Designing a newsletter is a task which is generally either given to a graphic designer, or to a junior member of the Communications or PR team. Failing that, admin staff are often handed the job as part of the ubiquitous ‘any other duties’.
The result is generally quite predictable. Graphic designers are not sub-editors, new comms staff are neither editors nor designers, and willingness and diligence on the part of admin staff does not bridge a skills gap created by a shortfall in the training budget.
Nonetheless, with a modest investment of time and knowledge, it is possible to produce powerful and effective newsletters which people actually want to read even on the kinds of deadlines and timescales that usually accompany them.
If interested, read on. This article is suitable for all the hard-working and long-suffering groups of people I noted above. It’s not really aimed at people who’ve ‘always wanted to do a newsletter’ and have a slack couple of weeks before Christmas (you know who you are). Those kind of newsletters, which usually last about two issues before being abandoned, are not something I want to encourage. See the final section if you have doubts.
In this article, I want to start from the back and work forwards, which is to say, I want to start with the nuts and bolts of newsletter design, and come to the purpose and reason for doing (or not doing) a newsletter at the end. I think that will be more interesting for now. However, please do read to the end!
The basics of making words look nice on a page
Any designer can make words look nice on a page. Anyone who isn’t a designer can easily download a template and do the same. So why do newsletters generally look so awful? Essentially because the newsletter task is a bit more complicated than that. In a multi-page newsletter, each page needs to look like it goes with the others. In a regular, single page newsletter, each edition needs to look similar. The problem is, you don’t know what the content of the other editions is going to be before you start. With most staff newsletters, you have to do the design long before most of the articles (which always come in late, and are a different length from promised) arrive.
A newsletter layout, therefore, needs to be neutral and understated, but still attractive. Above all, it must be easy not only to read, but also to start reading.
Rule 1: White space
The most common problem with badly designed newsletters is that the reader faces a wall of text, covering all of the page except for the margins. A nice page has white space at the top, at the margins, between paragraphs, between columns, between titles and text, between pictures and titles.
I know this goes against the grain in most organisations: you are paying for the space, and possibly paying for the postage on top of the space: why not fill it with text?
I was once working on a layout for a 16 page magazine in Flemish (in Belgium). I’d managed to wrestle all of the extensive text into something that felt legible. Then the editor came back into the room and said ‘I see you’ve got some white space there. I’ve got another little article which could just about fill that…’
If you really did have to extend a magazine by four pages in order to give it enough space to breathe, the increased cost would still be less than 2p a copy if it was being commercially printed, perhaps as much as 4p if laser printing. Additional postage would most likely be zero. In any case, that isn’t the way you get white space in. See Rule 2: Copy editing.
- To get white space in, design your page as a thumbnail with pen and paper before you start. Draw in the title, where the pictures go, the columns and the margins. When you create the document on a computer, use this as your guide. Resist all temptations to ‘rob’ a millimetre here or there.
- Use columns. Three or four work well on an A4 page. They immediately give the eye more space to find its way.
- Uncrowd the titles. It’s better to have the title in a smaller font size with more space, than looking cramped.
- Increasing the space between the lines (known as ‘leading’, as in the metal, lead) will improve legibility more than increasing the point size for body text. Resist all temptation to decrease the space in order to get more in.
- Adding a quarter or half a line space between each paragraph improves white space.
Rule 2: Copy editing
The other most common problem with newsletters is editing. Usually, there isn’t any. It’s best to set the terms before you agree to accept an article. If you are responsible for pulling the newsletter together and getting it sent out, then you are the editor. The editor has an absolute right to edit. You can with impunity cut out sentences that don’t add anything, remove whole paragraphs, and generally chop the article down to fit the layout. Specify a word-count beforehand, but don’t be afraid to cut out text that doesn’t do anything.
For user generated content, you probably shouldn’t change what they are saying. If you find facts that aren’t correct, it’s best to point these out and ask for a rewrite, though you can correct figures, dates and contact details if these have been miscopied. Never allow anything into the final version of the newsletter which is, in your opinion, inaccurate or flabby.
Flab is the great crime of 21st century writing. Gone are the days when every sentence had to be wrung out of a manual typewriter or painstakingly penned by hand. Not only is it now easy to write, it is all too easy to copy. Most people know (but you may have to remind them) that they can’t copy text from things they find online, in magazines or books. However, many people, especially when under time pressure, will happily copy from reports they’ve written for other things. The thing is, if people didn’t want to read their text when it was in a Board paper, they aren’t going to want to read it any more in a newsletter.
