A guide to document design principles for trainers and TAFE teachers


From my experience, many new and existing trainers and TAFE teachers struggle with the design and development of learning resources. And some struggle with the basics of using software applications and developing basic documents. Over a series of articles, I will explore how to design and create basic documents.

In my first article titled, A guide to designing and developing basic document for trainers and TAFE teachers, I introduced the following 9-step procedure based on the ICTICT216 Design and create basic organisational documents unit of competency.

Also, in my first article, I established the need for a person to understand document design principles and have the skills to use software applications.

In this article I shall begin to explore document design principles.

I suggest that there is an ‘art and science’ to designing and developing documents. I consider myself as an ‘artist’ rather than a ‘scientist’. The information I provide is based on more than three decades of experience. During this time, I am sure that some of what I have learnt has been based on science (and some based on pseudoscience).

Before we can design a document, we need some principles to help and guide us.

What are the principles of document design?

An internet search for ‘principles of document design’ will give you many results. I like the principles of document design described by Ricky Telg. In his introduction to the topic, he says:

“Good design does not call attention to itself, but good designers use the principles of document design to make sure their layouts look pleasing and attractive. The principles of document design are balance, proportion, order, contrast, similarity, and unity.” [1]

[1] https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wc128 accessed 9 March 2021

Ricky Telg’s article provides a clear and concise description for each of the six principles.

I have decided to create my own list of document design principles. My three principles are:

  • Easy to navigate
  • Easy to read and use
  • Looks good.

Easy to navigate

We want our readers and users to easily and quickly navigate their way through documents that we produce. The following are five suggestions for making our document easy to navigate.

  • Headings and sub-headings
  • Page numbers
  • Table of Contents
  • Page breaks
  • Decimal numbering.

Headings and sub-headings

In recent times, I still encounter documents being produced without a title. We should always tells our readers what they are looking at. Heading and sub-headings are essential for document navigation.

If you are using Microsoft Word, I recommend using heading styles, and I recommend using a maximum of three layers of headings: Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3.

Page numbers

Add page numbers to your document. I like to use ‘Page X of Y’ format.

Table of Contents

It is a good idea to include a table of contents when a document has ten or more pages. However, documents with less pages may still benefit from having a table of contents if it would improve access of the information.

Microsoft Word makes it easy to insert a table of contents if you have used ‘heading styles’. Also, it would be important for you to have added page numbers to your document. If you are using Microsoft Word, go to [References] then select [Table of Content].

Access to information is quick and easy from the Table of Contents because each line item is a link. Ctrl + Click is used to follow the link to the place in the document where the heading is.

Page breaks

As an option, I sometimes insert page breaks so that every Heading 1 and Heading 2 will be at the top of a page. The aim is to make it easier for the reader to skim through the document.

Also, as an option, I sometimes insert page break so that paragraphs or blocks of associated information are not split over two pages.

Decimal numbering

Decimal numbering is another option. It does not always have to be used but is can be useful to help give clear sequence and hierarchy to your document. This is useful for long or complex documents with many headings and sub-headings. The following gives an example of decimal numbering.

As previously stated, I recommend a maximum of three layers of headings: Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3. For example:

  • 2. [Heading 1]
  • 2.1 [Heading 2]
  • 2.1.1 [Heading 3]

Easy to read and use


The documents we produce should be easy to read. This includes being written in plain English, and written in a style that is clear and concise. Terminology, abbreviations and acronyms can make reading difficult. Therefore, these things will need to be explained.

Readability is also determined by the document’s style and format, such as:

  • Font type and size
  • Page width and alignment
  • Bullet points and numbered lists
  • Tables
  • Charts and graphic organisers.

These will be covered by the next article in this series.


If we produce documents that are to be used, such as forms or checklists, then they should be easy to use. Ask someone to use these types of documents before they are implemented. Seek feedback about the usability of the document and how the document could be improved.

Looks good

The principles of document design aim to ensure documents are attractive. The following are five suggestions for making our document look good.

  • Simple and consistent
  • Uncluttered and balanced
  • Images and visual style
  • Colour theme
  • White space

Simple and consistent

My one most important guiding principle is to keep our documents simple. Simple can be defined as ‘plain, basic, or uncomplicated in form, nature, or design; without much decoration or ornamentation‘.

In addition to keeping our documents simple, we should keep the style and layout consistent throughout the entire document:

  • Left alignment
  • Same heading and sub-heading structure
  • Same font type and size
  • Same colour theme
  • Same image styles.

We should always think about the readers or users of the documents that we produce. We want them to find our documents to be easy to read and easy to use. Keeping our documents simple and consistent will be greatly appreciated by them.

Uncluttered and balanced

Uncluttered means that we do not include unnecessary things. Do not decorate your documents. Decoration can be a distraction to the reader or user of your document. Avoid having ‘dense text’ by keeping paragraphs short and insert a line space between paragraphs.

Balanced means having different elements in the correct proportions. Microsoft PowerPoint has some standard features that can help in creating balance. Guidelines and grid lines assist with positioning blocks of information, such as; headings, images, text, etc.

If you are using Microsoft PowerPoint, go to [View] and select [Guidelines], [Grids], or both.

