10 Simple Design Rules to Make Word Documents Look Professional and Beautiful
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Microsoft Word is packed with so many features that you can produce pretty much whatever you want with it. But these features don’t always result in the kind of beautiful, high-quality, and professional documents that may be expected of you.

It’s one thing to know everything about Microsoft Word, all of its intricacies and quirks and functions — it’s something else entirely to know what makes a great document.

This article isn’t about how to use Microsoft Word’s various features. We’re specifically looking at the design aspect of business reports and academic papers, meaning the whats and the whys that dictate a document that’s pleasing to the eye and easy to read. You could also apply these same guidelines to other word processors like Google Docs 10 Neat Ways to Create Beautiful Google Documents 10 Neat Ways to Create Beautiful Google Documents Turn your Google office suite into a word-processing powerhouse with the right Google Drive add-on. Here's some of that power to make your documents look stylish and beautiful. Read More .

1. Keep It Simple, Less Is More

Nearly every tip in this article is a specific application of this first one, but it’s so important that it bears special emphasis: keep it simple and less is more. Let this be the driving force behind any design decisions in your documents, and if you walk away remembering only one thing from this article, let it be this one!

When writing a document, the content should be the main focus. The formatting exists to make that content easier to read and digest. Eliminate the temptation to introduce eye-catching elements that only serve to distract. Maximize whitespace. Keep your wording tight and revise any wordy sentences or paragraphs. Simple and minimal rules over all.

2. Choose a Context-Appropriate Typeface

Your first big design decision should be which typeface you’re going to use. Traditional knowledge says that serif fonts are easier to read in printed documents whereas sans-serif fonts are better on the eyes when read on a digital screen.

10 Simple Design Rules to Make Word Documents Look Professional and Beautiful serif sans serif

Good examples of serif fonts include Garamond, Georgia, Hoefler Text, and Palatino, while good examples of sans-serif fonts include Arial, Gill Sans, Helvetica, and Lucida Sans. Whatever you end up using, stick to the same typeface throughout the document. (If desired, you can use a different typeface for headings.)

To learn more about serif vs. sans-serif fonts and which ones you should use, see our article on font pairing strategies and tools Font-Pairing Strategies and Tools for Perfect Font Combinations Font-Pairing Strategies and Tools for Perfect Font Combinations Font pairing is part art and part science. These strategies and font-pairing tools will help you pick the perfect font pairing for any task. Read More .

3. Use Standard Font Size and Color

Most business and academic papers are typed in 12-point font size, which generally produces the most readable paragraphs when combined with the guidelines for page size, margins, and line spacing later in this article. Some information-dense reports may sometimes go down to 10-point font size, but never less than that.

In general, it’s best to keep your hands off of anything related to colors, especially for printed documents. You’ll have to pay more for the color ink, and it won’t carry over if the document ever gets copied. For digital documents, reserve colored text for critical warnings and the like. Prefer to emphasize using bolded and italic text.

4. Use Standard Page Size and Margins

Nearly all office documents are printed for standard 8½” x 11″ pages, known as US Letter size (also known as A4 elsewhere, which is 210mm x 297mm). This is the only size that’s guaranteed to be available regardless of which printer you use.

10 Simple Design Rules to Make Word Documents Look Professional and Beautiful microsoft word page margins

As for margins, most style manuals and style guides call for a 1″ margin on all sides of the page, which produces the best readability for line lengths and allows for written annotations if necessary. However, if the document is going to be bound in a binder, you may want to increase the side margins to 1½” to accommodate the rings.

5. Align Paragraphs to the Left

You may be tempted to use justified alignment because that’s what’s used in newspapers and novels and some textbooks, but it’s the wrong choice for office and academic documents. While it may look cleaner and more formal due to the straight edges, it kills readability.

What you want is left alignment for text. This produces jaggedness on the right side of paragraphs, but it keeps letter spacing as intended by whatever typeface you’re using, and that means optimal legibility. Otherwise, you may end up with typographic rivers, which are extremely distracting and simply look ugly.

6. Indent the First Lines of Paragraphs

Paragraphs should have no extra spacing in between them, and first lines of paragraphs should be indented to make each paragraph stand out. The only exception is for paragraphs that directly follow a section heading, which can be left unindented because the surrounding context makes it clear that it’s its own paragraph.

10 Simple Design Rules to Make Word Documents Look Professional and Beautiful microsoft word indent paragraphs

A general rule of thumb is to make the indent size the same as the font size. Make sure you use Word’s paragraph styling features to handle the indents rather than using the Tab key!

