Desktop publishing's twelve most common mistakes

By Roger C. Parker,

Details that spell the difference

Details frequently spell the difference between attractive, easy-to-read pages that project a professional image and boring, hard-to-read pages that undermine your firm or association's credibility.

Here are some of the areas to pay particular attention to.

1. Gray pages
Gray pages are the result of too much type, not enough white space and a lack of typographic contrast between each element of page architecture. Readers should be able to glance at a page and easily identify headlines, subheads, body copy and captions.

Typeface, type size and type style choices that are only slightly different from one another confuse the reader and create boring pages. Make sure that headlines and subheads form a strong contrast with adjacent text. This contrast can be created by using a different typeface, a significantly larger type size, a different type style or

Other causes include:

  • Insufficient line-spacing. Line spacing should be proportional to type size, line length and--most important--the typeface used. Your software program's automatic, or "default" leading (the fancy word for line spacing) choice is rarely the right one.
  • Crowded headlines. Iinsufficient white space surrounding headlines and subheads makes them hard to find, hard to read and--thus--they fail to attract your reader into reading your publication.
  • Margins. Text that extends too close to the edges of each page projets a claustrophobic image and makes it harder for your readers to hold your brochure or newsletter without obscuring some of the words.

2. Lack of white space at top, bottom and sides of page.
White space makes pages more attractive and easier to read by providing a resting space for the reader's eyes and creating empty/filled contrast with the text on the page.

  • Vertical white space. One easy way to add white space is to employ a "scholarsmargin," a narrow column of white space at the outer edge of each page that can be also used for occasional text like notes or pull-quotes.
  • White space at page top. You can align text and graphics along a deep top margin, or sink, that builds white space into the top of each page.
  • Varying white space at column endings. Scalloped columns, columns of unequal length, also add white space and visual interest to the bottom of each page.

3. Long lines of small type or short lines of large type.
It's hard to decide which is worse!

  • Long lines of small type are tiring to read because each line requires several left-to-right eye movements. In addition, readers can get lost at the ends of each line on the right and return to the beginning of the wrong line-or, even worse, reread the same line (called doubling).
  • Short lines of large type are characterized by excessive hyphenation and awkward word spacing (lines with wide word spacing can follow lines with narrow word spacing).

4. Narrow columns of justified text
Narrow columns of justified type do not offer enough opportunities for words to be properly spaced. As a result, lines containing a few long words are characterized by huge gaps between words and lines containing several short words exhibit extremely tight word spacing.

Narrow columns of justified text are also characterized by excessive hyphenation.

5. Inappropriate borders
Page borders should reinforce the text, not distract. Boxed borders create barriers to reading on to the next page. Centered, boxed borders are inappropriate for asymmetrical page layouts.

Alternatives to boxed pages include top and bottom borders which extend the width of the text or a light horizontal rule at the top of the page combined with a heavy rule at the bottom of the page to "weight," or anchor the page.

6. Overuse of reverses, screens, rules and boxes
Small areas of reversed text can attract attention far out of importance to the importance of the text they contain.                          

  • A single, large reversed headline is preferable to several smaller reversed headlines.
  • Text set against screened or tinted backgrounds (less than 100% color saturation) is harder to read than regular text because the reduced foreground/background contrast makes it harder for readers to recognize the distinctive shapes of each letter.

Rules and boxes form barriers which not only distract but also add clutter to a page. When used properly, such as above subheads, rules emphasize that one topic is ending and another is being introduced.

Boxes form even stronger barriers but should only be used to intentionally separate text or visuals not used simply for emphasis.

7. Incorrect punctuation
Readers are no longer willing to accept up-and-down "inch mark" quotation marks. Replace them with open and closed quotes and use typeset apostrophes rather than vertical "inch and foot" or tick marks.

  • Replace two hyphens with Em dashes to introduce and close parenthetical phrases and En dashes to indicate duration (January-February).
  • Use hard (or non-breaking) spaces to keep names and dates from splitting across two lines. "Hang" punctuation so that quotation marks appear in the column margins, to maintain the alignment of the first (and-with justified text-the last) letters of each line.

8. "Floating" initial caps
Initial caps should be closely related to the text they introduce. Carefully align the baseline of the initial cap with one of the lines of the paragraph. Text should wrap as tightly to the initial caps as possible. Try setting the first line of text following an initial cap in upper case type.                          

  • Whenever possible, rewrite the first sentence to avoid sentences beginning with one-letter (i.e. "I," "A" or ) or two-letter words (i.e. "To").
  • Use overhanging initial caps like T's, Y's or A's and open letters like C with care because it is difficult to relate adjacent text to them.

9. Excessive text wraps.
Whenever possible, align photographs, charts and pull-quotes with the underlying column grid. Photographs, charts and pull-quotes placed between columns or extending part way into the next column create problems by reducing the line length of the text in the adjacent columns. This disturbs the reader's established rhythm.

Text wraps extending into columns of justified text cause awkward word spacing and excessive hyphenation. Pull-quotes and visuals placed between columns of left-justified text looks awkward because the irregular line endings on the left are inconsistent with the neat, vertically alignment of each line on the right.

10. Unnecessary spacing
Avoid unwanted text spacing within and between paragraphs

  • Duplicate spaces. Avoid using two spaces after periods. Only one space is needed following periods.
  • Unnecessary indents. Never indent the first line of a paragraph following a headline or subhead; indents are only necessary within columns of text because the headline or subhead signals the beginning of a new paragraph.
  • Always hyphenate. Hyphenate left-justified text to avoid exaggerated differences in line length, and distracting shapes. Hyphenated justified text to eliminate large gaps in lines containing just a few long words.
  • Control word spacing. With justified text, adjust your software program's word spacing justification limits command to reduce maximum permissible word spacing.
  • Fine-tune lists. Eliminate space in lists by reducing the distance between bullets (or numbers) and the text they introduce.

11. Widows and orphans
Pay particular attention to the tops and bottoms of columns and pages.

  • Widows. Avoid widows, sentences beginning new paragraphs placed subheads at the bottom of a column or page. When a new paragraph begins, keep at least two--preferably three--lines together.
  • Orphans. Avoid orphans, sentence fragments or portions of hyphenated words isolated at the top of a new column or page.
  • Subheads. Avoid subheads appearing by themselves at the bottom of a colun or page. Make sure that at least two sentences of the paragarph the subhead introduces appears following the subhead.

12. Color printing
Color obscures more often tha it enhances. Often, color detracts, rather than emphasizes, important information.

Color works best as a background element, such as a field against which text is set, rather than as a foreground element itself. Text set in color is often harder to read than the same words set in black. Just setting headlines and subheads in color does not necessarily mean that they will be more noticeable than the text surrounding them. Small text set in color is hardest to read of all.

Avoid overly bright colored backgrounds that can interfere with headlines and text. Always provide plenty of foreground/background contrast.

Use the Preflight Checklist found in the
Print Worksheets to review your publications and make sure that you have not inadvertantly included design elements that hinder, rather than enhance, your reader's understanding of your message.

Roger C. Parker's
PO Box 697, Dover, NH USA 03821
Phone: 603-742-9673
Fax: 603-742-1944
[email protected]


Entire contentsCopyright © 1992- Packaging Graphics. All rights reserved. Roger C. Parker
Unauthorized reproduction without express written permission is prohibited except as noted.



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