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Will this year be different? 12 common mistakes in newsletter design.

With the deadline for the NL/NL Awards Competition fast approaching, I got thinking about the many such competitions I've judged in the past. It seems that nothing seems to change. Each year there are so many newsletters that violate basic rules of readability: the type is too small, the lines are too closely spaced, unleaded sans serif type is used, and the cavalier use of text wraps wars against readability.

Your newsletter's success depends on its design, in print and online. An attractive, easy-to-read newsletter encourages readers to pay attention to your message.

Cluttered, hard-to-read newsletters, however, discourage readership--no matter how good the ideas contained inside are.

Before they begin to read your newsletter, your subscribers and prospects will be judging the value of your ideas by your newsletter's design. Effective design pre-sells your competence and makes it easy for readers to understand your message. Design also helps set your newsletters apart from the competition.

The following is a list of what I consider the most common newsletter design mistakes. It's just an outline; to obtain the full report, please e-mail me at

Layout problems

Layout problems involve the placement and size of elements that remain the same from issue to issue.

Mistake #1 -- nameplate clutter. Design begins with the nameplate, or newsletter title set in type at the top of the front page. Nameplate problems often include:

* Unnecessary words. Words like "the" and "newsletter" are rarely needed. Readers will unconsciously supply a "the" in front of a title, if desired. [So much for the title of the publication you're currently reading--Ed.]

* Logos and association seals. Your newsletter's title should not compete with other graphic images, such as your firm's logo and the logos of trade or membership associations.

* Typographic effects. Stretched or distorted type, type set in strange shapes, or letters filled with illustrations or photographs, often project an amateurish, rather than professional, image.

* Graphic accents, like decorative borders and shaded backgrounds, often make the titles harder to read instead of easier to read.

Mistake #2 -- lack of white space. White space--the absence of text or graphics--represents one of the least expensive ways you can add visual impact to your newsletters, separating them from the competition and making them easier to read. Here are some of the areas where white space should appear:

* Margins.

* Headlines. Headlines gain impact when surrounded by white space.

* Subheads. White space above subheads makes them easier to read and clearly indicates the conclusion of one topic and the introduction of a new topic.

* Columns. White space above and below columns frames the text and isolates it from borders and headers and footers--text like page numbers and issue dates--repeated at the top and bottom of each page.

Mistake #3 -- Unnecessary graphic accents. Graphic accents, such as borders, shaded backgrounds, and rules--the design term used for horizontal or vertical lines--often clutter, rather than enhance, newsletters. Examples of clutter include:

* Borders. Pages bordered with lines of equal thickness are often added out of habit, rather than a deliberate attempt to create a "classic" or "serious" image. Page elements, like a newsletter's table of contents or sidebars, are likewise often boxed out of habit rather than purpose.

* Reverses. Reversed text occurs when white type is placed against a black background. Reverses often make it hard for readers to pay attention to adjacent text.

* Shaded backgrounds. Black type placed against a light gray background, or light gray text against a dark gray background, is often used to emphasize important text elements. Unfortunately, the lack of foreground or background accent often makes this text harder to read instead of easier to read.

* Downrules, or vertical lines between columns, for example, are only necessary if the gap between columns is so narrow that readers might inadvertently read from column to column, across the gap.

Mistake #4 -- text wraps. Text wraps occur when a photograph breaks into adjacent text columns, reducing line length. Although often impressive to look at, text wraps can seriously interfere with easy reading.

Text wraps destroy rhythmic reading, the way your reader's eyes quickly move from left to right, scanning and identifying groups of several words at a glance.

Hard-to-read headlines and subheads

Headlines and subheads play a key role in the success of your newsletter. Ideally, they attract your reader's interest and maintain their interest throughout long articles. Their ability to do this, however, depends on your reader's ability to locate and easily read them.

Mistake #5 -- overuse of upper-case type.

Words set entirely in upper case type--capital letters--are significantly harder to read than words set in a combination of upper and lower case type.

Words set in upper case type frequently occupy three times as much space and are characterized by unsightly gaps between certain pairs of letters (e.g., YA).

