The curse of designing with Microsoft Word

by Andy Lester

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I like Microsoft Word. It's bloated, but it's a good word processor. If I were creating paper documents all day, I'd be happy with it. There's just one thing I can't forgive it for.

Word actively dumbs down the design sensibilities of those who use it. Word makes it frighteningly easy for the casual business user to create bad documents. For example, Word ships with that memo template with "MEMO" in huge letters, as if "Memo" is the most important thing for the reader to see first.

The most annoying Wordism that gets out, though, is the randomly-aligned, too-small, all caps, Times New Roman sign. Here's a photo from, showing a perfect example of this design troll. There's an important message to be conveyed: The park is closed because of increased security. I imagine someone called down from on high saying "We need a sign to tell people the park is closed. Bob, can't you do that in Word or something?" Why didn't Bob just get a black magic marker and write it out? It would certainly be more visible from a distance.

With just a few small changes, the sign could be a good deal more useful:

  • Turn off the capitals. They make things harder to read.
  • Put some whitespace between "Park Closed" and "Due To Increased Security". In fact, drop "Due To".
  • Use a strong sans serif font. Word comes with Impact, which would be fine for this.
  • Use more of the paper. Why is there all that whitespace? Be sure to decrease the margins to 0.25 all around, so that you have more real estate to work with.
  • Increase the font size. You're not limited to the 24, 36, 48, 72 that are in the drop-down box. It's a combo box, so if 28 lets you fill up more of the paper, then use it.
  • Look at using landscape mode instead of portrait. It probably makes more sense for two two-word phrases.

If I could hand out copies of
Robin Williams' marvelous
The Non-Designer's Design Book, which just came out in a 2nd edition, I would. With a cover price of only $20, it's one of the best buys in the computer industry today. It should be required reading for anyone who creates documents of any kind.


2003-12-22 08:45:14
what does the user's mistake have to do with Word
I too am not a stranger to some of Word's crazy "features", however I fail to make the connection between Word's drawbacks and the posted sign. This is not a "Wordism", but is a mistake made solely by the user who created the sign. The user would have done the same using any word processor. If he had taken a moment to actually look at the sign, he would have realized that it was illegible from a distance.
2003-12-22 08:51:13
what does the user's mistake have to do with Word
True enough: It's easy to create bad documents in any word processor, just as it is to create bad programs in any programming language.

But that MEMO template still gets me!

2003-12-22 09:00:44
When Word is the wrong tool
The mistake here is using Word in the first place. Even though the sign is to be all-text, it'd make sense to do this in a drawing application, like the drawing mode of a "Works" application - then you'd put the relevant text into one or more text objects, position them on the page as you like, style them, add a border or a graphic, etc.

Some of this is possible in Word, but for a sign, you're not processing words so much as you're using words as graphic elements.

Word's use-cases seem to be badly overloaded. Its sweet spot is the 20-200 page styled text document, but instead it's used for one-page letters, signage, etc. I guess people use it so much, that they see it as appropriate for a wider range of tasks than it's really good at -- when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


2003-12-22 10:31:50
My Pet Hate
... is that people have become deluded into thinking Word is a "standard" format, so you can email it around for read-only use, use it to archive your electronic documents, etc. One of the organisations who publishes our company report, for example, /only/ accepts it in Word format.

What's wrong with this? Well, for starters, these are OLE container documents, which can include pretty much any kind of content. So to actually be able to view an arbitrary word document, you need every OLE viewer ever written...

In this 'standard format' role, it also gets used mistakenly to present information which you're not supposed to edit, leading to regular gaffes like version/undo info being included in a corporate document shown to the public.

I have to admit I'm a fan of PostScript for this stuff - RTF has the OLE problem via {\object}, XML is open to similar abuses (meaningless base64'd chunks), PDF has plugins. Formats for archival/interchange really need to be fully specified, and versioned rather than extensible, Word isn't even close.


2003-12-22 13:20:07
...OLE viewers are not required
They are only required if you need to edit the embedded object or whatever.

To view it all that should be needed is Word.


2003-12-23 03:15:24
You just proved your point
The sign doesn't say "The park is closed because of increased security". The sign says "ROAD CLOSED DUE TO HIGH SECURITY".
2003-12-23 08:31:09
what does the user's mistake have to do with Word
The ultimate response for this would be for Microsoft to include a nice task-oriented shortcut in the Start Menu saying "Create a Sign". But then they would lead you through a 20-step wizard and everyone's sign would still look the same, because they would get impatient and accept the defaults.
2003-12-23 08:39:03
what does the user's mistake have to do with Word
We already do have all the signs look the same. They're all in 24- or 36-point Times New Roman, with no whitespace, using whatever word wrapping happens to work out, with no thought given to word grouping.
2003-12-23 09:54:59
When Word is the wrong tool
How about Tex/LaTex encourages structure and tends to prevent typographical/design goofs - wouldn't help you making a sign though! Perhaps Freehand!?
2003-12-26 19:24:45
Hasn't anyone heard of Publisher?
It's too bad Office hasn't included Publisher with its application suite until now - this sort of thing should *always* be relegated to a desktop publishing app instead of a word processor. Publisher -> New Publication for Print -> Signs gives you a whole slew of great design choices. The No Parking sign would be great for this - even if you change "No Parking" to "Park Closed" it still automagically makes the text as large will fit, and there's room underneath for an explanation (also sized as large as possible). Total creation time: under a minute. Quality/readability: excellent.
2003-12-29 21:24:08
Even monkeys use tools
Andy, do you really believe that any tool can fix this kind of problem? I mean look, in my most recent trip to the auto mechanic, I had a pretty serious problem with my car so I thought it would make sense to choose the shop that looked the most professional. Sure, I was a little suspicious about the brand new marble floors and the feng shui design of the lobby (a little too clean for a mechanic if you ask me), but I had major work to be done, and these cats had all the high tech tools.

Guess what? I still ended up having to take the car back to them at least three of four times. Great tools couldn't make up for poor workmanship.

I think the problem in this case is not the tool, but the tool who wrote the sign. This person either a) didn't have enough time, or b) just didn't really give a rats ass whether anyone could read the sign or not.

I think you are being too optimistic in thinking that the latter is false. Whether it is swx, doc, ps, pdf, latex, is completely irrelevant if the operator doesn't care about what he or she is doing.

We like to talk about tools because, well, most of us are in the tool business. We feel like we can just build a better tool and then blame the users for not doing it *right* but we are guilty of the same tunnel vision that they are!