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What Makes a Beautiful Report: Layout

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Posted on 06/20/2014

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NOTE: This is the fourth post in our Windward series on creating beautiful reports. Missed the beginning? Start here.

The right report layout does more than make the output beautiful; it also makes the data and information contained within much easier to grasp.

But for data reporting experts such as yourself, the thought of trying to lay out a good-looking report can be — let’s face it – distasteful. You’re no graphic designer, so the theory goes, so your reports are destined to be limited to a basic aesthetic.

Not so. Release your inner designer by using the following tips to create a report layout that is both functional and beautiful.

Create Beautiful Report Margins

Yes, you need margins. They help focus the report reader on the document’s content and make for clean, more readable reports.

An example of how adequate report margins allow the reader to focus on key content.

An example of how adequate report margins allow the reader to focus on key content.

Unfortunately, no mathematical formula can tell you exactly what size your report margins should be. Entire chapters lay out rules on book page margins (there’s even something as impressive-sounding as the “canons of page construction”), but there’s no corollary for reports that we know of.

Still, there are some accepted guidelines, and you will find them as close as the word processing program on your desktop.

For standard reports – printed on an 8.5 by 11” paper or viewed onscreen – in many cases the output will look great with Microsoft® Word’s default values of 1” margins for top, bottom, left and right.

We prefer this to Microsoft Excel’s default values of 1” for top and bottom and .75” for left and right, because multiple elements on a page can make a report look too busy; a wider margin helps make the content it contains easier to view.

Three notable exceptions to these guidelines:

  1. Reports with elements that need more space. If you have content that you’re trying to fit on a single page – such as a table or chart, for example — you may want to shrink the margins. We recommend you keep them at least .5 inches, however.
  2. Onscreen reports. If you know your report or document will be viewed onscreen and not printed, you can sometimes safely shrink the horizontal margins a bit, to around .75 inches.
  3. Bound reports. If you’re compiling multiple pages into a bound (stapled, VeloBind, etc.) report, you’ll probably want to use more margin space for the inside margins so that binding doesn’t obscure the report elements. The spacing will depend upon the type of binding, but it will likely be between 1.25 and 2 inches.

Lay Out Individual Elements Properly

One of the biggest mistakes we see in report layout is when individual elements break in awkward places, such as when one row of a table is placed on the next page, when a paragraph of text has a hyphen on nearly every line, or when a caption is on a different page from the image it is describing.

Your template software likely has some built-in tools, so take advantage of them to eliminate these problems. Tools like:

  • Keep Lines Together. This tool allows you to keep lines of a paragraph together on a page or in a column.
  • Keep With Next. This is useful for keeping paragraphs or other items together on a page or in a column.
  • Widow/Orphan. Use this to ensure that if a paragraph breaks across a page or column, at least two lines will be kept together at the beginning and the end.
  • Hyphenation. Choose whether to allow hyphenation at all or only in some instances. Some software even lets you dictate how many lines in a paragraph are allowed to have hyphens.
  • Allow Row to Break Across Pages. Control where a table is divided and prevent it from breaking across pages by configuring this command.
  • Header Row Repeat. If a table absolutely must break across a page, use this tool to give context to data on the subsequent page.
  • Hard Page Breaks. You can insert a hard page break just before an item to ensure its placement at the top of a page. This may help keep a longer item all together on one page.

You can set these tools to apply globally across your report, but that won’t guarantee you the best report layout. Be sure to tweak the output afterward. For example, if your report has a chart followed by a table, you might shrink the chart slightly so that the table does not break across two pages.

NOTE: Throughout this post we have generated examples with the Microsoft® Office add-in Windward AutoTag. The names above are the names of the tools in Microsoft Office; your template-design software may give different names to these tools.

Accurately Space and Align Elements with One Another

Remember earlier when we said you don’t have to be a graphic designer to create beautiful layouts?

That’s true, but alignment and space among elements is one area where many of us struggle when laying out reports. Graphic designers have extensive training and experience in learning what looks best on a page, and you won’t be an expert after simply reading this blog post.

But take heart; you can fool just about anyone by employing a couple techniques.

A study from Wichita State University shows the effect of white space on comprehension.

A study from Wichita State University shows the effect of margins and white space on comprehension.

Technique #1: Use whitespace to increase comprehension.

Study after study has shown that adequate space between and among elements of a webpage, printed report or other type of material leads to the reader’s increased comprehension.

As with margins, there’s no exact mathematical formula for determining “adequate” space, although we have seen a credible project that suggests a page should be about 50% type and 50% white space. This project is referring mainly to text-heavy pages instead of pages with charts, tables and other visual elements, however, so you’ll need to experiment to find the best layout for your reports.

When in doubt, follow this rule: err on the side of adding white space.

Technique #2: Deliberately align elements to increase page balance.

Take a look at your reporting software to see what sort of grids and guides it offers. Some programs let you extend element borders (even invisible ones) to the edge of the report so you can more easily line up multiple elements.

You may also be able to place the elements on a grid. This allows you to align center points or borders, and you can use the grid to ensure balanced spacing among three or more elements.

If you don’t have access to grids or guides, no worries. You can create borderless tables to contain elements and then align the items using table properties. (And if you don’t have access to borderless tables, do yourself a favor and talk your boss into springing for some new software. You clearly deserve better.)

Make the Report Skim-able

report layout element alignment

A nice use of subheads for “skim-ability” and individual report element alignment.

The bad news: Despite all your hard work, few people will actually read your report.

The good news: They will skim it instead.

Skimming lets readers jump to the parts that interest them AND it helps them get an understanding of the overall report before they decide which portions to go back and scrutinize.

We’ve already spent a little time on how to use visual aids when working with text blocks, and the same principles apply to making the overall layout “skim-able.”

 

Some tools you can use:

  • Headlines
  • Subheads
  • Bullets
  • Numbered lists
  • Bold text
  • Titles for tables and charts
  • Numbers instead of words (eg. 10, not ten)

Get Rid of Unnecessary Distractions

When laying out a report, include the elements that need to be included and don’t include the elements that don’t need to be included.

Sounds simple, right?

It’s simple in principle, but in practice it’s tempting to spice up a report by adding background images and other distracting elements. Just as we talked about using effects sparingly in our Beautiful Reports: Charts post, the same is true for the overall report. Skip the bling.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to turn off grid lines in your final output.

Use Conditional Visibility When Appropriate

Here’s one layout technique that, when done right, your report recipient may not even be aware you’ve used.

Conditional visibility is when items in a report display only under certain conditions. These can be user-driven, such as when a user chooses to drill down to see more detail, or content-driven, when certain content displays only under certain conditions.

An example of this from one of our own customers is that of South Sound 911, a public safety organization in Pierce County, Washington. Police officers use Windward software when filling out incident reports. If a section doesn’t apply to a particular incident, the officer leaves it blank and the section does not appear on the final report. This cuts down on paper waste and is much easier on the person receiving the report.

Create a Master Template

Lastly, if your template-design tool allows you to create some type of master slide or master template, be sure to take advantage of it when possible. You can set some of the layout properties once (such as margins and footers) and apply them to the entire report, giving it a cohesive, polished look.

Click here for the next post in the series, What Makes a Beautiful Report: Images.

The Whole Beautiful Report Series

Beautiful Reports cover pageWe hope you found these tips useful. Feel free to let us know in the comments section below and add your own observations on navigation.

Also, we want to thank your for reading this series on how to design beautiful reports. We have released the entire series as a free e-book for you to download, share and refer to in the future.

Remember, you can receive the series in your email inbox by subscribing to our company blog here:

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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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