Readers depend on word shapes for instant recognition. Words set in lower case type have distinctive shapes. This is because some letters are tall, others are short, and some drop below the baseline the words rest on:

* Ascenders

* Descenders

Words set entirely in upper case type, however, lack the distinctive outlines created by lower case letters. Words set entirely in upper case, capital, letters are surrounded by rectangles lacking the distinct, recognizable shapes readers depend on to identify each word.

Mistake #6 -- underlining. Headlines, subheads, and important ideas are often underlined for emphasis. Unfortunately, underlining makes words harder to read, reducing their impact!

Not only does underlining project an immediately obvious "amateur" image, it confuses meaning because today's readers associate underlined words with hyperlinks.

Mistake #7 -- long subheads. Short subheads are more effective than long subheads. The best subheads are simply keywords introducing the next topic. Readers can see them, and understand them, at a glance.

Problems involving type

The bulk of your newsletter likely consists of articles set in text columns. Here are some points to review to ensure that your newsletter encourages, rather than discourages, easy reading.

Mistake #8 -- inappropriate typeface choices. Nameplates, headlines, and subheads should form a strong visual contrast with the body copy they introduce. There are three categories of type:

* Decorative. These heavily-stylized typefaces are intended to be "recognized" as much as "read." Their use should be limited to just a few words.

* Serif. Typefaces like Times Roman, Bookman, and Palatino contain tiny strokes at the edges of each letter. These contribute to your reader's ability to easily recognize each letter. The serifs also draw your reader's eyes from one letter to another. Serif typefaces are ideal for body copy.

* Sans-serif. Typefaces like Arial, Frutiger, and Helvetica lack serifs. The simplicity of these letters makes them ideal for headlines and subheads.

Mistake #9 -- inappropriate type size. Type size should be proportional to line length, or--stated another way--column width. Too big is as bad as too small!

* Too big. Body copy is often set in 12 points, which is often too large for two-or-three column newsletters.

* Too small. When type is too small for the line length or column width, readers must make several left-to-right eye scans on each line, slowing them down and tiring their eyes. Undersized type is hard to read because readers must strain to read it.

Mistake #10 -- insufficient line spacing. Many newsletter editors rely on their software program's "default" or "automatic" line spacing. This is wrong. Appropriate line spacing, or leading, depends on the relationship between typeface, type size, and line length:

* Typeface. Sans serif type-faces usually require more line spacing than serif typefaces.

* Type size. As type size increases, line spacing should increase. However, the readability of small type sizes can often be enhanced by adding extra line spacing.

* Column width. Extra line spacing can enhance the readability of both wide and narrow columns.

Line spacing is important because the white space improves recognition of word shapes and provides "rails" which guide the reader's eyes along each line.

Mistake #11 -- failure to hyphenate. Body copy should always be hyphenated. A failure to hyphenate interferes with word spacing and line endings, depending on text alignment:

* Justified. Failure to hyphenate justified text--i.e., text set in lines of equal length--plays havoc with word spacing.

* Flush-left-ragged-right. Failing to hyphenate text set flush-left-ragged-right results in irregular--or ragged--line endings. Lines containing a few long words are very short. Lines containing several short words become very long. This can create a distracting zizag effect when short lines follow long lines.

Avoid hyphenating more than two lines in a row.

Mistake #12 -- excessive color. Color succeeds best with restraint. When overused, color interferes with readability, weakens messages, and fails to project a strong image.

A single "signature" color, concentrated in a single large element and consistently employed--like in your nameplate--can brighten your newsletter and set it apart from the competition.

Consistently using black, plus a second highlight color, creates a quiet background against which an occasional color photograph or graphic can emerge with far greater impact.


The architect Mis van der Rohe once commented, "God is in the details." Newsletter success, too, lies in the details. Your readers are always in a hurry. The smallest detail can sabotage their interest in your newsletter, interrupting reading until "later."

And, as we all know, "later" usually means "never."

Roger C. Parker, a contributing editor of NL/NL, its jury chair in the design categories of our competition, and the author of 35 books with worldwide sales exceeding 1.6 million copies. He may be reached at 603-742-9673 or
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Title Annotation:Design
Author:Parker, Roger C.
Publication:The Newsletter on Newsletters
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 21, 2008
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