids. A magazine has a different “look” than a newspaper, for example.

Each of the basic formats can benefit from asymmetrical grids. An asymmetrical grid typically features one column that is narrower than the other columns. This narrow column is either on the right-hand or left-hand side. Most often, a narrow left column is chosen, though such traditions were meant to be challenged.

Long Letters

As mentioned earlier, the first newsletters were in fact long letters on a letterhead. Today, fancy letters attempt to maintain the homespun simplicity of a letter with the polish of desktop publishing.

Fancy letters rely on one or two-column grids. One column grids are boring – to be polite, so we suggest the two column approach. The two columns should be asymmetrical, with a relatively narrow column on the left. Use this left-hand column for notes, artwork, and additional information.

When to Choose

Fancy letters work well for departmental or weekly company updates. Clubs and organizations might also use fancy letters unless there is a reason to impress the membership. As long as the length is less than four pages fancy letters remain effective. Anytime you have need fort a short, fast newsletter, the choice to use the letter approach is obvious.

Benefits

The most obvious benefit to the fancy letter design of newsletters is speed. The design’s simplicity means you can simply sit down at a word processor and create a newsletter.

Many readers appreciate the easy reading of wide columns. The value of this is often overlooked. If you are preparing a newsletter for the vision impaired, a fancy letter design with large fonts works nicely.

Drawbacks

Simple designs look simple. A fancy letter design fools nobody – it is obvious that you selected the easiest design.

Also, you need to avoid widows and orphans. Widows and orphans are isolated lines, separated by a page break from the rest of an article or paragraph. A headline at the bottom of a page is a common problem, as is one or two lines continued to the top of another page.

Miniature Newspapers

Taking the name “newsletter” literally results in miniature newspaper designs. Miniature newspapers grew in popularity as entry-level affordable, and mildly capable, layout software became available. Freed from using word processors with inherent limitations, in-house designers recreated designs with which they were familiar.

Today, most entry-level layout software includes templates for newsletters based on miniature newspaper designs. These templates guarantee that the newspaper look-alikes are here for at least a few years.

Miniature newspapers use three or four column grids. If you are printing on tabloid-sized paper, a five or six-column grip might be possible. Remember not to use columns that are too narrow. Also, make sure at least one em or en-space exists between columns.

When to Choose

Newsletters resembling newspapers carry the same connotations as a newspaper – they present factual, unbiased information. Even if you think newspapers are biased, they try to portray themselves as not. Therefore, do not try to fool your audience.

If you want to convey useful information to an audience, the miniature newspaper design is effective. Product news, company statistics, and other objective information should be placed on the front page of a miniature newspaper. “Columns” and “letters” should be placed on inside pages.

To present subjective information in a newsletter, use quotes from people other than the author or editor. For example, you might use the following method:

“This is the best widget we have ever built,” says Jack B. Nimble, Widget World CEO.

Notice how the “reporter” has avoided making a claim, but instead allows a trusted company official to make the claim. The use of quotes makes the article more believable and more newspaper-like.

Benefits

Miniature newspapers imply factual information is being presented. Also, they convey a sense of professionalism and conservatism. Yes, conservatism. Conservative documents are ideal for “serious” businesses with cautious clients.

Another benefit, never to be overlooked, is that most software includes the basic design grids in the form of pre-built and automated templates. It makes sense to start with existing designs and slowly develop your own style.

Drawbacks

A conservative image might not be the one desired. Alone, this is enough to dissuade many in-house designers away from a mini newspaper design. Any business or organization wanting to appear trendy or on the cutting edge may want to avoid this format.

Another drawback is a lack of freedom. Newspapers work best when each page uses the same grid. Only the first page of each section should vary from other pages. The repeating grid makes creativity a challenge.

Magazines

Professional designers dream of working for a magazine. The reason is simple: there are few rules or limitations. For in-house newsletter designers, the same is true. If you want freedom, design a magazine-style newsletter.

Magazines tend to use two and three column grids. However, magazines are a bit more artistic than either newspapers or fancy letters. You can change the grid from page to page, as long as some elements, such as page numbers remain consistent.

More than once, a newsletter in magazine format has evolved into a true company or organization magazine.

The difference between a newsletter in a magazine format and a company magazine is slight. Generally, the only differences are: dimensions, glossy paper, color photographs, and length. Newsletters in magazine format tend to be assembled from letter or legal-sized paper folded in half.

When to Choose

Given the time and the designer’s desire to be creative, magazines work well to promote organizations. Magazines rely on more graphical elements, such as photos of products in use and events. Readers do not object to blatantly subjective statements in articles – making a magazine format ideal when you cannot get quotes.

Benefits

Because they are more artistic, good magazines impress audiences. Readers understand the time and effort involved, even if they do not know it.

Magazines frequently feature the opinions of writers, so promoting products and services in articles is acceptable. Many “magazines” are in fact nothing more than a series of advertisements thinly disguised.

Drawbacks

Magazines require a substantial effort. That fact alone is enough to prevent many designers from attempting the format. The reliance on graphical elements means greater creative energies are required, too.

Magazines are complex. Complex projects can reach two conclusions: disaster and acceptance. No one endlessly praises an issue of a magazine, but bad designs live on forever. Be sure you have the skills and time required before you embarrass yourself and your organization.

Tips

Newsletters are now a part of doing business. In fact, if you do not do a newsletter, you might not exist. The following tips should help you avoid major mistakes and oversights when preparing newsletters.

Proof, Proof, Proof

We cannot say it enough: proof everything at every possible step along the design-layout-print-distribute assembly line. Mistakes reflect poorly on the newsletter staff and the organization as a whole.

Avoid Two-Minute Drills

In football, when there are two minutes remaining and you are six points down, the offense goes into a two-minute drill. Sometimes referred to as a “hurry-up” or “no-huddle” offense, the results are usually disappointing.

The best way to avoid two-minute drills is to never be six points down at the end of a game. Designers learn quickly that lead times matter quite a bit. Often, errors in the printing or distribution problems ruin a perfect schedule. By setting early deadlines, you can offer a bit of extra time to those who actually get your design on paper and into readers’ hands.

We Made This

Do not forget to include your name and phone number in the newsletter. Sure, it seems obvious, but it is easier to forget than you might think. If you have a lot of good articles and artistic elements, it is easy to forget ad space to promote your company.

Network

There are several organizations and publications dedicated to newsletter design and publication. You should join one of these organizations and subscribe to any related publications.

Software Suggestions

Depending on their format, newsletters can be designed and paginated using a number of software packages. For fancy letters any major word processor should suffice. For newspaper layouts, depending on your need for color, an entry-level program might be acceptable. We use Microsoft’s Word and Publisher for small, black and white projects.

For magazine format designs, programs such as InDesign and QuarkXPress are your best bets. You might be able to use Serif’s PagePlus or Corel Draw, but neither is an industry standard for design.

Summary & Tips

  • Keep things easy to read.
  • Be organized personally and on paper.
  • Use the right tools for the job.
  • Proof, proof, proof everything you design.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 31-Dec-2013
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach