Understand the fundamentals of typography, page, and web design; use visual language to convey meaning; use design to assert authority and organize work for readers.

"Design is a fun word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works."
-Steve Jobs

We live in a culture where images and document design are used aggressively to convey meaning. Today's writers use images to do more than enrich their texts: Page design, layout, font choices, photographs, clip art, screenshots, animations, and video convey meaning.

People use the term design in two major ways:

  1. When some people use the term design, they mean ornamentation--a few baubles you might add to a text once it's completed. For these people, design is an afterthought. Content can be separate from form.
  2. In contrast, others view design from a rhetorical perspective. Instead of considering design to be ornamentation, they view design as a way to convey meaning--as a form of visual language.

Thanks to changes in how people read documents, design is more important now than ever before. In the past, discussions regarding the use of visuals, white space, fonts, and charts occurred primarily in technical writing classes. But today's easy-to-use word processors and Web editors enable writers to have unprecedented control over the look and feel of their documents. Graphic editors, images freely available on the Web, animation tools, streaming multimedia--these resources are transforming writing in interesting and powerful ways.

This doesn't mean that your teachers expect you to compete with the Web designers at CNN.com. And this doesn't mean your teachers will privilege substance over style. In fact, college teachers are chiefly concerned with your use of words and ideas. They have an ear for carefully crafted sentences and passages. The higher grades will go to those who develop worthwhile ideas.

Even so, writing is taking a visual turn. As modern-day readers become overwhelmed with information, writing is becoming "chunked" into deductive columns, bullets, and lists. Increasingly, people are using charts, graphics, and pictures to tell significant parts of their story. Ultimately, your writing will gain authority when it is designed well. Your professors and prospective employers are likely to be impressed by sound document design.


Understand conventions for citing information.

Different academic disciplines and journals have unique formatting guidelines for citing sources and formatting research reports. Remarkably, there are hundreds of different formatting guidelines for referencing sources. This section briefly summarizes the most popular citation styles used in colleges and universities:

1. MLA

Humanities professors commonly require citations to be formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) guidelines. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines set forth by the 7th edition of The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

2. APA

Education and social science professors commonly ask students to follow the APA (American Psychological Association) style for citing and documenting sources. APA differs from MLA in a number of ways, including the overall structure and format of the essay, but the major distinction between the two is APA's use of the year of publication, rather than the page on which a particular quotation appears, for the in-text citation. APA requires in-text publication dates because of the particular importance of a study's currency to research reports in the social sciences. Information in this section pertains to the guidelines established by the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.


Understand design principles that are important for both paper and web documents.

Contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity--these are the basic cornerstones of design according to Robin Williams, author of the frequently cited Non-Designers Design Book. Minimalism and visuals are equally fundamental design concerns. These design principles apply to both paper and online documents, as suggested by Edward Barrett, Deborah A. Levinson, and Suzana Lisanti, authors of The MIT Guide to Teaching Web Site Design:

"Other, more wired authors write panegyrics to digital media and the Web as if digital media were a new, miraculous life form. But in fact rhetorical principles that have defined communication over time apply equally well to the Web: a process of defining purpose, audience, and style to suit your objectives."


Readers notice contrasting elements. Changes in font, color, and layout are examples of contrasting elements. To promote focus, contrast should be dramatic. Yet this doesn't mean you should align garish, bright colors with soft pastels.
To develop your "design eye," take a moment to analyze the design of documents you see each day. Look at newspapers and magazines, evaluating how they use contrasting colors and fonts to draw your eye to their advertisement or story.

design18The screen shots in the left column below provide interesting examples of contrast used in document design. You can double-click the screen shot to enlarge it or visit the document by double-clicking the document title in the right column.
In 10 IT Goals, notice the right column. The contrast between the longer middle column attracts your eye.

In the Do Not Call Federal Registry, note the use of contrasting colors--blue, green, black, and white--to highlight and contrastdesign24NEW information. The box below the black and then green line, the one that says "Do Not Call" is set off from the rest of the text, so users can quickly accomplish their goal: clicking the button necessary to begin the process of entering phone numbers in the do not call registry. The contrasting colors are used consistently throughout the site: blue and green are used to highlight hyperlinks. The left column is set aside from the text block on the right to also help with navigation. Even the visual--the phone over the house--uses all four colors.


Repetition refers to repeated visual elements, such as use of color, shape, columns, headers, and callout boxes. Repeated design elements help readers understand how you have organized the work. As they scan the document, they can anticipate content based on your design.Although readers dislike reading passages with words repeated incessantly, they enjoy repetition as a design element.design2NEW

Note in this example from Greenpeace how the repeated green text blocks and green headers draw your attention.

In word processors, you can create helpful repetition by using a template. A template enables you to set the font type, size, and style for each heading. For example, by tagging a top header as "level 1" or tagging a passage "body text," you can ensure continuity throughout your document. Then, if you decide to change a design element, such as the font of your footnotes, you just modify the footnote tag.
On Web sites, repetition is especially important because readers can easily develop vertigo--a sense of not knowing where they've been or where to go. Most Web editors provide templates or themes to enable you to repeat design elements easily.


Alignment refers to the positioning of elements. For example, texts can be left- center- or right-justified. Text columns, tables, or pictures can line up equally. Captions can be anchored next to images.

design4NEWIn this example from the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site note the careful alignment of information. Three aligned images create interest at the top of the page, all carefully aligned. Below these pictures, green bars are used to separate the main page into categories of information: Current Initiatives, Key Issues, and Top Stories. To the left, using contrasting colors, thedesign8 button bar presents major hyperlinks, while the right column provide links toCurrent Topics.

In Why Open Source? note the use of the level 2 heading, the left-justified text beneath the header, and then the alignment indent again for subpoint 1. As you might guess, the writer uses this left-alignment scheme throughout the document.


Proximity refers to chunking information together that belongs together--and, conversely, separating information that belongs elsewhere.design14
Obviously, you don't want your work to appear like a jigsaw puzzle. Instead, you can create focus and highlight your message by organizing similar elements together. By grouping related information, you can reduce clutter.

In this example of poor proximity, note how the jumbled annotated links create confusion. Your eye isn't sure how the items are related.


In Minimalism in Web Design, note Veronica Martin's use of horizontal lines to chunk information. Each section of Martin's text is about a screenful and chunked by a horizontal bar.


"Every word and phrase should have to fight for its life." -Crawford Kilian


Conciseness is a virtue in any printed document. On the Internet, brevity is a necessity. Image-rich introductions can be very impressive. When you first come on to a site, a Macromedia Flash introduction can be a fun way to learn about the site, but as a general principle, you should value brevity and simplicity over sophisticated, animated, image-rich introductions that require software plug-ins.

Today, the field of Web design is seen much more as a craft than an art, where function takes precedence over form and content is king. Innovative designs using fancy navigational icons are generally seen as an annoyance standing between the user and what he or she seeks. Large graphic eye-candy, no matter how pleasing, is simply wasted bandwidth. Today's Web designers are also information architects and usability engineers, and a user-centered design approach is the key to a successful Web site. Instead of constantly requiring users to relearn the Web, sites are beginning to look more alike and to employ the same metaphors and conventions. The Web has now become an everyday thing whose design should not make users think. Preface, Web Style Guide, 2nd Edition

Impatience characterizes the behavior of most online readers. Many readers will bypass animated introductions. Today's readers want a focus on the content; they want Web design to be invisible--i.e., not something you have to think about.


While it's true that some people configure their Web browsers to view the Internet with graphics turned off, most people expect and appreciate extensive use of visuals ondesign16 Web pages. Increasingly, this tendency to use visuals is altering the look and feel of traditional texts.design20NEW

In Lost Boys, by Amy Benfer, notice the playful use of the image to fuel the author's argument: Girl power has utterly overwhelmed boy power.

In this example from the EPA's Explorer Club, a large image map attempts to track the interest of younger readers. As the user scrolls over the various images, text pops up, revealing to users that selecting the image will take them to a different part of the site, such as the game room, the science room, or the art room.


Whenever you incorporate outside sources into your own writing, you must provide both in-text citations (within the body of the paper) and full citations (in the works cited page). The in-text citations point your reader toward the full citations in the works cited page.

That's why the first bit of information in your in-text citation (generally, the author's name; if no name is provided, the title of the article/book/webpage) should directly match up with the beginning of your works cited entry for that source.

"Formatting In-Text Citations (MLA)" was written by Jennifer Yirinec and Lauren Cutlip

How might you format your in-text citations so that they're more compliant with MLA guidelines?

You already know why MLA formatting guidelines are an important part of an academic paper, but let’s face it—who can remember all those rules about when and where certain citation information is requisite and when and where particular punctuation is appropriate?

1. Is the heading in the upper left-hand corner of the first page? 

2. Does the heading include:

  • Your name?
  • Your Instructor's name?
  • The course name?
  • The date?

3. Does the paper have an original title (other than something like "Final Paper")?

  • Is the title presented without being bolded, italicized, or placed in quotation marks

4. Does the paper have 1" margins on all sides?

5. Is the paper written in Times New Roman (or another standard font your professor allows) and in 12-pt. font?

6. Is everything double-spaced (including any notes and the works cited page)?

7. Are your last name and the page number in the upper right-hand corner of each page (0.5" from the top, or inserted using the "header" function in Word)?

8.If you've used outside sources, do you have a works cited page? Is it titled "Works Cited" (without the quotation marks)? Does it have a page number (that follows the last page of your paper) and your last name?

9. Are the entries in your list of works cited in alphabetical order by the author's last name?

  • Does each source have an entry on the works cited page?
  • Are all direct quotes in quotation marks?
  • Do all paraphrases and summaries clearly indicate that they come from other sources?
  • Does each in-text reference include a parenthetical citation that includes the author’s last name (unless it is obvious from the context of the sentence who you are referencing) and the page number from which the information was taken?
  • If a quotation is 4 lines or more, is it block-quoted? (i.e. double-spaced, indented 1 inch from the left margin)
  • Have you clearly indicated where you found all information you did not previously know?
  • Does your works cited page conform to MLA format?

Click the "Read More" below to view the article diagram. 

Line Break______________


Look at the sentences below, each of which contains an incorrectly formatted in-text citation. Specify the error made in each sentence; then, write a new sentence in which the in-text citation is correctly formatted.

1. The parlor metaphor of writing describes writing as entering into a conversation, as in arriving late and a parlor and talking to guests who have been there long before you have (7).

2. In “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love,” Jim Corder explains that “Everyone is an argument.” (1)

3. David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day takes place at a school in Paris (Sedaris 1).

Please click "read more" for full list of resources and video.


As the first major section of the document, the title page appears at the top of the first page.


The title page is comprised of a few key elements:

  • Running head (or shortened title) and label
  • Page number
  • Full title of the paper

Learn how to format the References page of your paper in APA style:


The abstract acts as the second major section of the document and typically begins on the second page of the paper. It follows directly after the title page and precedes the main body of the paper.

The abstract is a succinct, single-paragraph summary of your paper’s purpose, main points, method, findings, and conclusions, and is


Beginning at the top of a new page, the main body of the research paper follows the abstract and precedes the References page. Comprised of the introduction, method, results, and discussion subsections, the main body acts as the third major section of the document and typically begins on the third page of the paper.

How should section and subsection headings be formatted in APA style?

A research paper written in APA style should be organized into sections and subsections using the five levels of APA headings. APA recommends using subheadings only when the paper has at least two subsections within a larger section. Notice how sections contain at least two smaller subsections in the example below:

When should footnotes be used?

