This is What Alignment Looks Like

Ideal alignment is when everything on a page or slide lines up with something else. This sounds pretty simple, right? But there are a lot of implications to consider.

First, let’s examine a weak layout. I drew in some red lines, based on the start and end of the title, down the page in order to illustrate how the rest of the content does not line up well.

page with misaligned text

You can see that the red line on the left doesn’t touch the byline or the main body text or the graph. The red line on the right cuts across the main body text and doesn’t touch the page number at the bottom. Now, some audience members *will* easily detect that this is the result of unintentional formatting. Others, who are less nerdy than me, tend to just get a general sense that the work is sloppy, without being able to put a finger on why. And that should be scary. No evaluator wants to give off the impression of doing sloppy work.

Below is an improved layout with better alignment.

page with consistent alignment

You’ll see here that content all lines up on the left, as it should. I simply adjusted the tabs and margins on the byline and body text to align under the left side of the header. I nudged the graph title’s text box to the left, and the axis as well, so it similarly aligned. On the right side, I shrunk the margin of the body text to get it to line up with the end of the title line (this is especially important if using full justification on body text). I even moved the tab on the page number to get it in line with the right side. Now the page looks more crisp, thoughtful, and professional (just as an evaluator should).

Of course, all this is made more complicated in slideshows, where content is presented via text boxes. Also, I’m really only addressing vertical alignment here. In slides, with text and pictures side-by-side, there’s horizontal alignment to think about too. But once you start looking specifically for alignment, you’ll see it everywhere. Make sure everything lines up with something else.

Report Layout in PowerPoint?

I was recently workshopping with a group of evaluators who had bravely submitted their work examples for group critique. In one instance, they had admitted that what I thought were text-heavy slides was actually a full written report. That’s right – they’d used PowerPoint for written report layout. Mind. Blown.

Then I started asking around. As it turns out, this is somewhat common. People find PowerPoint immensely easier to work with, particularly in terms of arranging text and graphics, than Word.

I get it. Totally. Evaluators don’t have time (or money) to learn fancy new software programs that make report layout simple. We’ve gotta work with what we have. And if it’s all going to end up as a PDF anyway, I suppose the software doesn’t make much of a difference. Just be sure to pay attention to two things:

1. Long reports need to be presented in portrait orientation. And this is possible in PowerPoint. Here’s a screenshot:

You can actually turn the orientation of your slides so that it looks more like a written report. In PowerPoint 2010, this is under the Design tab, within the Slide Orientation setting. Pretty cool, eh?

Why is this so important? Well, we are used to seeing slides in landscape (and the occasional chart or table) but we are used to reading long text in portrait orientation. And if we want people to be able to pay attention to what we are saying, rather than get distracted by internal questions like “Is she trying to give me a full report on PowerPoint slides?”, we have to work with the familiar.

2. Because PowerPoint works through textboxes, evaluators need to make sure the narrative text is set at an appropriate length.

Headers, call out boxes, and graphics are places where one can stretch the boundaries of margins in PowerPoint a bit more. But when placing the narrative text, it should be done such that the lines are no more than 8-12 words per line. (That’s 50-80 characters, depending on the font, for you folks that like to labor in long words.)

When our lines are longer than that (super easy to do when filling a landscape-oriented slide with a textbox), it gets difficult for the reader to track the text. Tracking the text is when a reader tries to finish one line and start the next. When the lines are too long, readers mistrack often, getting confused about which line is the next (and this interrupts comprehension and works against our intentions as evaluators).

So I’ll remain agnostic about the proper software program for report writing, as long as we can agree to pay attention to the components of legibility and comprehension research wherever we are.

Releasing the Evaluation Report Layout Checklist

So I made this lovely checklist of graphic design best practices as a product of my dissertation (Standing Rule: If you want to know the details of my dissertation, you’ll have to buy me a drink). It included input from a panel of graphic designers including Peter Brakeman, Christy Kloote, Chris Metzner, and Kevin Brady.

I’ve been having such a great time travelling around the country, giving workshops on the checklist and using graphic design to improve the way we communicate in evaluation. But I’ve gotten overwhelmed with requests for the checklist, so I’ve decided to make it freely available:
http://bit.ly/EvalReportLayoutChecklist

Enjoy! And do post comments on your use of the checklist. (Well, your nice comments anyway.)