5 questions to help you evaluate the layout of your sales collateral and content

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More than just a question of whether it looks good or not, layout is about making decisions on how best to visually convey your company’s marketing messages.

Now you’ve got that whitepaper, brochure or other documentation written, you want to get it laid out. The graphic designer you work with is going to make several choices in presenting your copy, based on experience and best practices for B2B or B2C, and you will need to validate them. But, as a small business owner, what do you know about graphic design? What makes good layout? Follow our pointers to make sure your collateral hits the mark in its presentation as well.

#1: Does the layout correspond to the brief?

Does it speak to your target?

You took a lot of time to define your target audience so your copywriter could make compelling arguments to them. The layout should also appeal to them. They should be able to identify with photos. Colours and shapes should evoke their reality.

Does it meet your objective?

If you give the laid-out document a cursory look over, the most prominent information should correspond to the objectives you set. Your copywriter will have incorporated those objectives in the form of calls-to-action, and these should be quick and easy to identify.

Does it convey the messages you specified?

If one of your messages is, for example, “we are a human company not just techies”, you would expect photos of humans alongside product shots. See if you can identify the messages. If you can’t, ask your designer about them.

Is it right for the distribution channels you identified?

Print layout and e‑document layout can differ. If you’re planning on distributing the document at a tradeshow or other live event, you’ll need to make sure it's been designed for print. This means it has an even number of pages for example, usually a multiple of four, and the information is juxtaposed in a spread (two pages side by side), in a way that makes sense. For e-documents, you'll want to check the PDF doesn't weigh too much, and that the pages follow on one from another.

#2: Does the layout reflect your brand?

Does it follow your style guide?

Your style guide specifies how all your documentation should look. If you don’t have a style guide, the layout should at least fit with your logo in terms of colours and style. If it does not feel like it fits to you, you should probably revise your briefing to your designer. Start by brainstorming 6 adjectives that reflect your brand – 3 things your brand or company is, and 3 things it is not. For example: We are young, trustworthy, and technological. We are not staid, irreverent or careless. Without this type of information, your designer is flying blind.

Do all the elements fit together?

Your designer should tell you why they made particular decisions, but usually they do not. Don’t hesitate to ask. You should look at the following to see if they fit together and with your brand characteristics:

  • Fonts – These can be serif (with little tails), sans serif (no tails like this font), cursive, baton etc. The choice of font conveys a message, and you should be aware of this when specifying a font you wish to use. Remember! Comic Sans is called “comic” for a reason.
  • Font size and weight – Different sizes (number of points) and weights (bold, italic, light etc) of font enable the reader to easily distinguish between the different sections and elements of the document.
  • Text colour – If you don’t have a style guide, your designer will choose colours that fit with your logo and any images used in the document.
  • Paragraph formatting – Your designer will try to stay consistent with how text has been presented on your website and in other documents you have, but may suggest a particular way of aligning paragraphs or spacing them.
  • Choice of images – Illustrations (drawings) or photos may be used, and may illustrate the content or evoke ideas. Your designer is en expert in images, so ask them why they made the decisions they did.
  • Document formatting – Certain elements will appear on (almost) every page, such as header or footer information, and branding. They should be in the same place on every page that includes them, and there should be no noticeable differences, except perhaps for colour.

#3: Is it readable?

Is the hierarchy of information clear?

Your copywriter will most probably have provided you with text broken into clear sections denoted by headings, subheadings, maybe even boxed or framed text and bullet points. You should be able to visually identify these same sections in the laid-out document, though the graphic designer may have treated them differently (a different colour instead of bold, for example).

If the reader skims, what will they retain?

Most people, especially busy people at work, will not read a document all the way through; they will skim it. It’s therefore essential that all the most important information be very obvious. You can view your document at about 30-40% to see what stands out and what else you might need to make more, or less, prominent.

Do you trip up in your reading?

As you read through a paragraph, are there places where you thought it meant one thing, and a couple of words later you realize it meant something else? Are there places where you are mentally holding your breath to get to the next line and complete your understanding? You should instruct your designer to use non-breaking hyphens and spaces for set phrases so that your reader does not trip up and misunderstand what you are trying to say.

#4: Is the layout consistent?

You should not find some paragraphs justified, others centred and still others left or right aligned. The exception is if you are deliberately trying to signal that this content is different from the main content. For example, if you include a case study or other example, or a Fun Facts insert, you will want to make it stand out from the main body of text.

You should be able to see with the naked eye that the space between paragraphs or the space delimiting sections is the same. A handy trick to check consistency is to view the pdf in preview mode or at 30%, using Acrobat Reader’s page-down buttons. If you see the text flitting about all over the page, or key elements like a border moving back and forth, you know the layout is not consistent.

#5: Is the layout balanced?

As far as possible, there should be roughly the same amount of information on each page. Sometimes your designer might have a hard time with that, but your copywriter can usually adjust the copy to fit if necessary. Look out for the following:

  • Paragraph width - These should be consistent on the same page, and also over a print spread.
  • Print spreads - Pages in a spread often mirror each other to create a balanced look. If the layout is the same on each page pf the spread, it looks odd.
  • Amount of blank space - Blank space is good to give some air to your document, but beware of too much. If the spacing of your lines is twice as high as the text, the eye will be drawn to the emptiness and not the content.
  • Distance from header or footer - The text of a page or other visual elements should not encroach on the header or footer. There should be some consistency in where the header ends and the content begins, and where the text ends and the footer begins.
  • Widow lines - Text should be "kept together", i.e. there should not be any odd words left hanging on another line as this attracts attention to them and makes the layout look scrappy.

Final trick

If you've planned for an e-document, try printing it on your office printer, perhaps two-sided and see what it's like. Put yourselves in the shoes of someone making a purchasing request or recommendation - perhaps they'd include the table information you put on page 4. What does that look like printed out and appended to a purchase request, for example? Like it or not, busy decision-makers often respond better to pieces of paper on their desk than PDFs via email.

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