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Why most business websites are not the business

(and how to fix them)

The year is 2016, which means that, as of this year, I will have been commissioning and constructing websites for twenty years. How time flies. Some of them have been tiny one page affairs, others have been extensive undertakings with hundreds or even thousands of pages, commercially commissioned video and a nine-person team working on the project.

As a social phenomenon, websites are not like any other piece of business communication. For everything else: brochure, business card, exhibition stand, ad campaign or mailing, the question is always asked: ‘what are we intending to achieve?’, followed by ‘how much will it cost?’ and ‘what will we get back?’ By contrast—and I’ve seen this in the private sector, the public sector, in voluntary organisations and charities, from one member of staff to 10,000—with websites, the project is self-justifying. Dare not to ask ‘why do we need a website?’ The only response is a withering stare. But the question is well worth asking, not to give the answer ‘we don’t need one, we’ll save the money’, but because the reason for its existence should determine what it is like.

Very high-end websites, of course, have all this sort of thing sorted. Apple promotes, sells and supports Apple products. Santander provides secure online banking. BBC iPlayer serves up BBC TV programmes. Facebook connects billions of people together, united in a fondness for pictures of cats and dinner.

For most small, medium, and even large enterprises, though, the website can be a mixed bag, a sort of uncurated museum where content created six years ago which relates to products no longer produced or services no longer sold is left to gather dust in a corner, until a tweak to Google’s search engine suddenly brings it thousands of hits. In the mean time, the front page is busy with product sliders, sporadically updated blogs, feeds taken straight from the newspapers without any kind of editing, and a procession of special offers which remind potential customers never to buy at the list price.

The technology paradox

Business websites started kicking off in the late nineties. They offered the prospect of endless amounts of free advertising, publicity without the cost of print and distribution, and a glossy, high-tech finish able to refresh even the tiredest brand. Many businesses set up sites simply because they did not want to be left behind. Techies were in the driving seat. In many ways, they still are. A trio of directors would be tasked to investigate the prospects for ‘one of those new world wide home pages’, and they would interview a string of tech-speakers, who could point to hundreds of thousands of hits on their nearest competitor’s site, could explain http, and how it differed from ftp, who knew about IP addresses, unique resource locators and could point to the weaknesses in ‘bandwidth’ which might mean the ‘servers’ would be ‘offline’. All of this, of course, is plain-speaking now, but, back then, it was unfathomable, ungraspable, for anyone who had not actually been down in the engine room, tying knots in strings and piping them to goodness-knows-where. And those people, like Danté, having gone down into the depths, could not return with any comprehensible report to the good business folk who were making the decision.

Fast forward twenty years, and we all know what websites do. However, even so, the techies have kept ahead of us. Plain HTML? No, it’s all CMS now, sir. Not WS3 standards compliant? Flash? Surely you jest. We’re on CSS3, AJAX, and HTML5 now. Not Responsive? How very old fashioned. There is a very simple rule for commissioning websites. If you ever reach the point where you think you have understood what it’s all about, you can be sure that all the standards have just evolved, the technology has been renewed, and what it is that you think you understand is actually something which was ‘deprecated’ three years ago.

The result is that the techies are still in the driving seat. I wouldn’t want to accuse any techy, ever, of attempting to take the commissioners for a ride, but the very simple interaction is that, once someone has sat and listened to talk of Bootstraps, Angular and Agile, their mind has been subtly reorientated towards regarding the website as a technology project which should produce something which looks very modern, gleams with interactivity, and which is at least a generation (i.e., 1.5 years) ahead of the new site the competitor is currently boasting about.

A better way

If you were commissioning an advertising campaign, you would not insist that all the very latest gimmicks in advertising were inserted into that one campaign. You would be looking for a big, strong, single idea which resonated with your customers. If you were looking to replace your fleet of Transit vans, you would not be pressing for the highest specification, most powerful and most technology driven. In each case, your focus would be on what would do the job. Certainly you would be interested in value-added benefits—built in Sat-Nav might save you thousands of pounds in fuel a year—but you would be carefully checking to see if the enhanced result was a good deal compared with the enhanced price.

What is it you really want?

The place to start is your business plan. What is it that a website could deliver for you better, or cheaper, or in parallel with your existing programmes? Is your website basically about marketing? Will you be selling online? Will you be directly providing services online? Are you, in fact, shifting a substantial part of your business from face-to-face to online?

The scale of your undertaking is going to be determined by the scale of your ambition. If you intend to move face-to-face services online, you will almost certainly need to do it in two stages, first with a beta-site where you can see how customers respond to the change, and then with a full-blown site once all the gremlins have been knocked out. Even then, phased delivery will be critical. Entire businesses have been lost because of an over-confident belief that online provides the answer.

