letterheadPut the foreground in front, background in back

Not every­thing on a page is equally im­por­tant. As I men­tioned in max­ims of page lay­out, I think of doc­u­ments as hav­ing a fore­ground, con­tain­ing the most im­por­tant el­e­ments, and a back­ground, con­tain­ing every­thing else. Ty­pog­ra­phy com­mu­ni­cates this dis­tinc­tion to the reader visually.

For in­stance, pic­ture a sheet of let­ter­head. What’s in the fore­ground? If you saidthe ad­dress block,” then I’m guess­ing you pic­tured a blank sheet of let­ter­head. But let­ter­head is never used blank. So more ac­cu­rately, the fore­ground con­tains the text of the let­ter. The back­ground con­tains the ad­dress block.

Yet let­ter­head of­ten suf­fers from two prob­lems. First, the ad­dress block (the back­ground) dom­i­nates the page, up­stag­ing the text of the let­ter (the fore­ground). Sec­ond, the fore­ground and back­ground don’t re­late to each other visually.

  1. Body text in dan­ger of be­ing crushed by mas­sive ad­dress block.

  2. Line length too wide; page mar­gins too small.

  3. First-line in­dents and space be­tween para­graphs need­lessly used together.

  4. Screen-ori­ented sys­tem font (Ver­dana) used for a printed document.

  5. Too much cen­tered text.

  6. Too much space wasted in top margin.

  7. Gen­er­ally pompous and overbaked.

This let­ter­head can be im­proved by mak­ing the text of the let­ter more promi­nent, re­duc­ing the weight of the ad­dress block, and mak­ing the over­all lay­out less disjointed.

  1. Ad­dress block & body text set in more leg­i­ble, ap­pro­pri­ate fonts (Con­course and Eq­uity).

  2. Body text vi­su­ally oc­cu­pies more space than the ad­dress block, re­in­forc­ing fore­ground–back­ground relationship.

  3. Let­ter starts at top of page.

  4. Sim­pler, cleaner two-col­umn layout.

  5. No cen­tered text.

  6. Pom­pos­ity eliminated.

The finest let­ter­head comes from let­ter­press print­ers, who use old-fash­ioned metal type. Every ma­jor city sup­ports at least a cou­ple of let­ter­press print­ers. Most of their busi­ness comes from wed­ding in­vi­ta­tions and sta­tionery. It’s more ex­pen­sive than other meth­ods, but the re­sults are nonpareil.

Next up are off­set print­ers. (Off­set is short for off­set lith­o­g­ra­phy, the process used to make 99% of printed goods.) Off­set print­ers range from high-end com­mer­cial out­fits to tiny neigh­bor­hood shops. I’d like to as­sure you that price and qual­ity cor­re­late, but in this case, they don’t. I’ve worked with neigh­bor­hood shops that have done a great job, and big print­ers that have se­ri­ously goofed. Ask a col­league to rec­om­mend a printer. If the work isn’t right, ask to have it reprinted.

Many off­set print­ers of­fer graphic-de­sign ser­vices as a con­ve­nience to their cus­tomers, much the same way that bowl­ing al­leys rent shoes. These de­sign ser­vices are usu­ally fine un­less you want the fin­ished work to con­tain more than a mod­icum of orig­i­nal­ity or fi­nesse. In that case, hire an in­de­pen­dent graphic de­signer. (More on that below.)

What about in­ter­net off­set print­ers? (Mean­ing, web­sites where you up­load a PDF, which is then printed and shipped back to you in a week or so.) I’ve been pleas­antly sur­prised by the qual­ity of their work. I can rec­om­mend them for jobs where you need a small print run (e.g., less than 500 pieces) and a cus­tom off­set-print­ing job wouldn’t be economical.

