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What Makes a Beautiful Report: Text

Posted on 04/16/2014

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Congrats. You’ve gotten the data you need and placed it into a well-organized report. Your job is done, right?

Not quite.

As any chef will tell you, it’s all about presentation. It isn’t enough to provide the basics; the output must look appetizing, as well.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will help you create scrumptious reports. Throughout the next few weeks we’ll be serving up tips on how design documents that wow your customers, your colleagues and your bosses. We’ll begin by looking at how to use text to make a beautiful report.

(Want to make sure you get the entire series? Subscribe to our blog by entering your email address in the box to the right, and each post will arrive in your email inbox.)


Serif and Sans Serif

Let’s start with fonts. Fonts can be classified into two main categories: serif and sans serif.

Tarrytown Font Shop047

Fonts reflect the mood and tone of your report. (Photo credit to Tarrytown.)

Serifs are those little lines attached to characters. If a particular font has those lines, it’s called a serif font. If it doesn’t, it’s called sans serif (sans is French for “without”).

This is typed in a serif font, Times New Roman.

This is typed in a sans serif font, Arial.

In general, serif fonts make words easier to read (readability) and sans serif fonts make individual letters easier to discern (legibility).



The Big Myth: Serifs Affect Readability on Computer Screens

So what font should you choose?

Until recently, accepted practice had been:

  1. For print, use a serif font. (The exception is headlines, which are large enough that it was considered okay to use a less “readable” but more “legible” font.)
  2. For online, use sans serif. Computer screens have difficulty accurately displaying serif fonts.


BUT common wisdom is changing. Jakob Nielsen, a well-respected computer usability expert, notes that with the rise of bigger, more high-def screens, it’s time to change the guidelines. Choosing a font for readability or legibility is no longer the most important concern.

Our Recommendations for Font Choice

Instead of choosing a font on usability, we recommend you choose a font consistent with the rest of the content of the document. This includes looking at:

  • Tone and mood. If the output is a serious report, you’ll want to choose a classic font with clean lines, such as Garamond, as opposed to a decorative font such as Monotype Corsiva, which mimics handwriting.
  • Branding and Logos. Is this a company report that includes a standard company logo? The rest of report doesn’t need to use the exact font contained in the logo, but you should choose one that goes well visually with the logo or other elements.

For a comprehensive look at font and tones, with plenty of examples, we highly recommend you visit the Purdue Owl’s Using Fonts with Purpose page.

One Final Note: Money Matters

There’s an added benefit to actively choosing a font rather than letting your system’s default values reign. If you’re producing a large amount of print documents, the right font choice could save your organization big bucks.

Text Blocks

Reddit REST Sample

This sample report from Windward shows how well-spaced text can be beautiful to read.

It’s okay to write one-sentence paragraphs.

Forget what your high school teachers taught you. The Onion got it right when they wrote readers shudder when confronted with long blocks of text, and long paragraphs don’t make the report – or you – sound more educated or important.

Take a look at each paragraph of your current report. Each paragraph should have just one main thought. If you identify more than one, start a new paragraph.

It’s amazing how a few blank lines make a report easier to read and more beautiful.

Spacing between Text Elements

Did you know there are commonly accepted ratios for spacing of text elements?

Here are guidelines for:

  1. Characters. The spacing for characters within words is taken care of by the font’s built-in spacing, so you don’t need to concern yourself with this. (But if you’re curious about how typographers adjust this manually, check out this quick intro to kerning and letter spacing.)
  2. Words. Unless you see a compelling reason to do otherwise, align text to the left. This is easiest on the eyes of the person reading the report. You can also justify text – aligning it to both left and right margins – but this can lead to too much extra space between words, so it should be used sparingly.
  3. Lines. Most report and document template interfaces automatically adjust the amount of space between lines of text. This is known as leading, or the amount of space between the invisible lines upon which letters sit.  If you have the ability to change the leading, a good rule of thumb is to set the leading to approximately 20 to 30 percent bigger than the type size. For example, if you’re using 10-point type, the line spacing would be 12 or 13 points.
  4. Paragraphs. As with leading, most reporting software automatically adjusts the amount of space between paragraphs. Unlike with leading, however, there is no commonly accepted rule of thumb as to how much space is optimal. Plus, “optimal” varies depending on whether the report is viewed online or in print. The important thing is to take a hard look at the final spacing and if the paragraphs seem too squished or too spread out, experiment with adjusting the spacing.

Visual Aids

We read by scanning, so use visual clues to help your readers quickly grasp the content of a report (see what I just did there?).

Separate out key sections with subheads, such as the four main ones (Fonts, Text Blocks, Spacing and Visual Aids) you see in this article.

If you need to put text in one area, use visual clues such as:

  • Bullets
  • Numbered lists
  • Bold text

TIP: Do not use underlining purely as a visual cue, such as for emphasis. The person viewing the report, even when it is in print, will expect the underlined text to link to another page.

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

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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