8 design shortcuts for visually impressive documents

Learn how to design professional looking documents without the design know-how from Qwilr's Design Lead, Dom Sebastian. These eight design shortcuts will give anyone the ability to add a touch of polish to all their marketing, sales, and content documents.

14 MINUTE READ

Designing great presentations can be hard, high pressure work. Whether I’m designing for an internal presentation to people I know, a pitch deck for Founders to pitch to VCs, or even to design a winning grant proposal for Bill Gates, the challenge is always the same—how can I design this so the presenter’s message so it’s clear and impactful?

Sometimes it’s reducing copy so the point is clearer, sometimes it’s adding more graphics to explain the concepts. However a huge amount of what makes a presentation feel professionally designed is down to a handful of simple formatting rules. In this post, I’ll be sharing eight design shortcuts you can try out to create visually impressive documents. No design skills, tools or setup required.

We’ll be diving into two important parts of document design: layout and design.

📋 Layout

Layout is about how you organize and structure your information—is it scannable for your reader? Are your main and most important points clear? These tips will help you do just that.

Tip 1: Break up sections into focused points to reduce visual work

When you’re playing with long documents or paragraphs of content, try breaking up sections to help you reader navigate your information easier. Using a simple structure like tips (just like this post), parts, or a narrative structure like this one can help reduce any visual work in your document.

You can try simple things adding a line break, dedicating specific colors to specific headers, or if you’re using Qwilr, adding a new block with a different color.

What to do:

 

Tip 2: Use a clear hierarchy to make it easy to scan sections

Once you’ve decided on a way to break up sections, use a clear hierarchy to give your reader a way to scan sections. Recent studies show that people first scan a page to get a sense of whether they are interested, before committing to read it. Use a variation of H1, H2, and paragraph text to give sections more importance than others. On the other hand, using the same size and weight would establish equal hierarchy but make your document more monotonous.

You can also use blank space to create hierarchy. When there’s extra space given to a header or button, they tend to stand out more. Here’s an example of how blank space can emphasize even the smallest sized text on a page.

What to do:

Tip 3: Reduce the width of paragraphs to make them easier to read

It’s easy to fall into the trap of of creating wider paragraphs to fit in more text, but it’s a best practise to have narrower paragraphs for text heavy sections. Take a look at the next blog post or news article you read online—they tend to be broken down into multiple paragraphs in a narrow column. This makes it easier to scan and digest.

What to do:

What not to do:

Tip 4: Use center align sparingly, and never on multiple paragraphs of text

When you’re structuring large bodies of text, opt for the standard of left aligning text for easier readability. When you center your text, the starting place of each line changes and you’re forcing your reader to work harder to find the correct line as they’re scanning. Using left align creates a straight line edge down your paragraph, providing a consistent flow your readers’ eyes can follow.

What to do:

What not to do:

🎨 Style

Style your documents to engage your reader and catch their attention. While your content might speak to the heart of how good your business is, your style supports this message and helps you convey professionalism and competence.

Tip 5: Use imagery to humanize, and make your message persuasive

Just like the written content, the job of each of your images is to sell and engage the reader, and should work hand in hand with the content. Image selection is hard, but I’ve found it useful to first think of the theme that’ll most engage the target audience. That way it’s easier and faster for me to find images for sections, because I’m trying to choose based on a cohesive theme, rather than image to image.

What to do:

When there’s a full bleed image within a block nestled between text, make it the full width of the column. That way, the eye doesn’t jump around as much when reading the doc. This rule can be broken when the image isn’t such a strict rectangle or square shape, say when the image is in a circle like a profile avatar, because then it’s more natural on the eye for it to float in the content.

What not to do:

Avoid images with really light background colors, background text that conflicts with the foreground text, and with a really prominent feature. All lessen the impact of the text, and when it’s a testimonial, this is especially important for the reader to have a clear takeaway.

Tip 6: Use color to create consistency in imagery and graphics

The art of branding is being able to make a collection of touchpoints feel like they are created from the same voice. Choose a brand palette and stick to it as you choose colors for headers, background colors, tints, buttons, and images.

Similar to the actual pitching process, if you have 50 people as touch points all saying slightly different things to the client, it’s going to look disorganized and give the impression you’re not a unified front

Tip 7: Visualize key points for clearer takeaways

At the end of a client seeing your pitch or presentation, there should be a few key things that if nothing else, you want them to remember. Especially if it’s earlier in the engagement process, you don’t want the pitch feeling like it’s hard work to get to the key points across. Don’t bury these in dense paragraphs, or surrounded by complicated visuals—pull them out so they are impossible to miss even for the briefest scanners.

If one of your key points is a testimonial from a previous client, add a photo of the person next to a big callout of their quote on a bold background. If it’s a data point, use an icons to signal the metric and make the text significantly larger than the surrounding copy. All of these help even the laziest of viewers a visual shortcut to your most compelling points.

What to do:

 

Tip 8: Break sections into types, and theme them for consistency

Aim to be visually building up to a final point—if each section looks different from the last, the document as a whole will feel meandering. There are always natural types of content that are recurring in most pitches/presentations. Outlining sections, deep dives, summaries. Clearly signalling which section is which visually provides readers with an expectation of what they’re reading, and helps them decide if it’s something they want to pay attention to or not

What to do:

The easiest way to do this is by block background, text color and sizes. For example outlining sections are on white background with brand text color, but summaries are on a slate color.

Give them tips a try the next time you’re creating a document, presentation, or pitch deck, and remember, when evaluating the success of your final design, always ask yourself whether it’s your message is clear and impactful.

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