Although many businesses do sell effectively online (though, often, this is actually by hooking into a larger set of sub-systems available from third-party providers), the vast majority looking to redevelop their websites (or who should be looking to it, given the non-fitness-for-purpose of their current offering) are essentially looking to promote their brand or market their products/services.

However, ‘marketing’ is a term that covers many things. Consider the classic marketing mix: Product, Place, Price, Promotion, or the extended mix for services including People, Physical Evidence and Processes. Which aspects of your marketing are you looking to boost through the web? What is the finish point? Do you want people to be able to quickly research your product/service online, conclude that it’s a good one, and put you into their shortlist of three? Do you want them to be able to check the specifications against a competitor and place an order? Do you want them to come off the web and get onto the phone?

A website, in principle, could replace a salesperson—either reducing your costs or broadening your reach. But will it? If your product/service requires an hour’s conversation with a customer for you to understand what their need is and how you should meet it, is the website ever going to be in a position to do that? Is the website actually there in order to facilitate a call to the salesperson—in which case your call to action is not ‘Buy now’ but ‘Ring now’ or ‘Book an appointment now’.

For whom?

Is your site really aimed at everyone? One of the great lures of the web is that you can now reach the entire world. Actually, in this way it is no better than the Yellow Pages. Twenty years ago publishing your phone number and type of business in the Yellow Pages would lead to a certain number of calls a month. Unless your business was general by nature (plumber, electrician, carpet fitter, holiday kennels), many of the calls would be disappointments. Notwithstanding a clear statement of ‘Dutch Translator’ (if that was you), most of the Yellow Pages calls would be from people who wanted to ask if you could do German, or French, or if you were prepared to do a couple of days work for free.

I have written elsewhere about the perils of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). There are lots of people who will be happy, for a fee, to raise your site in the rankings, but this is to no avail if your tea-cakes in Chipping Campden business is then inundated with requests from Oregon for shipments of soup.

A clear understanding of the profile of the customers you want to reach will fundamentally transform how you create your website. Are you selling video games to sixteen year olds? If so, sound-effects, moving elements, little puzzles and easter eggs and extensive video footage will be the order of the day. If you aren’t selling video games to sixteen year olds, you may actually be distancing yourself from your customers by including these kinds of things. Does your antique clocks and watches site really need a YouTube video of a watch ticking?

Not just the interactivity, but also the style will be determined by your target customers. Are you selling a premium product? Jaunty text and a cluttered page will make it look like a bargain-basement sale. Are your customers highly knowledgeable? They probably expect authoritative technical specifications and extensive support documentation.

What’s the message?

How often have you been on a website and can’t work out what the owner is trying to tell you. Aside from the obvious ‘here are the products, buy now’, many sites miss the opportunity to make their case to the viewer. This is not just for businesses. Charities, political parties, public services and clubs all have messages they need to get across. To know your message, you need first to understand your audience. If 90% of your visitors are casual enquirers encountering your organisation for the first time, you need to be able to tell them why they should stay interested in 18 characters or less—the typical reading length that goes into short-term memory.

It’s how I tell them

The audience, the message and the purpose together must determine the look and feel of your site.

This is more or less the opposite of the way most sites are constructed. For start-up businesses and casual site builders, it begins with surfing for a few themes or templates, or looking at other sites you like the look of. For enterprise level, the web-design team usually turns up at the first meeting with some concepts, based on their preliminary research. They do this because this is what clients generally want: they are embarking on a long and dark journey of web-development, and they are thrilled that the people they are commissioning to take them there already seem to have a map and a photograph of the destination.

Are you selling designer clothes to commercial buyers? If so, then you should treat them the way you would take them into your studio, showing one thing at a time, in ideal lighting conditions, with an opportunity to walk all round something and study the detail of fabric, stitching, cut and form, and perhaps to read a short ‘artist statement’ explaining how it is you came to this particular design.

Are you supplying industrial materials by the metre for the construction industry? In that case, an on-site calculator which can specify costs including delivery charges, and enables the customer to compare a range of different specifications will make life much easier for them, whereas nice photographs of your factory will be little more than… nice photographs.

Are you selling tickets to a theatre or cinema? People want to know what’s on, when it’s on, if there are tickets left, and how much they cost. Answer those questions in a way which subtly suggests the ambience and excitement of your venue, and you have won them over.

URL stands for Unique Resource Locator, but most URLs take you to a site which is anything but unique. The design is effectively the brand of the web-designer, with the site owner’s own logo more-or-less glued onto the top left hand corner. The photographs are either poorly executed shots of the staff, factory and products, or else they are impossibly glossy photographs from a stock website — many of which will have been used on thousands of other sites as well.

In most cases, a small investment in good quality photography of your team, your products/services and some people enjoying or using them will give your site a compelling unity. At that point, there is no need for sliders (which attempt to cover up the weaknesses in an image by using several), sporadic blogs, BBC news feeds, widgets giving out the time and the weather, and all the other things which clutter rather than enhance many sites.

