Friday 24 July 2009

Do you know these eight top tips on type and layout?

As a copywriter, I have to think carefully about every single word I write. I’m doing my very best to draw readers in, outline benefits in the most powerful, persuasive way and then make the reader act, and act now.

It can sometimes be soul-destroying then to see my finished copy on the ad, brochure, mail pack or web page. It’s not inviting. It doesn’t look visually interesting. The benefits aren’t pulled out. The copy is just another element in the design that’s there to be looked at, not read and acted on.

In short, it’s a waste of my skill, time and effort. And the client’s money.

And yet, as with any other discipline, there are rules that can be followed, and broken, when there’s a good reason.

After being in the business for over 30 years, I’ve picked up a few of these tips on type and layout. But it’s not my area of expertise and so I’d never claim to be an expert.

But Colin Wheildon is. He’s carried out controlled, scientific readership studies to identify exactly what works. This isn’t just guesswork or opinion or hunches. Colin has conducted experiments to find out what people find easy to read, and hard to read.

His findings are all brought together in a book called, ‘Type and Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes?’ If you’re a designer working in any kind of media which involves people reading things – good old-fashioned print or the sexy world of online – it’s probably worth getting hold of a copy.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here's what David Ogilvy, one of the best copywriters and admen our industry has ever seen, had to say:

"Hitherto, designers have had to rely on their guesses as to what works best in choosing the typography and layout. All too often they guess wrong. Thanks to Colin Wheildon, they no longer have to guess. No guesswork here. Only facts."

So what does Colin Wheildon’s research tell us? Here are just eight key findings.

On headlines

It doesn't matter whether you're putting together a full-page ad, a brochure, an email or a web page, you and your client want your headline to be easy to read and work as quickly as possible. If it doesn’t work fast, you lose the reader fast. Here’s what Colin’s research discovered – some of these might seem obvious, other less so.

1. Headlines set in capital letters are significantly less legible than those set in lower case.

2. The darker the headline, the greater the comprehension level. Black headlines are understood by nearly four times as many readers as brightly coloured headlines.

3. Slightly condensing headline type makes it easier to read. Settings between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of natural width appear to be optimal.

4. Using full stops at the end of headlines may have a detrimental effect on readers' comprehension.

On body copy
A headline may be eight or nine words long, but body copy can run and run, providing it’s well written of course.

This means that readability is extremely important. People won't stick with you and keep reading if your art director or designer makes things difficult. Here are a few more of Colin Wheildon's findings that work:

5. Body copy must be set in serif type if the designer wants it to be read and understood. More than five times as many readers are likely to show good comprehension when a serif body type is used instead of a sans serif font.

6. Copy must be printed in black. Even copy set in deep colors is substantially more difficult for readers to understand. Seven times as many people in the study showed good comprehension when the copy was black, as opposed to either muted or high intensity colors.

7. Black text printed on a light tint has high comprehensibility.

8. With no descenders helping the eye to identify words quickly, COPY SET IN CAPITALS IS DIFFICULT TO READ!

For more invaluable help and advice on writing, marketing and advertising, go to

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