Data sheets: the importance of graphic design

The next stage in our look at data sheets is the design. I’ve seen so many over the years where the manufacturer has had a rush of blood to the head and completely forgotten about the target market and what they want from a data sheet. Remember, the publication is for information, and is aimed at a professional audience. Clarity is the order of the day – gimmicks are not.

Let’s get the main issue out of the way: colour. While judicious use of colour is almost mandatory in a good design, colour in the background is madness. It’s not a sales brochure, for a start, but even sales brochures have to be printed out by customers nowadays. And printing out vast areas of colour on all but the most expensive office printers is expensive and/or messy. What if the customer only has an inkjet and ends up with a crinkly piece of paper which looks embarrassing in a project folder? Or what if the customer’s printer isn’t excellent resolution, and renders thin text on a colour background almost illegible?

So a white background it is, and if you can, even avoid panels and bands of solid colour. They’re really not adding to the functionality of the document.

A4 is obviously a sensible standard for paper size, but if you’re involved in the North American market, use a design which prints out well on 8×11-inch paper (wider but shorter, so it’ll probably end up scaled down by 5%). If you need to distribute printed copies in North America, and your market sector demands it, a separate 8×11-inch print run could be an idea. Leave a wide left margin on the front page (right hand pages) and a wide right margin on the reverse (left hand pages), to allow the data sheets to be hole punched without removing a critical piece of data.

As for the typography, you may need to conform to a company standard, but if not, the only criterion should be clarity. A solid, functional typeface makes a lot of sense, especially one which is widely available. With the expansion of web fonts, you can also match printed publications to web pages now. Don’t drop down to 6pt text to squeeze everything in. If you need to expand to 2 or 4 pages, “so be it”, as one reader told me. And try to keep the text short and sharp, using bullet points and tables by default.

Use headlines and sub-headings that cover your main points; readers will scan these first. Read them on their own: do they summarise the main points of the data sheet? Also, if you’re working with search engine optimisation in mind, consider the key search terms for the product and use these if you have the opportunity.

Finally, before sitting down to specify the design of the data sheet, spend an hour randomly looking at other companies’ efforts – there are millions online. Some people have done a really great job, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Next: Images and illustrations on your data sheets

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