The perfect website

If potential customers, service users or supporters arrive at your website and immediately feel that it is designed for them, with answers to the questions they have, pictures that they feel are right for what they want, and a written style that makes them feel at home, and if this leads them to the next step, be it placing an order, ringing a salesperson, making a donation or booking an appointment, and if it does this consistently whether they are using a smartphone, tablet or laptop, then you have the perfect website.

That’s all there is to it. Most sites, however, are far from perfect. However, your existing platform, be it Drupal, Concrete5, WordPress, flat HTML or cardboard boxes held together with sticky tape, is almost certainly capable of being tweaked so that it is.

As with all things web, content is king. Don’t be misled into thinking otherwise.

Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

Britain’s most iconic brands, as one says farewell

There are annual tables of the coolest, most profitable and most popular brands for the world, the UK, and even for market niches. The algorithms for each of the tables are proprietary, and secret (and may well involve a lot of jiggery pokery to produce the ‘right’ answer) but we seldom get lists of iconic brands.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that ‘iconic’ needs a bit of definition. The term is often used to mean ‘really, really, really very good and big and everything and like, well, so totally up there with the others’. It is naturally hard to quantify ‘iconic’ if it means that. The second is that iconicity is not particularly volatile. Iconic brands stay iconic for a generation. If they don’t, they aren’t iconic.

Actually, ‘iconic’ doesn’t mean that long sentence I mentioned. If we discount its usage for Russian religious paintings, the term refers to brands which are so widely understood that they can be used to represent other things without confusion. The ‘mail’ icon for your email programme works because it’s obvious (more or less) what it is.

With that in mind, it’s actually not at all difficult to quantify and track iconic brands. We just need to look at what writers are writing about. To the rescue, then, Google Ngram viewer — a way of searching the text of hundreds of thousands of books. Books are the way to go here, because they are much less susceptible to fads and trends, to PR and marketing, to deliberate product placement, and to reviews. If you tried the same exercise with the Internet as a whole, you would get a snapshot of how hard people are working to beat the system, using ‘Search Engine Optimisation’. Mercifully, no one has yet got a system for getting that into published books.

Because iconic brands change only on a generational basis, there isn’t a good time for publishing lists of them. Except for now. It’s fitting to mark some of the businesses or products which have become symbols in their own right because one of them will shortly be no more.

The UK top ten iconic brands

In order, the top ten brands are BBC, NHS, Post Office/Royal Mail, Land Rover, British Rail, Harrods, Lego, Rolls Royce, Marmite and Ronseal.

The UK top 10

The UK top 10

I should explain the jiggery-pokery here. All these are brands which, in Britain, are unique in their fields. Tesco is actually mentioned in writing more in 2008 than most of the others (excluding the BBC and the NHS, which dwarf everything), but Tesco is not iconic because it can’t be used as a representative type. John Lewis does nearly as well as Harrods, and is definitely on its way to iconicity, but it is not quite there yet. You can’t simply refer to ‘John Lewis’ in a piece of writing and expect everyone to know what set of ideas and feelings you are referring to. There are quite a few other candidates for iconicity which have a huge influence on our culture, but which generally only represent themselves. Cadbury vies with the Post Office for the number of times it’s mentioned, and it is clearly one of Britain’s best loved brands, but it represents a particular kind of confectionary, not confectionary as a whole.

You might argue that the BBC and the NHS only represent themselves, but they are used in such an all-encompassing fashion that it’s hard not to list them as iconic. Interestingly, they are almost opaque to non-Brits. My wife, being Dutch, cannot fathom the attachment to 1970s BBC children’s programmes for people of a certain age. The NHS, though known across the world, is misunderstood to a more or less maximum level by many Americans.

Number 3 iconic brand

Number 3 iconic brand: the Post Office

After the BBC and the NHS, the Post Office dwarfs the others— especially if you add in ‘Royal Mail’, which, on its own, does creditably.

I’ve broken out the numbers 4-10 separately, because this is the level at which you can see how things interrelate a bit more.

Brands 4-10

Brands 4-10

British Rail was abolished in 1997, and yet still manages to keep up with the others. Many people refer to British Rail as if it still existed. It may be a surprise that Land Rover is bigger than Harrods or Lego. More on that in a moment. I’ve included Lego because, although it’s a Danish company, it is iconic in its use in the UK. Meccano has the same kind of resonance, but it now languishes lower than Marmite.

Rolls Royce, of course, is the iconic brand of all iconic brands. The ‘Rolls Royce’ of any category is the premium, most sumptuous, most luxurious and most desirable thing in that category. I occasionally (rather mischievously) ask people to name the most premium brand of cars. ‘Mercedes’, ‘Audi’, ‘Ferrari’ are often mentioned, until I ask them about Rolls Royce. At that point, everyone agrees, The Rolls Royce of cars is… Rolls Royce.