If you’re a relatively junior member of an organisation, persuading the Chief Executive to rewrite their introduction might seem a daunting task. Actually, it’s generally fairly easy to get a Chief Executive to cooperate. A simple email saying ‘thank you for your article. Is it ok if I do some work on it to make it fit the space and the general tone?’ will be welcomed by most CEOs. Get it right a couple of times, and they may well ask you to write their articles in future.
Good copy editing produces these results:
- No repeats. Most writers tend to say the same thing three times in three consecutive sentences. Delete two of these and keep the best one.
- Short sentences. In the layout, don’t allow a sentence to go beyond three lines, which, in narrow columns, means very short sentences.
- Short words. No word should ever go over three lines.
- Tight constructions. In long form journalism and novels, it can be delightful to read sentences such as “It was never my intention to trespass on your patience through a failure of perspicacity”. One of Umberto Eco’s novels (I forget which) begins with a single sentence covering almost the whole of the first page. However, this doesn’t work in newsletters. Get to the point, make the point, and move on to the next point. If tempted by such a sentence just replace it with “I want to be clear:”.
- Clarity of thought. Word processors have led us to a world where text can be immaculate, and yet also meaningless. This is not just about auto-correct messing things up. Once finished copy-editing, read the article through again. Did it make its point?
Rule 3: Original Pictures
Never use stock photography. Just don’t. Stock photography is the clip-art of the second decade of the 21st century. Back in the ’90s, everyone with a copy of Word or PowerPoint would embellish documents with all kinds of marginally appropriate and all-too-often seen illustrations. Mercifully, that has begun to go out of fashion, though the four-part jigsaw remains a stock item in unimaginative strategy documents. Stock photography suffers from the same problem: there is an enormous tendency to use an image because it is nice, and is available.
The main problem with stock is that it shot to be as general as possible. Stock photographers have no idea who might buy the image, or when that would be. They try to leave out anything which localises it or puts it in a particular year. Even so, the models they have to work with reflect their own background. Have you noticed how most people in stock images has impossibly nice teeth, great hair, immaculate clothes and perfect skin? Stock libraries generally avoid accepting images that don’t have these. How many real people have you ever seen that actually look like that? When you’re selecting an image, the temptation is to go for something which looks appropriate. However, when you’re viewing an image, your response is not ‘is this appropriate?’ but ‘is this real?’ If the picture looks fake, they will assume the article is as well.
It’s much better to walk out and take a picture, even if it’s only with your smartphone, than to use one from a stock website. That way you guarantee it’s genuine.
Equally, don’t re-use a picture you’ve used in an earlier edition. It makes everything seem tired. Shoot another picture.
You may be thinking: ‘my pictures never look as good as the stock ones’. The following may help:
- Crop! The original picture, used in the layout above, is the one shown here. The uncropped version is nice enough, but doesn’t have anything like the impact needed for a newsletter image. Cropping down to 1/8 of the original gives it punch and immediacy.
- Contrast! Whether in colour or black and white (and anything being produced on a laser printer will generally be better off in black and white), photographs rely on contrast. You don’t need to be a Photoshop genius, and you should definitely avoid any editing of the images such as cloning out things you don’t want (crop instead), but simply increasing the contrast on most pictures will lift them from being dull (and therefore seeming irrelevant) to jumping off the page.
- Caption! Most people read the captions to the images before they read the articles. A good caption fills in the story that the image begins. It should cover Who, What, When, Where and Why. A good caption makes an otherwise ordinary image resonate, and it also demonstrates authenticity.
Rule 4: Assist the eye
Good newsletter design contains all kinds of little features that help the reader to start reading and keep reading. The most obvious one is good, bold titles. A title should either be informative or provocative. If it’s informative, it can benefit from a provocative subtitle, often in the form of a question. If it’s provocative, it probably deserves an informative subtitle. As with all things newsletter, it is the combination of text and design which works. Putting ‘A Word From Our Chief Executive’ in large, bold letters does not do a great deal. On the other hand ‘Wolf or Husky?’ as the title, subtitled, ‘Matt Smith, Chief Executive, unpacks the new regulations’, is at least going to stimulate people to start reading.
