How to keep your newsletter design simple – be inspired by newspapers

Words You Can Use
My simple, basic design for a single-page newsletter

If you’ve never had any design training, learning how to put together a newsletter page can be a painful and time-consuming experience.

This blog aims to give you some basic pointers to help you minimise the amount of time you’re spending on it – giving you more time to deliver for your customers, and run your small business.

Newspapers are a great place to start to look at the sort of design you’re going to need to use to create newsletter layouts which won’t detract from your content.

They’ve honed their styles over decades, and they know how people react to the pages they’re printing.

The Washington Post has recently been involved in a study of the best methods to use to design a page, and it found there’s one key message: keep it simple.

Readers react best to clear, simple, and impactful layouts.

Here’s my guide on how to keep it simple for small business newsletters. I’m looking at a one-page newsletter here for ease of explanation, but the principles remain the same whether you’re producing a one-page or eight-page newsletter.

Decide what the main story on the page will be.

Do this before you start to design. Ask yourself what the most important story is, and ensure it has an impactful image to go with it.

This is your ‘lead’. It should be the longest read on the page.

What else do you need to include on the page? In my basic example, I’ve created a page (using Adobe InDesign) which has two stories and a picture for each of them.

What other elements will be needed? Each story will need a headline, each picture will need a caption box. Does your newsletter need a logo and date?

Once you have a clear idea of what needs to be included, you can start.

How many columns will you need?

My example has three columns, and I think four should be your maximum per page. Columns help to organise the way your eye processes text. Newsletters without any columns at all often look ramshackle and difficult to read. Too many columns, and your newsletter will be reminiscent of an early 20th Century newspaper with small classified advertising columns.

I’ve contrasted my columns in my ‘lead’ with text run across two columns as if one in the secondary story.

Where does your eye naturally start to read?

The answer is at the top left hand corner of the page. So after you’ve put in any headers needed, date lines and headlines, that’s where your text should start.

In my example, I’ve placed an image on the right hand side of the page, and run text from the top left, then underneath that image, as the eye naturally moves from the left to the right on the page.

You could run an image across the whole width of a page and start text from the left underneath that, too. The aim is to have text which flows from one column to another without significant interruption. A design which placed a picture in the middle of two, unconnected columns of text, one on the left one on the right, starts to disrupt the natural reading process. It jars the reader.

Which text fonts and sizes should you use?

There are many fonts available. A general rule is that for a print newsletter, a font with serifs (extra flourishes on letters eg. Times New Roman) is a good thing as it helps the print reader’s eye. For the web, use a sans serif font for the cleaner look. Try them out on your text characters to find those which suit your project.

Headline fonts should be considerably larger than that of your body text. They can be bold, italicised or coloured. But, beware. Simplicity is the aim. Too many flourishes will detract from the overall look.

If your body text is at 12 point, for example, you could have a 48 point headline.

Don’t mix too many different fonts – two or three should be enough for all your elements. And don’t pick fonts which are too alike. Oddly, that triggers a subconscious response in the reader that something looks wrong.

Secondary elements on the page should have a smaller headline than your ‘lead’. Choose a smaller point size.

Use good images well.

Impactful images are a great way of getting your readers to sit up and take notice of your content.

Use them well – a postage stamp sized image is pointless.

To ensure you can use them in a large enough size, check how many pixels per inch they have. For a print newsletter which will be sent to an external printer, work on the basis you need a 300ppi image. For a laser printer, you’ll need 200ppi. For the web, you could use a 72ppi image.

How will your design divide your page?

There are two basic methods – a vertical design, and a modular design.

Vertical divides the page up vertically between left and right. You might have one story on the left of the page, for example, with a photograph, and two smaller stories on top of one another on the right.

My example here is a modular design – it divides the page up into sections between the top and bottom of the page.

There’s no right or wrong. If your impactful image is a longer, vertical image (what photographers call portrait shaped), a vertical design might suit you better.

My image is rectangular – what photographers call a landscape shaped image.

How can I use colour?

Keep to a simple colour palette – use one or two colours. Think about what matches well together, and with your basic body text colour. I’m a big fan of the classic black body text. Purple text on a red background is probably not the look you want for your newsletter.

I’ve used a cyan colour in my date (which also has a black ‘stroke’ around it, an edge around the letters), plus a deeper blue fill colour for my secondary headline box, with white text on top. In newspaper terms, that’s what we call a ‘reverse’.

It’s a good way of separating elements on a page, as is the box I have drawn around the ‘lead’ and image.

Write headlines to fit.

If you see a lot of white space at the end of a headline, that’s off-putting to the reader, and not the best use of precious space.

Write to within one or two characters of the end of the line. A character is a letter, or a space between words. If you have two lines of headline – what we call two ‘decks’ – and the words cannot fit exactly, the top deck should be longer than the bottom.

Headline writing is an art. It’s all about practise.

Use short, active words in a headline. Think about what you want to say. A strong, simple headline which fits is far better than one with a tortuous pun, or one which leaves too much white space at the end (we say ‘that headline’s windy’.)

I’ve used some of my last blog as the text for my page. You can see that far fewer words will be needed than in my blog. It’s important that articles written for newsletters are written to the appropriate length. Cutting out the secondary story and using more words with the ‘lead’ would have a large impact on the attractiveness of your newsletter page.

Could your article be segmented into different pieces so that one piece could be used in a secondary story slot? It’s worth taking the time to think about that.

At the end of the blog, I’m including a front cover for a newsletter I designed which shows what you can do with simplicity, a great image, and a splash of colour.

I hope this blog helps you get back to basics with your newsletter design!

Words You Can Use Limited
My simple cover for a four-page newsletter with bags of impact



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