The APA suggests two instances in which footnotes may be used:

  • Content Footnotes: to offer further information on a topic that is not directly related to the text. As content footnotes should be concise, avoid writing lengthy paragraphs or including extraneous information.
  • Copyright Permission Footnotes: to cite adapted or reprinted materials in the paper, especially data sets, tables, and quotations that exceed 400 words. Consult the APA Publication Manual (6th ed.) for more information about copyright permissions.

How should a paraphrased passage be cited?

When paraphrasing a passage, it is essential to express the ideas of the author in your own original words; however, the author’s message and meaning should always be preserved.

Charges of plagiarism can be avoided by including the proper citation of the work you are drawing from in your paraphrase. The APA requires a paraphrase to include the author’s last name and the work’s year of publication, but also suggests that the page number of the original text be included.

Let’s look at an example of a cited paraphrase:

Original text: “A yellow flower is yellow because it reflects yellow light and absorbs other wavelengths. The red glass of a stained glass window is red because it transmits red light and absorbs other wavelengths. The process by which we perceive the colours of natural objects around us can therefore be described as a ‘subtractive’ process” (Pender, 1998, p. 14). [1]

Paraphrase: Pender explains that through subtractive process, humans see the color of objects based on the wavelengths of light that are absorbed by each object (Pender, 1998, p. 14). [1]

Note: The paraphrase maintains the ideas of the original passage while expressing the message in a new voice. The original author is also cited properly.

How should a summarized passage or work be cited?

When summarizing a passage or work from another writer, briefly outline in your own original words the major ideas presented in the source material. As brevity is the key feature of a summary, it is essential to express the main concepts of the original passage in as concise a manner as possible. Consider using a summary—rather than a short or block quotation—when preserving the original wording of the source material is not necessary for the reader to understand the ideas under discussion.

Let’s look at an example of a cited summary:

Original text: “In their everyday life, people generally assume that they see the world around them the way it really is. When camping in Colorado, hikers believe they see the horizon as dotted with snow-covered mountaintops. When laying on the beach in North Carolina, sunbathers believe they see pelicans flying above the breaking waves. And these people would nearly always be right. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine not believing that the sights and sounds delivered to conscious awareness by perceptual systems are accurate renderings of the outside world. It would be difficult to know how to act if one could not trust one’s senses to accurately report what the world outside is like” (Balcetis, 2010, p. 77). [2]

Summary: In Social Psychology of Visual Perception, Balcetis (2010) argues that because humans rely on the sensory information received from their body, they form preconceived beliefs about their surroundings that manifest as imaginary visual occurrences (p. 77). [2]

Note: The summary maintains the ideas of the original passage while concisely expressing its main concepts. The original author is also cited properly.

How should multiple sources be cited in a single parenthetical reference?

If multiple works need to be cited in the same set of parentheses, simply arrange them in alphabetical order by the author's last names, or the order in which they would be listed in the References page. Use a semicolon to separate each work from the next one.

Let’s look at an example of multiple authors being cited:

In the past thirty years, Parkinson’s disease has been written about extensively by recognized figures in the field (Dorros, 1989; Duvoisin, 1991; Hauser & Zesiewicz, 1996). [3][4][5]

Note: This example includes the in-text citations of three works arranged in alphabetical order by authors' names, separated by semi-colons, and enclosed in parentheses.


See also:

[1] Pender, K. (1998). Digital colour in graphic design. Burlington, VT: Elsevier Science & Technology.

[2] Balcetis, E. (2010). Social psychology of visual perception. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis.

[3] Dorros, S. (1989). Parkinson’s: A patient’s view. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press.

[4] Duvoisin, R. C. (1991). Parkinson's disease: A guide for patient and family. New York, NY: Raven Press.

[5] Hauser, R. A., & Zesiewicz, T. A. (1996). Parkinson's disease: Questions and answers. Coral Springs, FL: Merit.

What punctuation should be used to indicate omitted words from a direct quotation?

When a portion of a sentence (or sentences) is not included in a quotation, three ellipsis points should be typed in place of the omitted material. However, ellipsis points do not need to be included at the beginning or end of a quotation; the reader will assume that additional material is present in the original text before and after the quotation.