Marmite has worked hard to leverage its iconicity to drive sales. I often wonder how Marmite makes a profit. I love Marmite, but a medium sized jar lasts us about a year. Who is buying all the Marmite? Someone clearly is. There was a marvellous Time Out ‘Overheard in London’ a couple of years ago: “My boyfriend says he’s so-so about Marmite. Now I can’t believe anything he says”.

Ronseal is an up and coming icon, but it is so universally used to describe other things that it deserves its place. When someone says ‘I’m the Ronseal of … — I do exactly what I say on the tin’, we all know what they mean. We also think they’re a bit of a wally for comparing themselves with varnish that dries in 30 minutes. Nonetheless, everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Apple is not on the list. Even if you subtract all the usages of the word ‘Apple’ with a capital A before the 1970s, when the company did not exist, it does very well—not competing with the NHS or the BBC, but very well. But Apple is not iconic in that sense. Apple means very different things to different people (just look at any internet discussion of it—it degenerates into a flame war pretty quickly).

The advantage of Iconicity

Iconicity can be a mixed blessing. If a brand isn’t careful, its Trade Mark degenerates into just a commonly used term, and everyone gets to use it. Public sector icons, like British Rail and the Post Office, become easier targets for sell-offs, while the BBC and the NHS are regularly kicked around as political footballs. For commercial products, though, iconic status can be a coveted prize. Many people who love cars would rather own a Morgan than a Rolls Royce, but it’s Rolls Royce which has the iconic status (if you have the money and want something which combines aspects of both, consider a Panther). Marmite’s monopoly on extremely strongly flavoured spreads is in the UK pretty much unbreakable. Marmite is banned from some countries because of its strength. In a world where modular toys are easy to manufacture, it is the Lego brand which has taught generations of parents to avoid the cheaper, off-brand brick-shaped toys and succumb to only buying Lego if it’s Lego that is asked for. Fake Lego is probably one of the biggest disappointments of any possible gifts.

One of the companies that has done the most with its iconic status in the last ten years is Jaguar Land Rover, and it is to part of that which we must now say farewell.

Goodbye Land Rover Defender

Land-Rover-Oct-13-2014-1

1982 Series III

The two millionth Land Rover rolled off the line in Coventry recently, and was sold at auction for £400,000 the Coventry Telegraph reported this week. Two million requires adding up all the Series I, II, III, Stage II and Defender models produced from 1947 to 2015—the classic ‘Land Rover’ shape. Production ends in January 2016. The successor has not yet been announced.

According to one claim, 80% of all the Land Rovers ever built are still in operation somewhere in the world. I have to say I’m slightly sceptical about that figure: there are parts from at least three Land Rovers in my 1982 Series III, and it’s the ability to cannibalise old Land Rovers for spares (as well as people’s penchant for fixing them with whatever happens to be around, including Meccano, that keeps them going. My particular vehicle was on Heathrow airport for most of its working life, which accounts for the yellow paint job and the white stripe.

Jaguar Land Rover has leveraged the rugged vehicle’s iconic status with exceptional skill over the last ten years, taking a car maker that was on its last legs to be a leading West Midlands, and, indeed, UK exporter, though it’s the posh Range Rover models which are the ones everyone wants to buy.

I’m hopeful, of course, that JLR will announce something which is more Land Rover than Land Rover when the Defenders come to an end. Even if they don’t, the lesson from British Rail is hopeful: as long as the concept exists in people’s minds, the brand will remain a British icon.

How to evaluate a typeface

How to evaluate a typeface

Everybody loves getting something for free. Even on a high-budget project, there’s still the invisible lure of a free font. I’ve known designers who have spent weeks searching the web for that special typeface, the one that will make the rebrand, the new visual identity or that one-off job really sing.

There was a time when free fonts were almost universally awful. They were designed by hobbyists who had no notion of balanced sets, didn’t complete all the glyphs, and didn’t even think about kerning.

This is no longer the case. These days, many up and coming designers are choosing to release free weights or entire sets as marketing for their other work. In an increasingly crowded market, many are also self-publishing their fonts, bypassing the main type houses, and pitching them at just a few dollars. With some of the first digital typefaces coming out of industrial copyright next year, expect to see a slew of fonts appearing on the web, some of them very high quality. Additionally, subscription services such as TypeKit now make fonts available at no additional charge—providing you keep up with your subscription.

The big risk

The problem is, once you (or your designer) have chosen a font because it looks nice and appropriate, how do you know if it’s any good? The samples on the web-page won’t tell you that. Even printing out a page of text may not identify all the issues. Then there’s the question of legality. The website you found it on might say it’s free, but is it really? There are essentially eight areas that you need to check.

