Blazing Trails with Document Design

In the spring, summer, and fall months, my husband and I can be found hiking in the woods every chance we get. Whether we are exploring a new trail, trekking through several inches of leaves in the fall, or navigating a trail that is not well traveled, we rely heavily on the blazes to guide our way. We have hiked many trails where the blazes were faded or spaced really far apart or maybe missing entirely, and those hikes quickly become frustrating and disorienting. The best trails are clearly marked with blazes and guideposts. In much the same way, the best documents are the ones that include guideposts for the reader. The structure of your document – the way it is presented on the page, the headings and subheadings you use, the way you label or identify tables and graphs, etc. – act as the blazes along the trail that instruct your audience on how to navigate your communication. It is your way as the author to take your reader’s hand and lead them down the trail and through your document.

The goal of any communication is to get the reader to do something. In an opinion piece, you want the reader to agree with your views. In a set of instructions for constructing a widget, you want the reader to follow your document and successfully build the widget. In a scientific report, you want the reader to follow your methodologies and be able to replicate your experiment. In a proposal, you want the reader to buy your product or award you the proposal.

By successfully using guideposts, you help control the way the reader encounters and digests the information in your document.

Taking a closer look at the instructions for washing hands (Figure 1), we can see various ways that guideposts are used to lead the reader, even in a simple one-page document:

Instructions for Washing Hands
Figure 1: Instructions for Washing Hands
  • Title: The title is very clear at the top of the page in bold font that differs from other fonts on the page.
  • Columns: The use of columns helps the reader know what to expect. By a quick glance at the document, they know they will read the steps on the left and find figures on the right. They are not left guessing on where to find information.
  • Figure Numbers and Labels: In both the text and with the appropriate figures, the figure number and description are very clear. There are not figures associated with each step, but when they are used, they are clearly referenced and located in close proximity to the accompanying text.
  • Numbered Lists: Both the steps and the figures are numbered consecutively. While in a document of this size it seems a little silly to even note this, this proves to be very important in larger documents, especially where there are figures, tables, graphs, appendices, etc. being used. When you are dealing with a very large document, it is sometimes tempting to compile the appendices and simply reference them as they come up. However, if your reader encounters Appendix D first, they will likely be confused (where are A, B, and C??). You want to present information in the most logical way for your reader, not in the easiest or quickest way for you.
  • Use of Italics: Where additional information beyond the simple task is required, the instructions show notes using italic font. Using a simple change in font style allows us to tell the reader that there is more they need to know.
  • Parallel Verbs: Guideposts can even include words or the way we structure steps, bullet points, sentences, etc. In this set of instructions, a verb starts each step. It brings the action to the front of the step, so the reader knows immediately what they are supposed to be doing.

While this set of instructions may be incredibly basic in content and structure, the document is structured with the reader at the top of mind. The blazes we insert into the structure of our documents show the reader how to use the document, where to start, and how to navigate the trail.

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