Design for Readers: Nitty-gritty design top 10

By Ed Henninger | Henninger Consulting

Ed Henninger

A client recently asked me to put together a presentation for his newspapers on nitty-gritty details that can make or break a design.

I came up with more than a couple dozen … and then narrowed them down to a top 10.

My thinking is that any one of these can make your design better, but leave one out and your design suffers.

So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty:

1. Measure in picas and points. You can express the depth of ads and photos in inches. For everything else, picas and points are the best way to measure elements and spacing.

2. Align text to a baseline grid. This gives your newspaper a more planned, polished and professional look. And, once your designers master use of the baseline grid, it will make editing and design go more quickly and more easily.

3. Use headline hierarchy. This helps readers navigate your pages more readily by giving them a sense of which stories are more important. And remember that headline hierarchy is more than just about size. It also goes to factors such as font, length, number of lines and placement on the page

4. Use a dominant photo. Give readers one photo that leads the package. Placing a number of two-column by four-inch photos on your sports front just creates clutter.

5. Control story length. Ask readers: They’ll tell you they will only read about 12 to 15 inches of a story … and then their attention wanes and the look for something else. Train your writers to keep stories within the 12-to 15-inch limit.

6. Segment stories If you have a story that requires more length, look for ways to break it up. For example, a story about five candidates running for a county judge position need not be one article that’s 50 inches long. It can be five pieces, each about 10 inches, and packaged together on the page.

7. Control color use. There’s a temptation to use color just because you have it. Let’s not. Proper, controlled, subtle color can give your paper a refined, more credible feel. Poor use of color just makes you look cheap.

8. Control content placement. Readers expect to find specific content in the same place from issue to issue. Obituaries, for example, should not move from Page 2 in one issue to Page 6 in the next and Page 3 in another. Consistent placement is key.

9. Use consistent design. Consistent design also is important. Keep your design elements, such as column sigs and standing heads, reflective and consistent throughout your paper. Again, this helps to bolster your credibility.

10. Make deadline. Always. Plan, communicate and focus your efforts so that everything – everything – is done by deadline. Failure to make deadline often results in cutting corners and hurrying your design efforts. And consistent failure to make deadline will result in a design that is consistently poor.

There’s my top ten. Would you add anything to the list? Sub something else for one of these? What do you think?

Ed Henninger is an independent newspaper consultant and director of Henninger Consulting, offering comprehensive newspaper design services including redesigns, workshops, design training and design evaluations. Visit or email