Page Design – How to Design Messages for Maximum Impact

Page design refers to the strategic placement of information on a page or digital screen: Good page design can help you hook your readers' curiosity and improve readability. Good page design is an essential element of authority in writing. First impressions can make a huge difference with regards to your grades in school and your success with clients in the workplace. You might think of page design as the curb appeal for a house on the market: if you don't make the house (or document!) look inviting, if your document doesn't convey your purpose and information architecture, all is lost: Your audience will move on to something else. There's simply too much competition for your reader's attention. This article reviews strategies you can use to snag you reader's attention, such as working with layout -- especially negative (empty) and positive (filled) space -- typography, information visualization, and color. Learn to design pages to facilitate scanning, readability, clarity, and persuasiveness.

Image of a colorful page with a big question in the center, "What is Page Design?"

What is Page Design?

Page design refers to “the strategic arrangement of information” on a printed or digital page.

Page design is a tool writers can use to

  • to attract and maintain the attention of the intended audience
  • to adhere to guidelines, discourse conventions, rhetorical moves, genres, and research methods the audience expects (e.g., teachers, professional organizations (e.g., APA or MLA), managers, clients, and various other audiences
  • to create emphasis
  • to enhance readability
  • to underscore their purpose
  • to clarify the structure of their argument or analysis.

What is Scannability?

Scannability refers to

  • the ease with which a reader can scan a document and discern the gist of the author’s message
  • a text that is machine scannable, such as a barcode.

Pages, whether printed pages or web pages, are more readable when they’re scannable.

Related Concepts: APA General Formatting Guidelines; Elements of Art – Elements of Design; MLA Format Example; Principles of Design; Visual Language

How to Design a Page for Scannability

Below are strategies for improving the readability of your print or online documents. Be sure to consider these strategies in the context of design principles.

1. Front load the Most Important Part of Your Message

Readers tend to be in a hurry, and they may be easily distracted. Thus, it’s strategic to follow a deductive organization — i.e., to clarifying your purpose and the significance of your results in the introduction. This is why it’s commonplace across academic disciplines and professions to provide

2. Use the Principle of Proximity to Chunk Like-Minded Information Together

The proximity principle holds that

  • writers enhance readability and aid comprehension by chunking information together that belongs together—and, conversely, separating information that belongs elsewhere
  • readers assume that elements located next to one another are related, a part of a whole.

3. Use Bullets to Create Emphasis & Brevity

Many readers and writers love bullets. Some people even claim they think in bullets. Bullets create emphasis. They focus the reader’s eye on the bulleted material and they break up textual space.

Using a word processor, you can easily adjust the look and feel of bullets, making them ornate or simple. It’s best to use the bullet style tag so that you transform the look and feel of your bullets with a single key stroke as opposed to needing to reformat each bullet separately.

While bullets might be uncommon in fiction, they are commonplace in academic writing and workplace writing. In fact, they are a defining feature of a professional writing prose style because they facilitate scanning. Below, e.g., is first sentence of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (column 1) translated into a professional writing prose style (columns 2 and 3):

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .

It was

  • the best of times
  • the age of wisdom
  • the epoch of belief
  • the season of Light
  • the spring of hope

  • the worst of times
  • the age of foolishness
  • the epoch of incredulity
  • the season of Darkness
  • the winter of despair . . .

4. Use Lists to Create Emphasis & Clarify Hierarchies

Lists share all of the positive attributes of bullets: They create the white space readers love, placing emphasis by drawing the reader’s eye to what you want to highlight.

Lists are preferable to bullets when a series of steps is being presented. Unlike bullets, lists imply you complete item 1 before moving on to item 2.

Using lists and numbering sections of documents is very common in legal and technical genres where more than one person is writing the document or where litigation may follow.Once again, use the style tag for lists in order to have control over your document.

6. Use Paragraphs to Chunk Like-Minded Information

In years past, especially prior to the internet, writers had less competition for readers’ attention. Perhaps this explains why they could go on and on with their paragraphs. Consider page 2 of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

While it’s still true that readers of fiction who are reading for entertainment and pleasure may have more patience for such longish paragraphs, in workplace writing where a professional writing style predominates, there’s been a move to shorter paragraphs.

4. Use Headings & Columns to Chunk Like-Minded Information

For some genres, headings would be considered too impersonal or too technical. For example, you certainly don’t want to see headings and columns used in a suspense novel. Increasingly, however, headings are used to help readers scan documents in academic writing and workplace writing.

Even conventional headings in scientific writing like Introduction, Results, Discussion, and Conclusions can be useful: They give readers a sense of what is covered within the section. Highly skilled readers tend to scan through documents on first reading, noting the content of your headings. This gives them a sense of your overall message. An additional advantage of headings is that they create additional space between chunks of like-minded information.

Better yet, descriptive headings — i.e., headings that help readers understand what a section is about (such as the headings used in this article) — cue your readers about the upcoming content.

Word processing programs enable you to highlight text and then define text as a level 1 heading, level 2 heading, and so on. Using style tags you can change the size or color of the heading. The advantage of using style tags is that you can change all level 1 headings with ease rather than going through and changing every level 1 heading. In other words, if you tagged text 15 times as an H1, and then you edited the look of that heading, your changes would ripple through the text, changing all 15 headers.

Results from readability research indicate that readers have difficulties with more than three levels of headings. When you use more than three levels of headings, readers become confused. Also ensure that all of your headings are grammatically parallel. For example, headings can all be questions, verb phrases, or noun phrases, yet you cannot mix together questions, verb phrases, and noun phrases.


Why Does Page Design & Scannability Matter?

Unless they’re reading poetry or a novel — some sort of pleasure reading — people want to get into a text and out of a text as quickly possible. That’s strategy. That’s common sense. This is especially true in workplace writing and academic writing.

Good page design — i.e. pages that are scannable — facilitates clarity and persuasion.

You can enhance the readability of your texts by giving some thought to the design of your documents. By designing for scannability, you can help your audience better understand your organization and thesis, hypothesis, argument.

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