7. Place Images Between Paragraphs

It may be okay to place images inside a paragraph and allow the surrounding text to flow around it, and if your organization prefers it that way, then go ahead and do that. But generally speaking, it can damage readability, especially in data-driven reports.

The safest option, particularly for graphs and charts and tables, is to put images in between paragraphs and keep them center aligned. That way your images are never vying for attention with surrounding text. It also helps captions to stand out.

8. Choose Context-Appropriate Line Spacing

The right choice for line spacing (the whitespace that separates a line of text from the next line of text) really depends on what kind of document you’re writing.

Academic papers should first follow any academic style guides in place, then prefer double-spacing if no style guide exists. Business and office documents tend to be single-spaced to minimize the number of pages needed when printing, but digital documents may be easier to read if spaced at somewhere between 120-150 percent.

10 Simple Design Rules to Make Word Documents Look Professional and Beautiful microsoft word line spacing

9. Break Up Text With Headings and Lists

The longer the document, the more important headings become. Would you rather read a 20-page report that’s nothing but a wall of text from end to end? Or a 30-page report that’s organized into proper sections, subsections, and headings? I prefer the latter every time.

Lists are also good for breaking up walls of text and drawing eyes to important points. Use numbered lists when counting a set of items (e.g. “the five attributes of a successful entrepreneur”) or when providing step-by-step instructions. Otherwise, bulleted lists are fine. Just be sure to avoid overusing lists, which can detract from readability.

10. Separate Sections With Breaks

In Microsoft Word, section breaks allow you to differentiate certain pages with changes in orientation, columns, headers, footers, page numbers, and more. Section breaks come in four forms:

  • Next Page: Start the next section on the following page.
  • Continuous: Start the next section on the current page.
  • Even Page: Start the next section on the next even page.
  • Odd Page: Start the next section on the next even page.

If your document is large enough to need chapters, this is the best way to format them in a clean way. Each chapter should be made with a “Next Page” section break, or the “Even Page” or “Odd Page” section breaks if you’re going to place it within a binder.

10 Simple Design Rules to Make Word Documents Look Professional and Beautiful microsoft word page sections

When in Doubt, Use Premade Document Templates

Unless your organization or school requires a specific layout and format, you can skip the hard work of setting up your own template and just download one instead. We’ve rounded up a bunch of them for your convenience, including business letter templates 15 Business Letter Templates for Microsoft Word to Save You Time 15 Business Letter Templates for Microsoft Word to Save You Time Templates are time savers. Here we compiled 15 business letter templates, from letters of intent, via Thank You notes, to references. These templates will hep you communicate with confidence. Read More , cover page templates 15 Best Microsoft Word Cover Page Templates 15 Best Microsoft Word Cover Page Templates An attractive cover page adds a professional look to your document. The Microsoft Word templates we picked also let you present key facts about your paper. Read More , table of contents templates 10 Best Table of Contents Templates for Microsoft Word 10 Best Table of Contents Templates for Microsoft Word Need to set up a table of contents quickly? These templates will help you get the job done in a flash. Read More , and project management templates How to Manage Your Project with Word Templates How to Manage Your Project with Word Templates In project management, preparation is half the battle. To organize and document your project, you may need many different reports, forms or plans. We have compiled a selection of Word templates to get you started. Read More .

Furthermore, if you haven’t already, you should consider learning the essential tips of Microsoft Word 9 Tips to Learn All About Office 2016 9 Tips to Learn All About Office 2016 Microsoft Office 2016 is among us. How are you mastering the latest version for the sake of your productivity? We tip you off to the best links for Office learning. Steal a march with these... Read More , these important keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Office 60 Essential Microsoft Office Keyboard Shortcuts for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 60 Essential Microsoft Office Keyboard Shortcuts for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Hundreds of keyboard shortcuts are available in Office, but these are the most important ones you should know because they will save you a lot of time. Read More , and these awesome lesser-known tricks for Microsoft Office 7 Microsoft Office Tricks You Can Learn From Teen Champions 7 Microsoft Office Tricks You Can Learn From Teen Champions Ready to learn from the best? This year's Microsoft Office champions share their tips and tricks for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Read More .

What do you think makes a document beautiful and professional? Are there any other tips and tricks you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. Doc
    January 30, 2018 at 10:37 pm

    Why use Microsoft Weird? There are plenty of other word-processing apps out there, and many of them (like LibreOffice Writer and AbiWord) are **free**.