- A first paragraph which is bolder and larger than the rest—spanning two columns in a multi-column layout—also helps the reader to start the article. They don’t have to commit as much time if just looking at the large print. Provided it is well written, and relevant, you should be able to hook them.
- Slugs, which are two or three words which are bold, or in a different, bolder font, at the start of a paragraph, help the reader to keep their place. They also break up the text, making it seem less imposing.
- Call-outs, which are sections lifted from the text and put in boxes or between rules, in a larger font, interest the reader, and often get them looking through the article to find where they occur. Make sure the call-out is also in the article, though.
- Dropped capitals, when used sparingly, can introduce new sections of longer articles, and are easier on the eye than subtitles.
- An end of article marker, even if it’s just a black square, helps the reader to know that they can stop reading. If, instead, the article goes on to the next page, make sure this is clear with ‘continued on next page’.
Rule 5: Be credible and start a discussion
Putting a by-line, being the author’s name and job title, at the end of the article gives it an enormous lift in credibility. It also goes to explain why the writing style may be different from article to article. You can put it at the beginning if you prefer.
Never miss the opportunity to start a discussion via Twitter or Facebook, though usually not both. Twitter is best for open discussions, Facebook is best if you want people to join a group. Remember that many people are unwilling to give up their Facebook credentials to their employer, so Twitter is probably safest for staff magazines.
An article should not contain too many statistics or surprising facts, and it needs to give credible references to those that it does introduce. Gone are the days when you could simply write ‘97% of dumplings contain GM additives, according to experts’. Today, people want to know which experts, how the information was gathered, and so on. If you want to include an unsupported statement, either quote someone who is saying it (in which case, the ‘fact’ is they said it), or put ‘in my opinion’ if it’s a statement by the author of the article. People are much more savvy now than they used to be. ‘According to Wikipedia’ or ‘According to the Daily Telegraph’ do not count as sources any more. There’s no point putting a web-link into a newsletter article. It’s generally better to state the name of the person or organisation which issued the information and the date. If someone wants to check, they will be able to find the source on Google with that information.
Rule 6: Be consistent
A newsletter needs to remain consistent from page to page, and from edition to edition. There are three fundamentals here: consistent layout, consistent typography, and consistent tone.
Consistent layout comes from using the same grid or template. Your basic grid is a set of columns and margins which you always work within. Depending on what software you’re using, set this up as a template or master page, and never change it. You can have text and titles spanning all the columns, or two columns, or even spanning two pages on a double page spread. What you must not do is change the columns or margins because you’ve got a layout problem on a particular page. If you have a problem, copy edit text or crop photographs.
A traditional grid system has rules for every line of text. This has gone out of fashion a bit with Desk Top Publishing, especially when using ‘Vertical justification’, which ensures that the grid is entirely filled.
In the example grid, we have four columns, a centred masthead at the top, a title spanning all columns, a photograph spanning three, and a first paragraph spanning two. Using the same grid, we could have had all the text in columns, perhaps with subtitles, which is useful for an ‘In Brief’ news section, or we could have had the photograph covering three columns of most of the page, with just a column of text.1
It can be useful to break up the monotony of a double page spread by having a light grey (or colour) background box for a separate article. Be careful, though, this can look great on screen, but if the page is being photocopied from a laserprint original, the grey, which is made up of black dots, may overwhelm the text.
Consistent typography comes from using the same fonts all the time, and never including others. A contrasting pair, such as Franklin Gothic with Adobe Garamond, is enough to cover almost any situation. All of the body text should be the same optical size, though if you are doing some articles in Franklin Gothic, you will need to set it slightly smaller than Adobe Garamond because is ‘seems’ larger.
People get very het up about font sizes, largely as a result of a series of confusions over many years. Standard text used to be Twelve Pitch typewriter text, which was clear and efficient. Twelve Pitch, though, is not the same as Twelve Point. Twelve Pitch means that there are 12 letters per inch. Twelve Point means that the distance between the bottom of the descender (ie, the tail of ‘g’, ‘j’ or ‘y’) and the top of the ascender (eg, ‘l’) is 12 72nds of an inch, or about 4.2 mm. This isn’t a measure of legibility, but of how high the lines need to be. Usually, you would give another 20% space in addition to that for the text to have the right leading. A font with long descenders and high ascenders will be smaller at 12 point than one with short descenders and high ascenders. Put another way, if the height of the ‘x’ (known as the x-height) is proportionately greater, the text will ‘seem’ larger at the same point size.
