Newsletter Writers: Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

How do you want to create your publication?

You could start your design from scratch, determining all the margin and column settings, type styles, ruling lines, text and image placement, and so on. Or you could use a prepared desktop-publishing template that poses the design question in a simpler, fill-in-the-blanks format.

A template is a ready-to-use publication file, with spaces for you to insert text and graphics into a prelab layout. Most page-layout programs today come with a variety of templates, and additional template files are available in several program formats, both commercially and as shareware.


nlwsTo make the most of any template, you need to analyze it and understand why certain design decisions were made. If you understand the “why” behind the template, then you can customize the elements and adapt the design to fit your needs. And ultimately, by fiddling with elements in an established layout, you develop your own design vocabulary for future projects.

Let’s look at each aspect of a templated page and consider where adjustments may be necessary or advisable.

Page size. Nearly every template I’ve seen assumes a standard 8.5-by-11-inch page. That’s fine if you’re planning to reproduce your publication straight from the laser printer or with a copy machine, but it may be a significant blunder if you’re having the job reproduced in quantity by a professional printer.

Sure, any prim shop can print an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet. But is that the optimal size for your project? That will depend on a number of factors:

* The amount of information you need to convey. It may be more cost-effective to use a larger page rather than add pages. Or you may be able to economize by using a smaller sheet if you don’t need much room.

* The impact you are trying to achieve. When it comes to promotional pieces, bigger is often better. An oversize catalog that arrives in a big envelope will stick out among the clutter of the day’s mail. A bigger page may allow you to use larger graphic images, too. On the other hand, if you’re preparing a publication oriented toward ready-reference purposes (a member directory, for instance), then a smaller page size may be easier to store on a shelf or stow in a brief case.

* Your print shop’s equipment. Sometimes the difference of a fraction of an inch in a given dimension can cut your printing costs substantially, because different sizes work better on different printing presses. The only way you’ll find out if there are economies available in this area is to speak with your print shop expert before you go ahead and design the job.

If there are valid reasons for using alternate page sizes and templates are standardized on good old 8.5 by 11, we need a way to adjust page size accordingly. With an extreme size adjustment, an otherwise attractive template can become a poor choice. For example, a template that stresses long thin verticals, with several narrow columns and ruling lines, will lose its graphic punch if you lop off the bottom to fit it on a page that’s nearly square.

More often, though, you’ll be making relatively minor adjustments. The key to making these tweaks is changing the template proportionately. Now if you have a complex multicolumn template laid out for an 8.5-by-11-inch page, but you’re printing on 8-by-10-inch paper, the easiest answer is to trim away those outside edges. Otherwise you’re stuck adjusting all those column widths and the spaces between them by hand, plus resizing illustrations, ruling lines, and everything else.

Well, friend, you are stuck, because whacking away at the outside margins will guarantee that your page layout will look awful. If you like a template but have to adjust it for size, adjust each element roughly proportionally. Why roughly? Because sometimes the mathematically correct proportional adjustment is just too picayune to be practical. For instance, say you’re changing an 8.5-inch-wide template with two 22-picawide columns and a 2-pica space between columns to fit on 8-inch-wide paper. Mathematics would tell you to change the 2-pica space between columns to 1.882 picas, but nobody should ever have to deal with making changes of 0.118 picas except as punishment for the most flagrant design crimes. Instead, lop off 2 picas from the outside of each text column and be done with it.

Balancing design elements. Often you won’t have the same number or type of design elements found in the template for your own publication. The most common example involves illustrations, but it can apply to text as well. A template may have three articles on the front page of a newsletter, while you have only two. The banner at the top of the template page may include a bold, impressive logo, while your organization’s 1ogo is a feathery, fine-line affair. The template may include a powerful three-line headline for the lead story, while the best you can come up with is a single line.

Your central concern in customizing the tempTate to match the available content is to maintain the sense of balance on the page the designer has created. For example, the newsletter template shown here (taken from the now-discontinued PageMaker Portfolio Designs for Newsletters collection) includes a large, handsome illustration in the lower fight corner, and all you have available is a standard rectangular head shot of Fred, your organization’s chairman. Look at the layout and think about the function that illustration serves: It balances the bold initial capital letter in the left column and the bold ruling lines on the right and leads the reader’s eye diagonally down the page. Blowing up that boring head shot and popping it in to that spot just isn’t going to have the same effect.

So what do you do? Ideally you find another illustration to fill that spot. For instance, I’ve taken mediocre head shots and tinkered with Aldus Gallery Effects to turn them into graphically exciting illustrations.

