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20 top tips for white paper designers

First time ever designing a white paper?

You can make that a smash hit or a total flop. 

It’s as simple as that.

White paper readers don’t demand anything fancy. They just want a document that’s easy to scan, easy to read, and professional.

If you give them that, they’ll likely scan it to pick up the basic ideas.

If you don’t, they won’t look at it for more than a few seconds.

And they certainly won’t be impressed with the company behind that document.

What do I mean by that?

These days, most white papers are read on the screen. Only a tiny fraction are ever printed out on paper.

For example, the Engagement Statistics from Contently showed that only 5% of long-form content is ever printed out. The other 95% of the time, visitors read it on screen.

That means your document must be easy to scan, easy to read, and look professional on the screen.

Easy to scan: Most people scan a page before they read it. They may even scan quickly through the whole white paper to decide whether to read it.

A good design shows the structure of a white paper at a glance:

  • All the main sections must be obvious
  • Headings must be bold and perhaps in a vibrant color
  • Each level (Heading1, Heading2, and so on) must stand out from the rest

Easy to read: After someone decides to spend more time with your white paper, they will start reading. Here’s where you can lose them quickly.

Good typography makes a white paper easy to read on the screen:

  • Text must be contrasty (hint: black on white)
  • Letters must be big enough to easily decipher (hint: 12+ point)
  • White space must be ample around the margins

Professional: This refers to a reader’s first and perhaps lasting impressions of the document, and thus the sponsor.

The sponsor’s branding should be evident but not overpowering. You don’t need to show the company logo on every page. Showing the logo on the cover and again in “About the Company” is enough.

Professional design gives a reader a positive lasting impression of the sponsor:

  • Every page must look “finished”
  • Every element must be placed with care
  • Everything should be consistent throughout: spacing, captions under photos, pull-quotes, everything

Don’t mix it up to be “creative”—the ones who will be mixed up will be your readers.

Why ruin someone else’s work? Why waste your client’s money?

Over the years, 7 of my 300 white papers have been totally ruined by amateurish, unreadable designs.

That’s only 2% or 3%. But every time, it hurt.

Here’s why:

  • I worked hard to make the text clear and the argument compelling
  • But all my efforts were ruined by an unreadable design
  • Plus, my client’s time and money was wasted

Any white paper design fail is completely preventable.

There are perhaps 20 sensible rules of thumb that any designer needs to follow to create a highly readable, professional, scannable white paper.

Here’s a table that lists 20 things I consider essential for every white paper design.

None of these are rocket science.

These are a combination of things I learned from Old School typographers many years ago, plus what I’ve noticed reading thousands of white papers, on-screen and on paper.


1Create a cover using a stock photo; ideally show the target reader at work
2Make text and headings large enough to be easy to read
3For readers over 40, make body text 100% black—NOT gray
4Devote one page to Contents; check that all page numbers are correct
5Make the entries in the Contents clickable links to jump into the document
6For easier scrolling on-screen, use 1 column, not 2 or 3
7Leave lots of white space; make the text column 60 characters wide MAX
8Make headings bold, with a visual hierarchy to help readers scan pages
9Include a visual break on every page; if nothing else, use a small graphic
10Follow paragraph breaks from the writer
11Break longer paragraphs in two by yourself
12Turn off hyphenation, and NEVER hyphenate a company or product name
13Use text organizers from the writer to break up the text: headings, bold, bullets, pull-quotes, sidebars, and tables *
14Don't leave widows at the top or orphans at the bottom of any pages
15Follow page breaks from the writer; it's okay to leave white space
16Include tasteful branding on every page
17Do not over-design; for example, do not make every bullet into an icon
18Do not make the white paper look like a flashy brochure
19Do not include a page of solid color; this wastes ink
20Inert metadata into the PDF so that Google can index the white paper *
* For more help, ask your white paper writer

First, people notice the graphics

Effective design is a skilful combination of text and graphics.

People tend to notice graphics first. That’s why you must create an engaging cover for any white paper.

For a white paper cover, I prefer stock photos to graphics. To me, a photo says “real world” vs a graphic that says “we made this up on the screen.”

Ideally, your cover image will show the target reader for that white paper, doing whatever they do in the target industry.

That way, anyone glancing at the cover can tell whether it’s for them or not.

They can see that at a glance, even from a thumbnail of the cover.

If the cover image looks inviting and relevant, a prospect will likely download the white paper and read it.

If not, they’ll click away to something else. And no matter how good the rest of the white paper is, your chance to influence that prospect is gone.

People really do judge a white paper by its cover.

Then they scan the text

More than any other piece of B2B content, a white paper must be read.

That’s where the typography of the text comes in.

Here are the essential rules that all designers should follow:

To be readable by anyone over 40, text must be 100% black.

People’s eyes begin to change when they hit 40. Most people start to need more light and more contrast to resolve small details.

That certainly happened to me, even though I don’t need reading glasses and I can still read tiny type.

Text columns must be 60 characters wide max.

When we read English, our eyes make a series of sweeping motions from left to right, capturing a set of letters and words with each motion.

When a line of text is 100+ characters wide, that forces our eyes to sweep over a long way and then return far back to the start of a new line.

That’s tiring. And that’s when our brains tell us, “Forget it! This is too hard to read. Do something else.”

Set text ragged right with no hyphenation

Some clients love how neat and tidy justified columns appear.

But the only way to achieve that tidy look at the edges is to add tiny slices of white space between letters and words.

White space AROUND your text: good.

White space INSIDE your text: bad.

The routine way to avoid rivers of white within paragraphs of justified text is to add hyphens. Unfortunately, the default setting for hyphenation in today’s design software is moronic.

I’ve seen desktop software break words like this:

  • sy-stem
  • did-n’t
  • Ora-cle
  • des-ign

Arghhhh! What an amateur-night show!

You can avoid rivers and bad hyphens by setting your text flush left (align left) without hyphenation.

Keep widows and orphans with their paragraphs

A widow is a single line of text at the top of a page. An orphan is a single line of text at the bottom of a page.

Remember: An orphan is left behind, while a widow must go on alone.

Even worse is a heading with 1 or 2 lines of text at the bottom of a page.

Any of these looks thoughtless and distracting.

Keep those families together! Check all your pages for widows and orphans and take care of them.

I’m not just being a purist: This stuff matters

Every bit of grey text, every bad hyphen, every widow is a distraction. Add up enough of those, and some readers will be jolted right out of the text.

Every time that happens, they’re tempted to switch their attention to something else. You may lose them for good.

White paper designers: Your job is to create pages that are easy to read. Make sure you do it.

Get the white paper design checklist

For a PDF checklist of these 20 tips for white paper designers, click here or on the thumbnail below.

Whether you’re a marketer or a writer, feel free to pass this checklist on to any designer working on a white paper.

Your readers will thank you. So will your client.

checklist for white paper design

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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