Design Your Document with CRAP

Design Your Document with CRAP

Technical writers are diligent wordsmiths focused on delivering purposeful content. We prioritize accuracy, grammar, and organization, so we may not think that we need to worry about the design of our documents. But good design is easier than you think. In fact, it’s as easy as CRAP.

CRAP was coined by designer Robin Williams to relay four basic design principles:

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Alignment
  • Proximity

Learning how to recognize–and maximize–these principles will help you add visual interest to your documents and crank up their readability.

Contrast

According to Study.com, in graphic design, contrast refers to the presentation of two elements of the design in opposite ways. Contrast is useful for creating a focal point, giving objects greater visual weight, and balancing the image. Skillful use of contrast can improve your document’s readability in multiple ways. It can:

  • Increase the readability of text
  • Direct attention to specific elements on the page
  • Alleviate reader fatigue
  • Make your document more visually inviting

Placing the colors of the text and background in stark contrast causes the text to stand out and makes it easier to read. Generally speaking, you want a clear difference in value or brightness. Black text on a white background is the most obvious example, but things don’t have to be so, well, black and white.

A change in color can create a dramatic difference in contrast and readability.

Changing the color or weight of a piece of text creates eye-catching contrast that alerts readers to important information. Differences in size indicate relative importance—think headings and subheadings. Contrasting can also prevent reader fatigue by breaking up long blocks of text.

While contrast can be a powerful tool, slight differences, like a subtle change in hue, can confuse the eye and tend to make the document look amateurish. For example, a typeface difference of at least a 2-points between heading types makes the importance of each heading level easily discernible.

Repetition

Skillful use of repetition unifies a document. Examples of good use of repetition include:

  • Graphic elements
  • Typefaces

Repeating these elements throughout your documents can connect disparate but related elements. You’re probably already doing this with headings. Adding and repeating a graphic detail, such as a bar of color at the top of each new section, can reinforce the importance of a heading level while adding visual appeal.

Alignment

This one seems obvious, but it’s important to remember. Lining up text and graphic elements creates visual appeal and improves readability. Our eyes prefer orderly layouts. Tight alignment creates less work for the eye, making the text easier to follow. According to Maddison Designs, aligning elements tightens the design and eliminates the haphazard effects that can occur when items are placed randomly.

Alignment can even convey meaning. Alignment among disparate elements suggests a deeper connection.  You can also use alignment to communicate informational hierarchy. Think multi-level lists.

Proximity

Whenever possible, keep related elements close together and unrelated elements apart. The distance between them should make relationships among elements obvious. Grouping your text into neat chunks is a simple way to show your reader how information is organized. You can also use proximity to guide your reader’s attention. For example, groups of related elements can tell them look to the footer for contact information or see the left margin for navigation tools.

Proximity doesn’t always mean that elements have to be placed together, just that they should be visually connected in some way. For instance, you can use:

  • Font
  • Point size
  • Color
  • Font styles (bold, italics, regular)

Form Follows Function

Sticking to the rules of CRAP can greatly improve the readability and visual appeal of your document. Just remember that good design should service your writing; it should never be the focus of your document. Apply it skillfully to boost understanding, but the aim of technical communication is always presenting accurate, accessible information.

Keith Asfour is an aspiring technical writer with a background in public education. He is currently a candidate for the Professional Certificate in Technical Writing at the University of Washington.

Keith Asfour

Keith Asfour is an aspiring technical writer with a background in public education. He is currently a candidate for the Professional Certificate in Technical Writing at the University of Washington.