letterheadDivide into foreground and background

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.

Pic­ture a sheet of let­ter­head. What’s in the fore­ground? If you said “the 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 law­yer 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. Too much space wasted in top mar­gin.
    Too much cen­tered text.
    Long name set in a wide font.
    Re­dun­dant and un­nec­es­sary words.
    Ad­dress block dense and hard to read.
    Ad­dress block too large com­pared to body text.

  2. Sec­ond of­fice ad­dress and date po­si­tioned ar­bi­trar­ily.
    Times New Ro­man—how dis­tinc­tive.
    Line length too wide.
    Left and right page mar­gins too small.
    First-line in­dents used with space be­tween para­graphs.

  3. Sig­na­ture block placed arbitrarily.

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. Top mar­gin smaller.
    No more cen­tered text.
    Un­nec­es­sary words re­moved.
    Ad­dress block set in Ad­vo­cate.
    Hor­i­zon­tal rule same width as text of letter.

  2. Ad­dress lines sep­a­rated with hard line breaks.
    Times New Ro­man re­placed with Eq­uity.
    Para­graphs aligned left.
    Let­ter starts higher on the page.
    Line length nar­rower; left and right page mar­gins larger.
    First-line in­dents removed.

  3. Sig­na­ture block aligned left.
    Sec­ond of­fice ad­dress used as footer.

The ad­dress block at the top is set up with a ta­ble:


Name, etc.
AddressPhone, fax, email

No­tice how the hor­i­zon­tal rules in the header and footer de­fine a rec­tan­gle that all the page el­e­ments re­late to, im­prov­ing the over­all co­he­sion of the layout.

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 they don’t. I’ve worked with neigh­bor­hood shops that have done a great job and with 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) but a cus­tom off­set-print­ing job wouldn’t be eco­nom­i­cal. (In­ter­net print­ers are also good for busi­ness cards.)

But 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—cyan, ma­genta, yel­low, black—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. Col­ors printed with process color will con­tain a no­tice­able dot pat­tern; col­ors printed with spot color will not. This dot pat­tern can also make small text printed in process col­ors look gritty. The only safe color is black.

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 law of­fices. 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. In par­tic­u­lar, don’t use sys­tem fonts—a tell­tale sign of cor­ner-cut­ting. With the money you’re sav­ing on print­ing, get some­thing from font rec­om­men­da­tions instead.

  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 var­ied 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. A good graphic de­signer, at what­ever price, is a great asset.

The most com­mon er­ror made by clients of graphic de­sign­ers is spend­ing too lit­tle time se­lect­ing the de­signer and too much time mi­cro­manag­ing the de­sign. In­stead, spend all the time you want choos­ing a de­signer. But then get out of the way and let the de­signer do their thing. You’ll get bet­ter results.

These days, any de­cent graphic de­signer has an on­line port­fo­lio. Re­view­ing port­fo­lios is the eas­i­est way to find po­ten­tial de­sign­ers. (Port­fo­lios.aiga.org can be a good start­ing point.)

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 don’t ask a graphic de­signer to work for free, or for a dis­count, or on spec. (You wouldn’t.)

Be­yond the de­sign ad­van­tages, a graphic de­signer will of­ten know of good lo­cal print­ers and will co­or­di­nate 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.

by the way
  • Con­sen­sus kills. If you work at a big firm, ap­proval au­thor­ity for cre­ative work should be vested in a small group of peo­ple and not sub­ject to pop­u­lar vote. You’ll never please every­one, so there’s no point in trying.

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