Five steps to printing better documents

Creating a beautiful document means bringing together many different elements representing a large volume of choices; in a way, the physical act of putting ink to paper, while obviously essential to the end result, is only a small step in an otherwise complex process that involves a lot of decisions.

Regardless of the type of document you’re creating, however, there are a few easy-to-follow principles that can help you achieve the best result.

1. Picking the right style

The act of laying out a document should always take place independently of preparing its content. This way, you can focus on what you want to say first, and then decide how it will look.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules here, the most important thing to do is to keep in mind the audience you’re trying to reach: a formal document is unlikely to be a good way to attract guests to your birthday bash, and a fun-filled pamphlet with a playful look will probably not go over well at a medical symposium.

Your word-processing software is probably a good starting point for pulling together ideas. While technically not a proper design environment, many of these programs are accessible and come with plenty of document templates to help you get started on ideas for everything from brochures to reports. You can also find additional templates online—Microsoft, for example, provides an extensive collection through its support Website for Office.

If you have some time and an inclination to read, you will find no shortage of books and Websites offering ideas on creating all sorts of documents. A simple search on Google or Amazon will bring up a virtually unlimited supply of concepts you can draw from.

2. Understanding fonts

When picking a body font for your document, you should try to capture the message that your text conveys. A serif font will usually (although not always) provide better readability on paper than a sans-serif font will, for example. By the same token, a “script” font like Comic Sans will generally produce poor output—as a friend of mine loves to say, if you want your document to look like it has been handwritten, then write it by hand.

The biggest problem you’re going to have in finding a font, however, is that there are simply far too many to choose from. In my experience, it’s usually best to be conservative and look for a font that is easy to read, starting with those available by default on your Mac and then broadening your horizons with a bit of research on the Web.

Speaking of the Web, Macworld has published a number of articles that both describe new fonts and provide guidance on how to use them. There are also several sites where you can find free fonts—my favourites, for example, are Da Font and The League of Moveable Type.

3. Finding images

Adding a picture or two is a great way to spruce up your documents. Unfortunately, creating graphics and shooting photos takes time and is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources available on the Web. Microsoft, for example, makes a great collection of clipart available to Office users.

If you prefer real photographs, you can check out one of many stock image Websites. Some offer free images, while others charge varying amounts of money for the use of their illustrations and photos, generally based on their quality and resolution. Naturally, you can always scour Flickr for the thousands of images that are free for use under a Creative Commons license.

Regardless of which route you choose, it’s essential that you understand the terms under which an image is licensed before using it. The penalties for illegal use—whether intentional or not—can be very stiff, and many stock licensing companies are aggressively pursuing those who run afoul of copyright rules. If in doubt, just email the photographer to make sure.

4. Using the right printer

Each type of printer is better suited to a particular kind of content. For example, inkjets are typically better at rendering images than color lasers, while lasers ten to perform better on text and black-and-white documents. Again, this is a generalization, as many inkjets render text nicely and certain color lasers do well with printing photos.

If you are unsure of which way to go and your budget allows for it, it’s a great idea to simply walk over to your nearest print shop and ask them for advice (and, possibly, for some samples). Stores like Best Buy, Office Max, and Staples often have printers on display as well as live print samples to look at.

Naturally, it helps to be prepared, especially if you're having your document printed professionally. Make sure you’re familiar with the appropriate printer jargon, and that you save your document in a format that the print shop will be able to read without requiring special fonts or software, like PDF-X.

5. Choosing the best paper

The final step in the printing process is picking the right paper. If all you have ever used is the cheap copy paper that most offices buy for their everyday print operations, you will be amazed at the difference that the right stock can make.

Generally speaking, you will want to choose paper that was designed both for the type of content you’re trying to print, and the printer you are using. For example, paper based on natural fiber like cotton or parchment works well for formal letters and reports, but isn’t always compatible with inkjet printers, whose ink is readily absorbed and will smudge. Once again, a visit at your local office supply store will yield plenty of choices—and samples—to assist with your decision.

Enjoying the final product

As you may have gathered, a good document is a composition made up of more than just words and pictures, and putting one together can be a very complex task.

The good news is that there are plenty of free tools and resources that make achieving success a much easier task than it would have been even five or six years ago. On the flip site, the choices can often be overwhelming, resulting in documents whose authors alienate their audience by trying to do too much.

If design is not your thing, the easiest way to create a good document is to start from an existing template and keep things simple and elegant. Don’t lose sight of the audience you’re catering to, and use your budget wisely: a $100 investment in good paper is likely to be more effective and make a better impression than a corresponding amount spent on stock photos.

[Frequent Macworld contributor Marco Tabini is based in Toronto and can be found on Twitter as @mtabini.]

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