  1. Copyright ownership
  2. Rights
  3. Glyph set
  4. Weights
  5. Kerning
  6. Compatibility
  7. Embedding
  8. Price Structure

Copyright ownership

Who owns the font that you have just downloaded? There are two kinds of checks to make.

First, embedded in the font there should be a copyright notice. Any application you use (like FontExplorer) to preview fonts should be able to display this. Is this copyright the same as the one in the license file? Does it match the website where you got it from. If at all possible, find the copyright owner’s website, rather than relying on a free font site. If you can’t find the font owner’s site, Google the font name and check that no one is claiming copyright on that font.

Second, run a check through WhatTheFont to see if this typeface is too like a commercially available typeface.

The bottom line on copyright ownership is that everything which is created has a copyright, even if it’s not declared. If you can’t find the copyright owner, then, essentially, you can’t use the font. Even if someone is claiming that they own the copyright and are distributing the font for free, if it is too similar to a commercial font, you are taking a risk, unless you’re able to check that the copyright has expired—as is the case with classic fonts such as Garamond, Bodoni and so on.

Rights

Many ‘free’ fonts are released as free only for non-commercial purposes. A free font website may not bother to inform you of that. There should be a license file attached with the font download, or a statement placed within the copyright notice. My view on this is that if a font is only available free for private use, just delete it from your system after you’ve downloaded it and discovered this. Many designers who impose such restrictions are later impossible to track down, meaning that you cannot legally use the font in a commercial project. Having any font on your system that you don’t have complete rights to use is a risk—you may intend to only use it for a wedding invitation, but, later on, when doing a commercial project, how likely is it that you will remember that it was ‘private use only’? There are a lot of fonts out there, better to just discard the ones to which full rights aren’t offered.

The other thing about ‘private use only’ fonts is that many designers (erroneously) believe that if they have used copyrighted material in creating their font, it’s legal to release it for free for private use only. It isn’t. A rule of thumb in the design world is ‘if you change three things, it’s no longer copyright’. A lot of designers work to this, but, unfortunately, this is not a proper reflection of copyright. The situation with fonts is complex, and it’s different from the UK to the USA and elsewhere. However, if you’ve used someone’s digital code at all in your font, you are breaching their copyright, unless the license specifies ‘free to modify’. Bizarrely, it’s legal to print off their font, scan it back in, and make your font from that, though you must not use their trademark in naming it.

Basically, ‘private use only’ should set alarm bells ringing. Best to leave alone.

More usefully, some fonts are released ‘free to distribute, free to modify’. These fonts are gold if you are doing brand work. We once did a major rebrand where 400 separate sites needed to be sent the fonts. At typically $99 for a set of four weights, that would have been $39,600—with no guarantee they would ever have installed them. The designer had found a superb font which was not only free to distribute, but also free to modify. This allowed us to embed some special glyphs for that brand.

Some of the higher end free fonts, such as Museo, are free to use, but not to distribute. The owner quite reasonably wants people to download them from his website. Make sure you respect that.

Glyph Set

Glyphs are the individual characters. You don’t get this much with the new crop of designer-created fonts, but in the early days of free fonts on the web, many of the glyphs would be missing.

The easiest thing to do when looking at a font is to paste the following into the preview pane on the website where the font is:

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz
àèéïöùüçûæÆœŒ
.,;:?!/[]{}()*-–—…“”‘’_
0123456789
??÷+=??±-·?°@€£$%&*|«»<>/~”‘§¶©®™

This is all the standard glyphs which you would expect for English language typesetting. If you have particular needs, such as the Old English Eth, Yog, Thorn and Wyn, paste those in as well. Check that nothing is missing. If it is, and the license says ‘free to modify’, you could potentially insert the correct glyph in a font-editor like FontLab, but that is going to be a lot of work, even if you have the skills to do it. If the font is only ‘free to distribute’ then you are stuck. Abandon it and go on to the next font.

Be careful with Capitals only fonts. Some of them, such as commercial font Trajan, are magnificent. However, unless you can pair them with something that also has an uncial or lower-case form, they will be useless.

Some fonts, especially ‘authentic’ typewriter fonts, won’t have glyphs that never existed when the machines were in use. Again, this may be fine for an invitation, but the moment you want to describe a price in Euros, put on a copyright symbol or use square brackets, you are stuck.

Check carefully that the punctuation works. I was typesetting a novel in Baskerville — I think the Baskerville that Microsoft distributes — when I discovered that the ’em’ dash (‘—’) was too thin. I was able to reset the whole thing in ITC Baskerville (not a free font) which had better punctuation. However, ITC Baskerville has a higher x-height, and so needed more leading, which meant redoing the layout. If I’d bothered to check before I started, I could have avoided that. It just goes to show that even commercial fonts contain blunders.

Weights

Helvetica NeueWhat weights are available? For some fonts, such as Helvetica Neue (which is in no sense a free font), there are as many as 51 weights available, ranging from Helvetica Neue 23 Ultra Light Extended to Helvetica Neue 107 Extra Black Condensed, all with their italic or oblique versions.