Another feature of Microsoft PowerPoint are Smart Guides. These are red, dotted lines that appear and then disappear when repositioning objects. Smart Guides will help position objects evenly and easily. For example:

  • Same width
  • Same height
  • Same space between objects
  • On the same level
  • Centred.

A method for creating a balanced document is to mock up some different versions of the same document, then compare which one looks best. The time to create a different version may range from a few seconds to a few minutes. Brochures, posters and PowerPoint slides are the types of documents that benefit from being balanced.

The following are some examples of different versions of the same document.

Example 1

Do you prefer the page to have portrait [A] or landscape [B] orientation?

Most documents will have a portrait orientation with the exception of presentation slides. However, a document may include a diagram or table that would require a landscape orientation. A document can have a mix of portrait and landscape pages.

Example 2

In the above example, do you prefer A, B, or C? Why?

Often, there is no right or wrong way of laying out your document. Usually, there is more than one way to present information. Your challenge is to quickly create a document that looks good and is effective.

Example 3

In the above example, do you prefer the logo on the left, centred, or on the right? Which looks more balanced?

My preference is to locate an organisation’s logo at the bottom right corner of a document. For me, the next best location is the top right corner. These locations are based on how we read English. We start at the top left corner and our eyes move to across to the right, and pause for a moment. Then our eyes repeat this movement from left to right until reaching the bottom right corner. And that is when we stop for a moment. I like to reserve the top left corner of the document for the heading or title.

Example 4

In above example, do you prefer A, B, or C?

I think [A] looks good for a document to be printed on paper. I think [B] makes the reader work too hard reading from one side to the other, then back again. And I think [C] works best if being read on screen because the text and photos are all left aligned making all elements of the document flow.

The qualities of uncluttered and balanced can be subjective. However, I believe we should invest a little time and effort to make our documents look good. An attractive document is more likely to read and used. And a good looking document says to a reader or user that the creator of the document cared about their reading or using experience.

Images and visual style

A picture is worth a thousand words. Most people will respond quickly to visual images compared to a block of text. And people will have better retention of an image. Images may include:

  • Charts and graphs
  • Pictures and icons
  • Diagrams.

These will be covered by the future articles in this series. However, there are two things I want to briefly raise in this article:

  • Consistent visual style
  • Copyright compliance.

I recommend using a limited and consistent visual style throughout an entire document. I prefer to keep the images plain and simple.

In the above example, which icon would be consistent with the picture?

Importantly, we should comply with copyright law. This will be covered by an article dedicated to copyright compliance.

Colour theme

The internet has a lot of information about colour theory – some theory is based on science, some pseudoscience, and some make-believe.

It is common for colours to be used to represent types of information, convey meanings, or evoke emotions. Hot colours may represent energy or action. Cool colours may represent calmness.

I recommend using a limited and consistent colour theme throughout an entire document. You can use a standard colour scheme or create your own. Microsoft PowerPoint has an’eyedropper’ tool that can help select colours that match of images or pictures. These can be used as the basis for a colour scheme.

If you are using Microsoft PowerPoint, go to [Home], then select [Shape Fill]. The following example shows how the ‘eyedropper’ tool can be used to create a small selection of greens from the photo of leaves.

The above greens can then be used for charts, graphs, tables, and diagrams to give a consistent colour theme throughout the document.

White space

‘White space’ is any part of a document that is unused or space around an object. It helps to separate headings, paragraphs of text, images, and other elements of a document. White space avoids having dense text that is difficult to read, and it helps a document from looking crowded or cluttered.

In the above example, do you prefer A, B, or C?

White space can be used to balance the various design elements and better organise content to improve the readers or users experience.

In conclusion

This article has explored some principles of document design. The following summaries my three principles and identifies five suggestions for applying each principle.

My one most important guiding principle is to keep our documents simple. We should always think about the readers or users of the documents that we produce. We want them to find our documents to be easy to read and easy to use.

The principles of document design are based on art and science. Good design can be subjective. And usually there is more than one way to design documents that can be effective. We want our documents to look good but they must be readable and usable. It is a good idea to collect samples of documents that you like and create a ‘scrapbook’. This can be used as a sources of reference or inspiration for the document you produce in the future.

This has been the second of a series of articles about how to design and develop basic documents. Future articles shall cover:

  • Copyright compliance
  • Document style and format
  • Screen-based document layout.

I hope you have liked this article. And I hope you will ‘like‘ it.

I welcome your feedback and comments. Also, it would be great to hear about your experience:

  • What are some consequences of well designed documents?
  • What are some impacts of poorly designed documents?
  • Do you have other suggestions for good design?

Australia’s VET system

Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system is complex and forever changing. People studying for their TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification may find useful information on this website. Tap or click on the following ABC logo to find out more.

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This article supplements the TAE resources that have been developed by On Target Work Skills.

Are you an RTO, and do you want to purchase quality training and assessment resources for delivering the TAE40116 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment qualification?

Contact now!

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Training trainers since 1986

Author: Alan Maguire

35+ years experience as a trainer, instructional designer, quality manager, project manager, program manager, RTO auditor, RTO manager and VET adviser.

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