Formats and Frameworks

Originally Posted by Heather Lee on December 3, 2012
As my friends know, starting a new project that needs an original document format or template is like going to an amusement park for me. Both activities require planning, which is half the fun, but format design doesn’t require Dramamine. You can probably guess which I’d rather do.

Although everyone has their own method for putting together a document, we tend to follow a basic process to get from blank page to beautiful baby. I’m posting my nine-step process to help people who get stuck somewhere along the way.
1. Understand the document’s purpose.
2. Consider the final audience.
3. Gather format requirements.
4. Rough cut the document’s information requirements.
5. Build your framework.
6. Incorporate your rough cut.
7. Add your full draft information.
8. Tweak.
9. Treats.

Here is each step in a bit more detail.

1. Document Purpose. The first thing I think about when designing a format is the document’s purpose. Is it a proposal, a marketing sheet, a procedure, or a technical paper? Proposals tend to be lengthy with specific delivery requirements, while marketing sheets are short and slick. Procedures are often designed to fit within a 3-ring binder for easy access during a work activity, while technical papers are bound for distribution at conferences to be read at leisure later. Purpose has a huge effect on designing the optimal format of a document.

2. Final Audience. The next thing I consider is the final intended audience for the document, often referred to as “end users.” In my work I’m usually designing for companies who need the documents to go to their own customers. Meeting the requirements of both entities can be a challenge, so I put a lot of thought into this step.

3. Format Requirements. These can come from both sets of customers and are critically important to meet, especially in the case of proposals. I make sure I have all format information stated before I start the framework design, including paper sizes, fonts, margins, color palette, and delivery requirements. Delivery requirements can be digital (PDF, MS Office) or hard copy (printing and shipping).

4. Rough Cut. The rough cut information comes from the high-level document headings. I start with each major section and work down two levels for a detailed rough cut, then set it aside to shove into the framework.

5. Framework. I use the previous information to develop the overall document framework and the initial layout. All page sizes, margins, fonts, and colors are set here. This is the fun part because I get to be really creative in meshing each of those aspects together.

6. Rougher Cut. After the framework is set, I add the rough cut information from Step 4 to see how the overall document is going to flow. This step shows any organization errors that exist, so it often includes some rework to make sure everything fits as it should.

7. Full Draft. After tweaking the document with the high-level rough cut, I add in the full draft text and graphical elements to check for page flow and overall appearance.

8. Tweak. Aesthetics are extremely important to professional documents regardless of purpose, so I spend a lot of time on this step so it meets my standards as well as client requirements.

9. Treats. A full format design is quite a bit of work, even for shorter documents. I like to enjoy a treat (such as a frosty Dr Pepper) for a job well done.

So basically, Steps 1 and 2 are the most important for setting the right direction. Even the prettiest document in the world will fail if you don’t know what the document is really for and who needs to use it. Don’t leave out Step 9, though. A designer with treats designs better formats.

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