It’s very unlikely that you will ever need anything like that number of weights (though, obviously, at some point, someone did), but you would normally expect to be able to get a Book, Regular or Roman weight, a Bold or Demi weight, and either an italic or an oblique for each of those. An oblique font is the regular font slanted by a particular angle, usually about 12º. An italic font is a specially drawn italic version, often with close ‘a’s and open ‘g’s.

A font that I like a lot is Candida—again, not in any sense a free font, though free versions are available (but see above). Candida was designed in 1936 by J Erbar, and released by Bauer, which still owns the trademark (which makes me question whether the ‘free’ downloads are legitimate). Candida was issued by Adobe in 1989 and 2002, and, as I recall, came bundled with one of the many versions of Illustrator or Photoshop. Unfortunately, it only has Regular, Italic, and Bold. There is no Bold Italic. I am contemplating creating my own bold italic to go with it (though, naturally, I won’t be able to use the trademark name Candida). In the mean time, if I use Candida, I need to recognise that there will be no bold italic.

This is all fine, but many free fonts exist only in regular and bold. This is almost certainly too little to be useful.

Be careful also of free fonts which are released as free in just one or two or a few weights. The super-family Museo (see above) is one of these. You see Museo everywhere these days. Part of the reason for that is that the designer has chosen to release a very useful set of weights. I actually went ahead and bought the entire set, but most people will do fine with just what is there for free. Other designers are not quite so generous, and you may discover that the font which looks great in the Roman version costs about $250 to buy the other weights you need. At that point, recognise it is not a free font.

Kerning and flow

Kern Test using Museo 300

Kern Test using Museo 300

Hardest to evaluate but absolutely critical is kerning. Kerning (of course you know this) is the adjusted space of difficult pairs of letters, such as ‘AY’ and ‘wa’. In the font definition, every glyph (i.e., a letter) has side-bearings, which set the standard space between it and the next letter. For AY, this would leave a disturbing gap, because of the shapes of the letters. The kerning tables, which are part of the font definition, specify exactly how much the spacing should be changed for it to look right. Kerning was traditionally the hardest part of font design, though there are now commercial services which will kern a font for the designer. There are 516 common kerning pairs, excluding the number pairs from 11 to 100. If you’ve ever wondered why commercial fonts are so expensive, the setting of each of those pairs, individually, may explain it a bit.

In preparing this article, I was astonished to discover that there is no test sheet of kerned text available to download on the web. There are some good sites which allow you to check individual pairs, but if you want to check everything, you’re stuck. Until now. Late last night I downloaded all the words in a large English lexicon (about 354,986 words, since you ask), the 516 common kerning pairs, and constructed a text which uses all of the pairs, which you can paste into a document and use to preview the font. You’re welcome. Note that if you do this in Word, you need to turn kerning ‘on’ in the font menu, otherwise you’re not actually doing anything. Much better to do it in QuarkXPress or InDesign.

Here it is:

Wd. PEASANT FEW, wiggle DOTE LOOK tipping Aorta CRISP Tomato Major DROP; bouquet Ayatollah Jade DOOR Identical BIFF. yelping Looking AQUATIC hurting hyphen foot fishpond muddy or, COOL parking OBVERSE working PAIN YOUTH Meat Bloke BACK, KIDNAP Vane rough STOP. armchair badge Aubade Xanthaline FLAW. grounded anno Acid COIN HAJ. axon Fund aquatic jaffa Kurdish aged CARELESS Tipper Upper always RUM BRIEFCASE Ionic SUPER DRY; dental WOLF: maccaw Iterate Avail whoosh COY: WAIL homes annoying flip, HARDMOUTH vb. Yds helium if, Nave bookcase lawgiver BARGE striving beet hoof cover cliff. common elbow BAY avg. MYALGIC BREZHNEV; OYSTER Pair QUACK mohar Rd Tchad circumvascular L’ABRE convex hoplite blvd. event savvy None Wimp free, Uakari Helium unsung flitting QUEEN flaw human crowd falls, definite selfish cargo Evaluate aeon hydro DARE dapper OFFGOING CLAW; supper hvy ZONE Create Nil haj, ACIDPROOF BOAT AORIST implausible dreamt Fright BARBWIRE Pool epistle happiness ODD. played glib, DOFF; CARVE clipping rave TOO. GLIB, BALTIC Yea shake disable DRAW: SLURRY helium PHONE wx. Oh! McCoy FAULT kerning Very dump mutter ANODE HOB. Spoof BRITISH SLAVS BELT, Hyacinth devchar dvaita PORT Koala Fair EELCAKE Sudden yard MUGGING Xenon HEADRUSH raj. sleight music Tsar CHOOSY Numinous Room Icy asking, stuff Bye THUMBPRINT angling project BELT Aegean OFF. Obscure ACTION final zany mopped BLU. Iqis FOOT Jeans Uganda Aqua MU, hollow Rt. flute stomp randomness mashed ADDING RAJ, Vulcan farrier hwan BLING CAN. BUTTERY Europe lumbered Wriggle File go. to, feline Triple hutch Again curling LAWGIVER BIDING Job fully Tundra KONONI maiden mat. TORC COOK yawl GRUFF accept Using SO, dare Dare HOT. MAGE Xurel WAYS glade burring hob. GEOLOGY Ypres tidy Umber my, PLOSIVE NOVCIC apothgm wood WORMGEAR IMPORTENT stool IF, SHOE mango adverse blade. spun Lycanthrope Add variable SMALL digging Twill weapon wig. LUMBER AGGRANDISE TARE VOW Vow Form burrow DEAL WOOL MILLWORK Pear stone PUN stuck Newt dishcloth actual BARTRAM daft gem chugger HOOF backdate Yvain hoofed Bbl. DROOL mulch Ft. trebled humdrum BIN, DOOM Tart middle staying brunch Vroom IGNOBLE DROP far. A’ HANDWORKED filling kangeroo wanted Bilateral AGORA flat. CLAP,  HAPPEN COHOLDER OBVIOUS glad. inch mean BIOMASS souwester juvenile marque CHIPPY Wm. Yield wolves crate slight Lumpy ion xenon mice GUTTER Mold Care cray hammy AWESOME THAT: Bk. MY. Wye Gull flaw. algae Recipe Jumping magnet Key jumper draw, reckon MUDDY ewe tuck Union heavy WOLF, boudoir BUS, outdrops asks, JAFFA GOOD artery sad, Feed flow AVUNCULAR DROSS. OXEN buyer MOUND DUMPLING OVER FUSS what, alphabet mooring Md enumerate cycle bedcap Tyre Awesome Number maple BANJO bored MICE clamping VANE INERRANCY BOQ AVG Keep BY, qqv. WALKING quote Oleander quelquechose bower vowel HOC. fried FAIR Rushing BADLANDS youth Fyrd TOOL BAD, Wunderkind OVERWHELMS moot Ok ADVENTURE backgame oilwell Butter YCLEPT Teller Yuan CHEKHOV: five jeans Huddle OUTCOME woodwork FLUORINE CLIP: fastest COWCATCHER DV, VALVE HOBBY DOING boxes Viper abnormal Xy cold affluent Xosa manganese try. jovial DALLY HILT; M vegan axal whip. neural STUCK YAWN worry BV. trance arrow goblet BECKONS SCARY Ado birthday Attain Apricot ATTRACTING VAST Break unworkable MISSING crabby Simply downed MOOD unplugged Hoop Oat Wt. width Chekhov, filmgoers

As with font designers, please refer people back to this article, or at least credit this text to martinturner.org.uk or brandmotor.co.uk rather than simply distributing it to all your mates.

If you are setting type for print, then print out the page—don’t rely on the screen. Once you’ve checked this the right way up, it can help to turn the page upside down. You are looking for unexpected gaps or clumped characters.1

As well as allowing you to spot unsightly gaps between letters, this is also a good test of general font consistency. We always tell people not to include words in capitals, because of legibility, but sometimes with abbreviations such as NATO or SMART, you have to. This text will help you to spot problems of fonts which are just too heavy in long text, require more leading (inter-line spacing), or just don’t flow right.2

If the kerning is wrong, abandon the font. If you are desperate to use it and it is free to modify, and you intend to distribute it to 400 dealers, you could consider getting it professionally kerned by a kerning service. Otherwise, just don’t.

The same goes for fonts which just don’t look right. If they don’t look right with this text, they probably won’t look right with your text either.

Some fonts do require more leading. Fonts with a high x-height, such as most ITC fonts (never free), are more legible at smaller point sizes, but they do need more leading in extended body text. You should be able to spot this using the test text above. Likewise, some fonts simply occupy more space on the page. ITC Bookman does. Bookman was one of the original 35 fonts supplied with Postscript printers. It comes across as friendly and honest, but it does take up more space. Again, that’s a factor you need to be aware of, though it shouldn’t mean abandoning an otherwise good font.

Compatibility

Is the font Mac and PC compatible, is there a web font, is there a version for mobile devices? You can convert any font for web use, though you can only do this legally if the license is ‘free to modify’. PC compatibility is a bit more tricky. If you are using Open Type fonts (which is the current ‘good’ standard), the PC compatible .ttf versions have to have a signature embedded for the Open Type features to work on Windows. This is an enormously annoying process, and it’s quite possible that a Mac based designer (and most of them are) won’t even know this, let alone get round to doing it. The font will still work, but special Open Type features such as swashes, discretionary ligatures and alternate forms won’t. If you’re on a PC, or specifying a font which will be deployed to Windows PCs, and the Open Type features are going to be important to you, check this!

