I'm starting out as a technical writer, and want to present my written material as best as possible to the customers. Are there any "bibles" or introductory books on graphic design that I could benefit from reading?

I don't have the time to go in depth, I just want something like "the ten most common mistakes" people can make in design to help making 80% of the material in the world look much better.


4 Answers 4


Your best bets would be "The Non-Designer's Design & Type Books" by Robin Williams, and "Before&After, Graphics for Business" by John McWade (in that order). They cover the mistakes, but also the core principles you should keep in mind while you work.

Both are very approachable, well-written, simple and full of the kind of excellent design wisdom that you need as a technical writer. They are also application-agnostic, so the information is applicable to any platform you might find yourself working with.

  • Love Robin Williams (the designer -- well, the comedian too). She's funny and very accessible. Jan 14, 2012 at 14:06

I'll throw a few tips out:

  • Ample margins
  • Don't double emphasize (bold italic underline exclamation point! Don't do it!)
  • Single line space between paragraphs OR indent first line
  • Look for ways to align things on the page.
  • If something starts at 1" from left, look for ways to use this mark to set other things. This is a very loose form of "THE GRID"
  • Use The Grid
  • Use a single typeface. One.
  • Less is more. Avoid staffage, squares, doodads and blinkers.

All rules are meant to be broken. But break when needed, not for the sake of breaking.

  • 1
    I disagree with using a single typeface. Most professionally typeset books use a different display type from text type. Having contrast between headings and body text adds aesthetic appeal, and using contrasting typefaces and weights is a good way to achieve this (e.g. a hard sans serif heading paired against a softer serif font). Assigning distinct roles is also good practice (e.g. a monospace/typewriter font for code samples and another typeface for pullquotes). I'd say having 2~5 fonts from 2, maybe 3, families is within reason for a textbook. Jan 14, 2012 at 5:03
  • The other suggestions are spot on, however. Josef Muller-Brockmann's "Grid systems in graphic design" is an excellent book on layout design. It's a dense read, but is the definitive text on grid layouts. Also, a note about margins: don't make them all the same. A simplification but a good rule-of-themb is to make the top margin slightly larger than the bottom margin, and the outer margins greater than the inner margins (the side along the binding). Jan 14, 2012 at 5:10
  • The single typeface thing is pretty old: if you use two typefaces you are using one too many. I've read it, I've had teacher who subscribed to the idea. I think it is crazy, but it encapsulates the ideas of restraint and constraint which are crucial to good design.
    – horatio
    Jan 18, 2012 at 16:01

I think I've recommended this site before and I'll do it again: Typography for Lawyers. Lawyers write a ton, and this site is a no-frills introduction to typography and how to make legal documents easier to read and more professional looking. The author understands that while lawyers care about these things, they're not looking to become designers either, so the lessons are relevant and to-the-point. I would imagine there would be plenty of crossover for you.


Mistake no. #1: Writers doing their own graphic design.

just kidding ... not really ... :P

What you are looking for is called typography. Have a read through the manual Typography for Writers. It’s pretty good and short (something like “the 10 things you want to know about typography as a writer”). And Technical Writing: Features & Conventions looks interesting.

Also try searching for “typography for technical writing” and “typography for writers”. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff out there. :)

Good luck!

  • 1
    Ahem. Some of us are writers and graphic designers. Jan 13, 2012 at 22:24
  • Yes, some designers also have other jobs/titles/skills. But the point remains, non-designers shouldn't do their own graphic design. I actually came across an article recently on /. talking about the "typographical horrors" on much of today's ebooks because publishers have handed over the design of these ebooks and iPad adaptations to the programmers. You may save a little money, but it's still not worth it if you actually care about the results. If he really cares about having professional presentation, he needs to work with a designer to design the page layout and the typography. Jan 14, 2012 at 4:40
  • 1
    Lese majeste: absolutely, designers should do design, and it will be better than a non-designer trying to design. I just wanted to clarify that "writer" and "graphic designer" are not mutually exclusive terms. Jan 14, 2012 at 14:08
  • Technical writing is a field of its own. I have been one, I should know. Fact is, that sometimes you have to visualise or create figures or examples, make text go horizontal, arrows etc. To explain technical complex things to an illustrator/designer took me longer than to teach myself basic PS and Illustrator skills. Believe me. We tried a seriously big design house, and they got it wrong every time. And they had NO constraints on time/money... so. In addition to typography, there will always be other elements needed.
    – benteh
    Dec 26, 2013 at 2:24

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