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How to make a visually awesome handout

October 27, 2015
sample syllabus page
Sample syllabus page

Are you in a typewriter rut? Are you finding it hard to move past class handouts that consist exclusively of black text on a white background? Don’t worry, there are ways to pull yourself out!

I’m not suggesting random clip art or silly decorations — the advice below is based on widely accepted visual design principles. Your goal is to develop a more readable and efficient document, whether it’s a quiz, an outline, a syllabus, a set of instructions, or a form. The best part is that the only tool you really need is normal word processing software!

  • Insert Images – use them to convey meaning more fully than text alone (… a thousand words). Use the best quality drawings, charts, photos, icons, and graphics you can get your hands on.
  • Use Lines and shapes – separate sections with lines. Put hollow or transparent boxes and ovals around key blocks of text; use color-filled shapes behind. Colors don’t have to be neon; try faded pastels.
  • Embrace the space – use empty space to organize the document and make items stand out. You don’t have to fill the page! Reducing margins to a half-inch may give you some breathing room.
  • Add Headings – use them to clarify, provide structure, and make it easier to scan for information.
  • Show Contrast– use highly contrasting colors and sizes to make items stand out. When there’s little contrast (like pale green on a gray background) items are hard to distinguish.
  • Be Consistent – always use the same font, color, shape, size, or alignment for a given situation (like bold blue Calibri for headings). Speaking of alignment: never center paragraphs of text!
  • Keep it Simple – less is usually more – use a limited amount of text, a small color palette, well-selected images, and no more than two fonts (readable ones – not decorative or script).

Three-minute handout makeover

To prove that this kind of thing is not ridiculously hard to do, here’s a quick overview of how you can use Microsoft Word to compose the handout shown above (part of my syllabus for spring). Full disclosure: in real time, this took a little longer than three minutes – but not much!

A sample layout

One simple way to incorporate several of these principles is to lay out a document in three columns — as many websites do. Use the left column for headings and the middle for body text. On the right side you can feature quotes, images, links, and other goodies (see the quick-and-dirty mockup at right). You can do this with a table in a word processor. Don’t be afraid to use landscape mode when it’s more efficient.

Color issues

When you incorporate color, there’s a danger that part of a handout will become unreadable to a color-blind student. To check a document, make a screenshot image of it and upload the image to a color blindness simulator, like Coblis or Vischeck.

ColorissuesIt’s also possible that frugal students who print a color handout in black and white will encounter readability issues. Before handing out a document, print it on a monochrome printer. If this exposes any problems you can fix them or simply warn the students.

To help in either of these situations, use highly contrasting colors when placing one next to another. Pattern fills can also distinguish one item from another.

Handout-building software

You should be able to add any of the elements suggested above using a full-featured word processor. Microsoft Word has tools for adding color, images, lines, shapes and more. If you’re more cmfortable with the graphics features of a presentation tool like PowerPoint, that’s another possibility. People who really want to go to town, though, will need desktop publishing software like Adobe InDesign. It’s harder to use, but you’ll have more control and flexibility.

Have you moved past the typewriter rut? We’d love to hear your story – or see a sample – in a comment.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2021 2:13 pm


  2. Hamid Abdipourasl permalink
    May 28, 2020 10:42 am

    I really appreciate you for the nice topic and useful content.

  3. July 16, 2019 11:14 pm

    Wonderful beat ! I wish to apprentice whilst you amend your website, how could i subscribe for a log
    web site? The account helped me a applicable deal. I have beren a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided shiny clear concept

  4. Tiffany Clores permalink
    February 17, 2018 4:19 am

    what application do you prefer to used in making
    your handout?

  5. Serene Paul permalink
    August 11, 2017 8:41 pm

    I’ve been making handouts for years and I never thought about colour-blind students. Great tip!


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