Embedding

Can the font be embedded in a PDF file? You’d think ‘of course’. You’d often be wrong. Font files contain a tag to allow or prevent embedding. Designers releasing ‘for private use only’ often disallow embedding to ‘enforce’ their copyright decision. If it’s ‘free to modify’, and you know how to do it, then you can switch this off in a font editing application. However, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone who switched this on is going to make it ‘free to modify’. A few years ago, a well-known political party standardised on a font for its leaflets which, for some bizarre reason, had embedding turned off. This was fine in the days that artwork was printed off on a laser printer and then scanned for Risograph, but as soon as people wanted to send things to commercial printers, it all went haywire. The font was later abandoned.

Embedding is something you only discover when you do send it to someone else, as your system will simply substitute in the font when viewing a PDF if it’s one of your installed fonts. It’s vital to check if you can embed and then view on a computer without the font (easiest way is to make the PDF and then turn the font off) before going any further. If you can’t embed, abandon the font.

Price Structure

Most high quality free fonts which pass the tests above are free for a reason. From time to time there will be a font which was designed for commercial sales and never taken up by a foundry, and the designer has just got fed up and decides to make it free altruistically. There are also fonts developed and distributed for altruistic purposes, such as SIL licensed fonts and the Linux fonts. In many cases, though, the designer is expecting to get a return in some other way. This could be by making some weights free and others paid-for, it could be by requiring you to credit the designer (you may do this, but when people start using them in Word documents, they almost certainly won’t), or by requiring you to promote their site in some way, for example by tweeting it out.

Whatever the price structure is, this is the ‘real’ cost of using the font. With Museo, mentioned above, when we did theBarn‘s brand, we made the main fonts available to everyone, but I purchased the complete set of weights, which gave more flexibility in design. This is fine, as long as you factor the cost in. If it’s just a question of tweeting, then tweet gracefully: someone has made a lot of hard work available.

If the font is available as part of a subscription, for example TypeKit, you need to consider whether other people who will be using it will have the same subscription, and what you will do if it is arbitrarily withdrawn from the subscription service, or if you decide not to continue.

Final considerations

Crete-font-check

Not all fonts that pass these tests should be used. There are fonts which appear wonderful after you’ve spent half a day searching for fonts but which, on sober reconsideration, should never be allowed anywhere near a piece of typography.

Equally, there are fonts that don’t go with anything else that you have, or can source as a free font. TypeDNA offers a marvellous application for working out what goes with what, but even TypeDNA is only offering suggestions based on the best of what you have installed. If the amazing font you want to use for headlines only goes with a font which is $300 and you need to deploy to 82 sites, then your amazing headline font is, in reality, not free to you at all.

Fonts come from every kind of source. I am constantly battling with applications which install their own fonts, even on the demo versions. As well as cluttering up my typeface lists, they also sneak in unevaluated, like the Baskerville typeface I mentioned earlier. If you are serious about the fonts you want to use, it’s worth keeping a checklist, like the one pictured, for every font you have properly evaluated. It can help you keep the pirate fonts out (both the ones that you found on bad sites, and the ones that applications installed without your knowledge), and will also remind you why, in the end, you didn’t use that font last time you considered it. That, on it’s own, can save you an awful lot of time and bother.

Free stuff

For those using QuarkXPress 2015, I attach a font evaluation file. Font Evaluator.qxp. To use this, change the Normal character style sheet (not the paragraph style sheet) to the font you want to evaluate, and then change the name of the font on the front page. Everything else will change automatically. The Evaluator will output glyphs, a variety of sizes, kern check, kern check inverted page and kern check blurred.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. If you are using QuarkXPress, you can also view the page as blurred text, by applying a dropped shadow, switching off ‘inherit opacity’ in the measurements palette, and turning the opacity of the text to 0%. Looking at fonts or logos in blurred form is similar to the ‘corner of the eye’ out of which we perceive many things. It can help spot problems that would otherwise be missed.
  2. Thomas Phinney has an excellent article on Know if a Font Sucks. Phinney knows a thing or two about fonts. However, this will be too technical for most people. Essentially, if it looks right in the sample text, it is right. If it looks wrong, it’s wrong, and just abandon it. If you’re trying to design a font and can’t work out why it looks wrong, Phinney’s article (and his own website) is a good place to start.
How to design an effective newsletter

How to design an effective newsletter

A one page newsletter

A one page newsletter

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:

Uncropped version

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The one page newsletter with margins, boxes and grids. Note that this newsletter is set to 'vertically justify', which means that the line grids are not in use.

The one page newsletter with margins, boxes and grids. Note that this newsletter is set to ‘vertically justify’, which means that the line grids are not in use.

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…

Show 2 footnotes

  1. 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
  2. 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

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