Designers, here's how NOT to format a white paper
by Gordon Graham, That White Paper Guy
Nothing undermines a good white paper faster than poor design.
If you're not sure how to design a white paper, or you've never done one before, read on.
A white paper is something between a marketing piece and a scholarly essay.
It's not a brochure, so it shouldn't be as slick and colorful as one.
But it's got to be more appealing than a report cranked out of Word.
Think of a page from a magazine like Scientific American or Vanity Fair, or the front part of an annual report, before they get to all the numbers. That kind of crisp, elegant editorial design is what to shoot for.
Most of all, here are five things you must NOT do when you format a white paper.
Stumble into these pitfalls and you'll make it harder for every reader to plow through your document.
And if no one reads it, kiss goodbye to all the hours and all the money that went into that white paper.
♦ Design no-no #1: Lines too long
The classic rule of thumb is to limit any horizontal line of type to 12 words, or 60 to 66 characters.
That applies both on-screen and on paper.
Then why do some white papers run a line of type all the way from one edge of the page to the other?
Why try to squeeze 100 characters into every line?
Here's an example... how readable do you find this?
Yes, that's hard for our eyes to scan... and tough for our brains to process.
Format a white paper like this and for sure you will lose most of your readers.
♦ Design no-no #2: Awkward page breaks
Why would anyone start a major new section at the very bottom of a page, with only a line or two of text following?
Here's an example of an awkward page ending...
In this case, the new section is also smack up against a footnote.... which is also crammed up against the footer. Isn't all that jarring and pointless?
There's nothing "wrong" with leaving a little white space at the end of a major section. Just start the new section on a new page.
Your readers know how to flip a page, or scroll down the screen. They've been doing it since they were two.
See how much better this page looks with some more white space...
That little fix ups costs nothing but a few seconds of thought. But it gives readers a momentary break, and helps them understand the structure of the paper.
♦ Design no-no #3: Wall of gray
This is the tech manual school of design: Just pour the text into the pages, all 300 of them.
But a white paper formatted as a wall of gray text won't engage anyone.
See for yourself... how do you like this page? How likely are you to read it?
Instead, use "text organizers" if your writer hasn't already.
Those are free things like bullets, boxes, shading, sidebars, callouts. These visual breaks can help highlight the key message of each page and provide some welcome eye relief.
♦ Design no-no #4: Pages too busy
But don't go to the other extreme and make your pages like a pizza box.
Too much color, too many graphics, too many things to take in at once will conspire to turn off your audience.
Here's an example of too much on one page.
Instead of supporting the white paper's argument, all these graphics are just competing for attention.
Select the most powerful and appropriate single graphic for any page and use it. Keep the rest for later, or drop them.
♦ Design no-no #5: Useless hyphens
Computer software does a terrible job of hyphenating English. If you let it, it will break words like "sy-stem" and "Or-acle."
Traditional typographers called for "four-down"; in other words, at least four letters down before any hyphen.
And if you absolutely must even up a paragraph with a hyphen, take a second to do it thoughtfully.
For example, I like to create recognizable root words by inserting optional hyphens manually. It only takes two seconds.
For example, in the word "thankfully" the two obvious places to put a hyphen are "thank-ful" and "thankful-ly." This simple tactic builds readability, instead of tearing it down with meaningless breaks like "than-kfully."
And never break your own company or product names with a hyphen. That's just not right.
Design should enhance content, not undermine it
As you know, the texture of your typography, the look and feel of your pages, have a powerful subliminal effect on readers.
Lines too wide, awkward page breaks, a wall of gray, busyness, useless hyphens: Avoid all these when you design a white paper.
Then your pages will have a much better chance of being read and acted on.
And you'll be adding value to that content, instead of undermining it.
What do you think? Got a comment or question?
Click here to join the discussion on LinkedIn.
To repost this article on your Web site, please e-mail a request to