Failing that, consider combining the head shot with a pull quote presented with a bold, interesting type treatment. That way Fred still gets his picture in the paper, and there’s enough graphic oomph in that lower right corner to preserve the attractive page balance the template designer intended.

Type selection. Templates are generic documents, meant to be readily usable by everyone who buys them. That means sticking with the most plain-vanilla typefaces to ensure compatibility: nearly always Times and Helvetica (or their genetic equivalents, usually dubbed Dutch and Swiss). I’m not one of those hoity-toity types who automatically turns up his nose at anybody who uses Times and Helvetica in his desktop-publishing projects. Since these two faces are used so frequently, type designers have lavished extra attention on making them as crisp as possible at 300 dot-per-inch resolution. And Times, designed for use in the Times of London, accomplishes the goal of high readability while accommodating lots of characters per inch.

When adapting templates for your own use, though, it’s time to experiment with type. Once again, you want to analyze the template functionally: What effect does a given type decision serve in the overall layout? For example, an advertising-layout template will frequently use a large, bold typeface for the leading headline and other typefaces from the same type family elsewhere in the ad. Perhaps the company name and phone number will be set in the same bold type in a smaller size, the company address in the roman (that is, nonbold) version of the same face, and subheadings within the body text in the italic version of the typeface. This interrelated type selection helps to hold the layout together. If you blithely come along and decide to draw on different typeface families for the headline, subhead, address, and so on, you lose the quality that attracted you to the template originally. Instead, you’re likely to achieve that distinctive ransom-note typography that prompted professional designers to sneer at desktop publishers in the first place.

Ruling line treatments. You can get an awful lot of design mileage out of relatively simple combinations of lines and boxes. Frequently I find interesting ruling line treatments in professionally prepared templates. Though an attractive ruling line treatment doesn’t get the attention it deserves, ruling lines can add an extraordinary amount of flavor to a layout–a design quality you should be sensitive to when working with prepared templates.

On a purely mechanical basis, you should analyze the way the designer has used ruling lines in the template so you can maintain this approach consistently when adding pages or revising existing ones. Is there a thin underscore beneath each caption? A combination of thin and thick lines setting off the table of contents? A ruled box around each illustration, or a drop shadow, or a shaded rectangle? Be sure to follow the ruling lines laid down to maintain the look you like in the template.

Keep in mind, too, that ruling line treatments can frequently be lifted from one template and applied to another. Does the line work in a particular newsletter template provide a classical flavor, or a modem flair, or an art deco elegance? Try adding that line treatment to a catalog template or an advertising template that lacks the design flavor you’re seeking.


Even when working with templates, putting together a desktop-published page is by no means a “no-brainer”–there is a big difference between using templates and using templates well.

One challenge involves technical competency. Pouting text into columns and graphics into frames will require some thought to make everything fit. For instance, you’ll have to watch out for bad breaks in the text. Leaving a single line at the beginning or end of a column is a design flaw that requires hyphenation or editing to avoid. You’ll also want to check for “rivers” of white space, which occur when there’s too much space between words, and those spaces link up to form unsightly lines of white throughout your text. These can also be corrected through hyphenation or editing adjustments, or by changing from a fully justified setting to ragged right.

You’ll also want to monitor the way the page-layout program imports your graphic files. Often the software will squash or stretch your illustration into the shape of the template’s placeholder box, distorting the graphic’s dimensions in the process. More likely, you’ll want to either crop the illustration to fit the space or adjust that space to match the size of your graphic. The knowhow required will vary from program to program, but the need to keep an eye on what the program is doing when it stuffs your graphic into a template is a given for all programs.


We’ve been talking about ways to customize standard, fill-in-the-blanks templates. But there’s another way to answer our basic design question: multiple-choice. That’s the approach taken in two innovative midrange page-layout programs: Microsoft Publisher running under Windows, and Aldus Personal Press on the Macintosh. Instead of simply delivering entirely prefabficared templates, both programs ask for your input and create templates tailored to your responses.

Personal Press, with its AutoCreate system, offers fewer customization questions than Microsoft Publisher, but lets you import your text and graphic files during the initial template construction process, which will expedite your work. Microsoft Publisher’s Wizards, by contrast, creates an empty shell for you to fill in manually, but its question-and-answer interaction is more complete, and the resulting designs are often very slick looking.

Are “intelligent” templates the wave of the future? I think so, but that doesn’t mean I’m letting you off the hook. Even using templates blessed with artificial intelligence, you’ll still have to come to the keyboard equipped with the real thing in order to use the tools at hand effectively.


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