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3 Most Common Design Mistakes When Creating a Family History Book

Ready to create your family history book and leave awestruck relatives in your wake? Then you’ll want to avoid making these three design mistakes with your next project.

The thing with mistakes is that we all make them. It’s often because of them that we improve our skill level and the quality of what we’re creating.

When I was 12, I taught myself to bake. I read a patty cake recipe in The Women’s Weekly and decided to make it. It was a simple recipe, so when I asked for permission to give it a go, Mum’s words were, “Why not, what could go wrong?”. My response was a cheery “Nothing, Mum!” but it should have been “Um, plenty?”.

Plenty could go wrong, and several things did. While the ingredients were few and the steps straightforward, the recipe assumed that I’d probably baked before. It didn’t tell me things such as:

  • Ovens are different (gas vs electric vs fan-forced)
  • Cooking times vary
  • For even cooking, it helps to turn the tin.

Over time, I worked these things out for myself and perfected those patty cakes for my appreciative family. That first batch, though? They were a little uneven and a tad overcooked.

While that recipe in The Women’s Weekly in 1984 didn’t tell me what to watch for, it’s a different story today. In our technology-based world, we view our recipes online, and the review is a great place to pick up tips on adjustments people made to ensure it turned out great.

And book design is similar. When you create something for the first time, you’ll benefit from using a guide or template.

I’ve been a designer for a couple of decades and a family history enthusiast for longer than that. So I believe that beautiful design and family history are a natural partnership.

Three easy-to-make design mistakes when creating your family history book or binder page

If you’ve never baked a cake, then you’d use a recipe or box mix, right? So if you’ve never designed a book, then you should use a layout plan or template.

The layout plan is your recipe to create a book from scratch, and a template is when you don’t have the time or patience to do that. That sounds easy to make, but you don’t know where to find a layout plan, nor can you find a family history template that suits your stories or budget.

You aren’t a designer and probably have no desire to be one. But there is something about creating your family history that is special and powerful. You’re the storyteller of your family history.

The good news is that being aware of these three design mistakes means you can avoid them no matter what program you use to layout your family history keepsakes.

Mistake 1: Not enough white space

This mistake often happens in family history keepsakes – narrow margins, tight line spacing and inconsistent space around all the elements on a page.

It happens because the creator is trying to increase the amount of content per page to create smaller documents.

I get it. Printing is expensive, and the more pages you add, the more that family history book will cost to produce. Slashing the margins might seem like the best way to save a few pages, but it’s causing more harm than good.

Let’s see what that looks like.

Example of one of the common design mistakes, not enough white space.
Example of one of the common design mistakes, not enough white space.

What do you think? It’s hard to read, right? Maybe you’re thinking it’s not too bad and you could read it. Okay, so you struggle through. Now give it to a relative who gets antsy as soon as you say the words “ancestor” or “family history” and see how far they get. You want to encourage them to learn the stories, not give them another reason to run the other way!

Insufficient white space reduces a page’s aesthetic appeal, making it hard to read, which creates a poor experience for your reader. And when things are hard to read, people generally don’t.

Let’s make a few adjustments to increase the space for

  • Margins (space between the page edge and the content)
  • Line spacing (space between lines in a paragraph)
  • Para-spacing (space before and after a paragraph)

And space out the different elements on the page.

What do you think? Those few adjustments make quite a difference to the page, don’t they?

Mistake 2: Walls of text

Next up on my list of design no-no’s is walls of text. Now I don’t mean that a page can’t only be text or that your pages shouldn’t be full of content. They can be both of these things.

You should avoid pages and pages of text using the same font family, same colour, and relatively the same font size. See below for an example of what that looks like.

Example of a common design mistake - walls of text in a family history document
Example of a common design mistake – walls of text in a family history document

Pages and pages of large blocks of text are uninviting and intimidating to the reader. They make it difficult to read, and it’s unlikely that anyone other than an avid reader would make an effort.

It’s easy to do. You only have a few family photos, so most pages will just be text. And you aren’t a designer; you use the default styles in the program. 

The good news is that you have quite a few options to break up the blocks of text and create an easy-to-read document.

  • Use one font family for the headings and another for the body text (like I do on this blog)
  • Create a heading hierarchy using different sizes, aim for a minimum of 2pt difference between each heading
  • Add headings and sub-headings 
  • Use two to three columns on text-heavy pages
  • Add infographics, diagrams, tables, graphs, charts, maps, and stock images
  • Create text treatment for quotes, questions, and other key text to draw attention to important content and break up the page
Example of using different font families and text treatment with stock photos and infographics to break up text.
Example of using different font families and text treatment with stock photos and infographics to break up text.

Mistake 3: Justify all paragraphs

The last in the list of design mistakes to watch out for is justified text. It’s a popular text alignment choice as many people think it makes the document easier to read. In fact, the opposite is true.

While using the justified text alignment on your paragraphs can make your document look neater, it makes it harder to read. Because when you justify the text, the gap at the end of the line is distributed between the words.

Let’s have a look at an example of what happens.

Example on the left has left alignment applied to a paragraph, and the example on the right has been justified
L–R: Example of a left aligned paragraph compared to the same text that has been justified.

The jagged lines created when text is left-aligned may make it look a little unsightly, but it also improves the readability. The reader can scan the text more quickly and easily pick up where the new line starts.

The significant gaps between the words created by justification interrupt the reading flow, and it’s then more likely the reader will lose their place.

Now you might think that you can reduce the gaps within the paragraph by adding hyphenation. Not a good idea because too many hyphens disrupt the flow of the text and make it hard to read. I think you can see the pattern developing here. ????

My last tip on text alignment is to also avoid centring large blocks of text. Use this alignment sparingly and reserve it for text treatment of quotes (or similar) if it matches the design.

Avoid these design mistakes to improve readability

The purpose of your family history pages isn’t only to provide riveting stories but also to present them in a way that is inviting to others.

To do this well, invest time before you begin making and implementing all the document formatting decisions. You’ll want to determine your approach for:

  • Settings for margins, line spacing and para-spacing
  • Fonts to use for body text
  • Heading style hierarchy include font family, size, colour, and number of headings
  • Text treatment of quotes, critical text, case studies etc.
  • How and when you’ll use infographics, diagrams, tables, charts, and graphs
  • Stock images to use to supplement your family photos
  • Number of columns to use — 1, 2, 3 or a combination of all
  • Setting all styles to left alignment
  • Turning off hyphenation, if automated.

Always set up your document before adding content. Also, always apply styles to text instead of manually formatting it. Implementing these steps into your process will make it easier to be consistent with the look and feel of your family history keepsakes.

Being aware of the above design mistakes and setting up your document to avoid them is the first step in improving the readability of your family history keepsakes. You’ll soon be creating books and binders that your family want to read.

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