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Desktop Design for Dummies

Saul Blumenthal

Three years ago it was cool. By last term it was pass. Now it's just plain old ugly. So let's get it straight from the beginning: Images designed for Web pages are meant to stay on the screen, not to appear on the cover of the spring HASS guide - for the second term in a row - or in any other printed piece.

The World Wide Web is almost five years old now, and it seems many people still haven't learned the difference between a Web page and a printed page. Or, perhaps more accurately, they have never thought about the difference and don't even notice when their newsletters and ads look like they were printed on an early '80s dot-matrix printer. The HASS guide looks like it was printed on such a printer that had lost a few of its pins.

This trend is just the latest in what has been called the democratization of publishing. It used to be that to print or typeset anything required a large investment in professional typesetting and composition machines. Of course, this has totally changed over the last decade, and now anyone with a computer, a laser printer, and the all-important 1,000-fonts-and-clip-art-for-$50 CD can be an expert designer in less than a day.

Or can they? You wouldn't think so from some of the the design that is turned out these days. The Institute has tried to make grand efforts over the last few years to teach students the importance of good writing and communication skills, yet, unfortunately, it has neglected to emphasize that how something looks is just as important as what it says. It may sound cliche, but when was the last time a major company's annual report looked like it was photocopied and then faxed, or printed on a daisy-wheel printer?

The irony is that with desktop publishing technology, you don't have to have the money of a Fortune 500 company to produce good-looking documents. Unfortunately, the same technology can produce the numerous posters, booklets, newsletters, and ads that could look so much better if only a few basic design principles were considered.

Therefore, in the spirit of the holiday season, I present a top 10 list of basic design ideas as my gift to the MIT community.

10. You don't have to use the default fonts Helvetica or Times. Some people over the past 500 years have spent their whole lives just designing letters of the alphabet. Think about this the next time you write a paper or design a poster.

9. WORDS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS ARE VERY HARD TO READ. And it may look cool to print that Web URLin all caps, but what use is it when your Web server's file system is case-sensitive, so you're actually giving the wrong URL? And isn't the foremost purpose of design to communicate effectively?

8. Web graphics are usually very low resolution - fine for viewing on the screen but terrible for printing to your laser printer. Don't do it.

7. Just because your word processor lets you do fancy tricks like shadow and outline doesn't mean you have to use them! It doesn't make your words look trendy or cool - just ugly and hard to read.

6. Can't you see a what's "wrong" with this sentence? "Now that's a lot better." Don't use "dumb" quotes; they make what you write look sloppy and unprofessional. Stick with "smart quotes."

5. You don't have to put boxes around every single word that you type, especially curved borders or ovals with four lines of varying thickness. Give your words some breathing room.

4. Pay attention to the line spacing, or leading (named after the pieces of lead used to separate lines in metal typecasting). Your word processor might by default apply some

"auto" setting, but look to see if the lines are too close or too far apart to be easily read.

3. Don't put gray backgrounds behind all your words. They don't photocopy well, and they make the words hard to read.

2. Don't use the underline option for book names. Underline was devised for typewriters. Use italics instead.

1. These are only guidelines, and they're meant to be broken sometimes. Just think about these ideas next time you write a paper, produce a booklet, or design a poster or an ad. You'll be amazed at what you find, and your text and graphics will be forever grateful.

Saul Blumenthal is a former managing editor of The Tech.