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10 Quick Report Design Tips

Posted on 12/31/2014

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The ability to produce reports and documents in many different formats (PDF, HTML, DOCX, etc.) with AutoTag leads to a big challenge in report design:

With so many different output options, how can you make sure the template renders the way you expect?

On the back end, we’ve done a lot of work trying to make the output report identical to the template, pixel for pixel. But it won’t be perfect, for a bunch of reasons. (Some have to do with how the report design tool, Microsoft Office, formats itself differently according to a system’s graphics and printer drivers. Others have to do with vagaries of specific output formats like PDF.) We can’t do a lot about that.

Report Design Tips for Multiple Outputs

Get your report to look the way you expect no matter which output format you use.

BUT what we can do is help you make it as close as possible with the following report design tips:

  1. Use hard page breaks. If you want a page to break at a certain spot, use Word’s hard page break command. The same principle works for other types of breaks, like line breaks and column breaks.
  2. Fall in love with TrueType and OpenType fonts. Other types of fantastic fonts are out there. But they are closely tied to their code page and can lead to some unwanted – and frustrating – formatting hiccups.
  3. Skip absolutely positioned objects. Instead, try to position relative to a paragraph, column or other item.  Absolutely Positioning a Picture is a well-written tutorial where you can learn more about how to use relative positioning in your document. NOTE: We don’t know or endorse the author.
  4. Sparingly use “keep lines together” settings for paragraphs. A paragraph that was 3 lines in a template can be 100 times (or more) that many in a report. They may not all fit together in the final output.
  5. Ditto for “row header” settings for tables. Ditto again on the reasoning.
  6. Use set values in table column widths. Set table column widths using inches, centimeters, points or percentages – not AutoFit. AutoFit will not necessarily match because of how MS Office works (and that’s as detailed as we’re gonna get!) Check out this Microsoft primer on using AutoFit.
  7. Give yourself some wiggle room. Don’t try to cram stuff into every last corner of a page. If you don’t, sooner or later 1 page will spill over onto 2 pages.
  8. Minimize using nested tables. We’re not recommending you get rid of them altogether – they can be great reporting tools – but if you have another option, take it. For example, if you want to put a border around a page that contains a table, instead of creating a table for the entire page, use the page border.
  9. Make table borders as simple as possible for PDF outputs. Windward uses what are called polylines. In a PDF doc, it draws one polyline for the outer border, one for each internal row border, and one for each internal column border. If you can, keep each one to a single width, color and style.
  10. Design Word templates in DOCX or WordML, not RTF. RTF is notoriously funky (the technical term for “poorly formatted”) and Word doesn’t always follow it. Odds are RTF templates will have more problems than DOCX or WordML.

More Report Design Tips

Want even more tips for making your output shine? We invite you to download the Windward white paper “Beautiful Reports.”

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Author: Heidi V. Anderson

Heidi has been writing professionally about computers, technology and the Internet for more than 20 years. She lives in Vermont where she taps her maple trees for syrup and most of the year wishes it was just a little bit warmer out.

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