In­ter­net print­ers keep their prices low by com­bin­ing mul­ti­ple print jobs into one. This means your pa­per choices are lim­ited. Also, every print job is done in process color, which in­volves four ba­sic ink col­ors be­ing com­bined to sim­u­late other col­ors. Most com­mer­cial full-color print­ing is done us­ing process color. But for sta­tionery, it’s usu­ally best to use spot color, where each color gets its own print run. (See color for more about the differences.)

The cheap­est op­tion is to make let­ter­head your­self with your laser printer. If you think that would be anath­ema to a ty­pog­ra­phy snob like me, think again. In fact, I’m not ashamed to ad­mit it—I only use laser-printed letterhead.

Why? I never mail a let­ter if an email or PDF will suf­fice. I use so lit­tle let­ter­head that it’s never been eco­nom­i­cal to have it pro­fes­sion­ally printed. I imag­ine that de­scribes an in­creas­ing num­ber of self-em­ployed peo­ple. So for them, some tips.

Laser-printed let­ter­head of­ten looks flat and cheap. There­fore, you must over­come the three tell­tale signs of laser-printed letterhead.

  1. The ty­pog­ra­phy is ter­ri­ble. That’s been cov­ered above—take the same care with your let­ter­head ty­pog­ra­phy that you would if you were go­ing to spend $5,000 print­ing it.

  2. It’s printed on ba­sic white printer pa­per. Splurge on some deluxe pa­per at your lo­cal spe­cialty-pa­per store. (I use Crane’s Crest cot­ton pa­per. It’s not cheap.) Get off-white or ivory pa­per—pure white tends to high­light flaws in the laser print­ing. Choose wove pa­per, which is smooth, rather than laid pa­per, which has a ribbed tex­ture. Laser toner af­fixes bet­ter to a smooth sur­face. (More about this in print­ers and pa­per.)

  3. The name and ad­dress are printed in black. Com­pared to black print­ing ink, black laser toner has a char­ac­ter­is­tic lus­ter, and is usu­ally closer to dark gray than black. Heighten the il­lu­sion by print­ing the name and ad­dress in a color—some­thing pale and non­con­tro­ver­sial. Color laser print­ers also use process color, so run tests to make sure the color you pick doesn’t have a gritty dot pat­tern. Gray­ish-blue tones of­ten work well.

Graphic de­sign­ers are every­where, at every price point. As with off­set print­ers, I wish I could say that price and qual­ity cor­re­late, but they don’t.

The most com­mon er­ror made by peo­ple hir­ing graphic de­sign­ers is de­vot­ing too lit­tle time to se­lect­ing the de­signer, and too much time to cri­tiquing the de­sign work. In­stead, spend all the time you want choos­ing a de­signer. But once you choose, get out of the way and let the de­signer do their thing. You’ll get bet­ter results.

These days, any graphic de­signer worth their salt has an on­line port­fo­lio. Re­view­ing on­line port­fo­lios is the eas­i­est way to find po­ten­tial designers.

It’s fine to ask a graphic de­signer to show you sam­ples of work they’ve done for sim­i­lar clients. It’s also fine to ask for a de­tailed pro­posal with de­liv­er­ables and bud­get. But I rec­om­mend get­ting de­tailed pro­pos­als from only two de­sign­ers, and at most three—af­ter that you’ll be hope­lessly confused.

It’s not fine to ask a graphic de­signer to work for free, or for a dis­count, or on spec. If you don’t like the fee, you can al­ways find some­one cheaper. If you’re wor­ried about pay­ing for work you don’t like, put ap­proval mile­stones in the con­tract that give you the op­tion to ter­mi­nate for a pro rata fee.

Be­yond the de­sign ad­van­tages, a graphic de­signer will of­ten know of good lo­cal print­ers and will work with the printer to get the job done—so you don’t have to.

If you hire a graphic de­signer to make your let­ter­head, al­ways test sam­ple de­signs by print­ing out a real let­ter, or have the de­signer mock one up. You can’t de­cide on let­ter­head just by look­ing at the name and ad­dress block in iso­la­tion. As these ex­am­ples il­lus­trate, every­thing has to work together.