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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Controlling Eye Movement with Design

I read an article today called “Designing Your Email Around the Letter ‘F’” in the 5/16 MailerMailer Email Marketing Blog (a post written by Jean).

I know that email design doesn’t pertain to design for commercial printing. Or does it?

The article posits that most people scan email. I’d go a step further. I’d say that readers scan printed direct mail that arrives in their mailbox in a similar manner. By scanning, the article means skimming from left to right in search of content that “resonates” with the reader’s interests.

People have shorter attention spans than they used to because there’s so much more information out there. If you’re a marketer, and you want your message absorbed, you have only a few seconds to grab your reader’s attention. Knowing how readers skim, or scan, content can help you do this.

The Science Behind Scanning

The MailerMailer Blog article references the Nielsen Norman Group’s study on eye movement in reading web-based material. The study notes that readers spend:

  • “69% of the time viewing the left half of the page and only 30% viewing the right half”
  • “80% of their time looking at information above the page fold”

Another study on eye movement by Jakob Nielson describes a discovery using eye-tracking heatmap technology. Researchers found out that the reader’s eye follows an “F” pattern, scanning the title first (the top of the “F”), then moving down a bit and reading the subheads (a bit shorter “left to right” movement than for the headline, akin to the middle bar of the “F”). Then the reader scans down the left side margin looking for content of interest.

The Implications for Digital Design

“Designing Your Email Around the Letter ‘F’” has implications for digital designers. These include:

  1. placing important information where people will look when scanning copy
  2. placing important information at the top of the page
  3. using subheads, bulleted lists, and bold type to catch the reader’s eye

In short, one should design digital marketing to conform to the reader’s habitual eye movements.

The Same Rules Apply to Design for Commercial Printing

This article brought back memories of graphic design texts I had read in the early 1980s that described the designer’s task as one of collecting, organizing, and presenting material on a page spread. The concept in these print books pertained to posters, brochures, page-spreads—any and all custom printing.

These graphic design books, the titles of which I don’t even remember anymore, taught the budding designer that readers start at the top left of a page and work their way down. Adding a graphic element such as a large initial cap or a photo can show the reader where to look first, second, third, and so forth.

In fact with a bit of thought–and with attention to the conscious placement of columns of type, areas of white space, headlines, and such–a designer can lead the reader around the page spread, revealing content in precisely the order that the designer has chosen. This actually helps the reader (rather than manipulates her/him), because it groups editorial and design elements, using visual devices to show the reader what is important and what elements are similar. It simplifies the morass of information and gives it a hierarchy of value.

Knowledge Empowers Digital and Print Designers

When I compare 1980 to 2013, the first thing that comes to mind is not that we now have electronic media but that we now have far more information to process. We have computers, tablets, and smart-phones. We read blogs, emails, and text messages, as well as magazines, print books, and newspapers. We need ways to contain the information so we can digest it.

Knowing how the reader’s eye moves (and how you can direct the reader’s eye) empowers you, whether you design for digital media or commercial printing. You can add color to an important visual element and draw the reader’s eye right to that element of the page layout. Or you can position a small item strategically in a large expanse of white space, and the reader will look there first.

Knowing how the reader scans a page, and understanding how to leverage this knowledge with strategic use of color, type, photos, and illustrations will allow you to surprise and delight the reader, grab his or her attention and interest, and present your brand’s message in its best light. You only have a few seconds.

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