There’s a long argument which is never really settled about whether sans-serif or serif fonts are easier to read. Garamond is a serif, Franklin Gothic is a sans-serif. Serifs look classier, sans-serifs look more modern. This is why a contrasting pair is usually a good choice.
The ideal text size for most readers in most fonts is 11-point. Some people will swear that it is 12-point, but all the scientific research indicates 11. For people with a visual impairment without any kind of aid, neither 12-point nor 11-point is any good. 14-point is often used as ‘accessible’, but this actually makes reading more difficult for normally sighted people, and is still insufficient. Best practice is to make a separate version available in 18-point, and stick to a legible size for most readers.
Never reduce the point size to get the text in—copy edit instead. Also, never put two fonts near each other unless there is a strong contrast. If your text is Garamond 11 point, set your subtitles in Franklin Gothic Bold 11 or 12 point. Putting them just slightly larger in the same font, for example Garamond 12 point, will just look wrong.
Keep the same typography from edition to edition. Don’t try to plump up ‘special features’ with their own special typeface. Use better photography instead if you want to make more of an article.2
Consistent tone is not just writing style, though writing style is important. It also affects photographs, cartoons and illustrations. If the tone is serious and professional, even the cartoons need to match. Generally speaking, I would avoid cartoons unless you have a talented cartoonist who can work to a brief. There are lots of people who can draw cartoons, but they generally draw in their style. It’s relatively unlikely that their style just happens to be the same style as your newsletter. It’s a lot easier to keep to a consistent style with photographs if you just observe the three rules of Crop, Contrast and Caption. Anything you can’t crop to the point that it’s punchy should be discarded. A low contrast image might look lovely in a glossy magazine, but it almost certainly won’t in a mass copied or printed newsletter. If you can’t caption it, you shouldn’t be using it (it’s either stock or of doubtful provenance).
Tone of writing has a lot to do with who you’re writing for. If you can fix the audience in your mind, you will be able to edit most of the writing so that it neither bores them nor offends them nor confuses them.
Rule 7: Create with a purpose for a public
What’s the purpose of your newsletter? You don’t need to have a vision statement, but you do need to know what the outcome of people reading it is. Is it to keep staff informed of developments in the organisation? Is it to give members something interesting and enjoyable as part of their membership? Is it to motivate grass roots supporters to take action? The most common reason for dullness in newsletters is neither the layout nor the writing, it’s simply a lack of purpose.
Who’s it for? Your purpose should help to define your audience. What do you know about them? What should you know about them? If you’re a designer, junior comms officer or administrator in a large organisation, there’s a good chance that you don’t really know quite what the front-line staff do. Asking to form an editorial board is likely to produce groans from senior management, but making an appointment to talk through what you’re doing with one of the target recipients could open your eyes to all kinds of things. Remember that no amount of ‘what they should want’ can possibly overcome ‘what they do want’. Things really start to work when you’re able to produce something which fulfils your purpose with something people actually want to read.
Deep down, what are you saying? There is a message underneath every magazine, newspaper or newsletter. It doesn’t have to be spelled out edition by edition in the headlines, but it’s there all the same. One national newspaper could reasonably be described as saying ‘all change is threatening’. Another could be ‘if only we all got together and were more sensible, things would be so much better’. Your newsletter is unlikely to play such a role in public life, but understanding your core message will help you keep consistent tone, and will also enable you to fulfil your purpose. One magazine I edited was ‘for staff, by staff’ (proudly declared on its masthead). It was there to improve communication across the organisation, and help people to value each other’s work.
If you can’t get anyone to tell you what the real purpose is, and therefore the real message (they may just say ‘your job is to produce a newsletter—so produce a newsletter’), looking at your organisation’s values, mission or vision statement should be able to sort you out. If no one can tell you, and you don’t have any organisational values, mission, or vision, then it may be time to look for another organisation…
- You may be interested to know that all the text in this layout is done as a single group of text in QuarkXpress using paragraph styles and conditional styles. There is just one text box, and one image box. The fewer boxes you have to create to run your layout, the easier it will be to keep it consistent ↩
- If your software supports it, consider using Paragraph Styles rather than simply formatting the text directly. It is much easier to keep things consistent, and much less prone to errors due to late editing ↩