Whenever sweeping innovation changes the way people receive and interact with information, existing modes of communication need to get with the program in order to stay vital. Despite the recent popularity of smartphones and tablets, the printed page is still alive and well in many circles. However, the difference between traditional crafts that hold onto their appeal despite technological advances and those that fade into the history books is slim. As a result, several of the most renowned media outlets in our culture are looking to the future by experimenting with new methods of getting the story to the reader, often with powerful and moving results.

A great example comes from a couple of years ago, when the New York Times made waves with a fully interactive article on the Tunnel Creek avalanche. One of the first interactive journalism features, it gained widespread acclaim for its masterful design. Since then, the Times and several other news outlets have taken the banner for design in journalism, and incorporated a multimedia approach for noteworthy articles where the story was too big, too beautiful, or too tragic for words alone to portray.

NY Times Snow Fall
NY Times Snow Fall

New emphasis on the creative configuration of design elements when presenting stories effectively online illustrates the increasing need for eye-grabbing ideas on the printed page as well. When it comes to printing marketing media for your small business, triggering the interest of your reader through their emotions can make all the difference between a new customer and a lost lead. Knowing how to impress and engage the modern eye and guide it through the entirety of your printed message is not an easy feat, but you can learn a lot by watching the latest in digital media that are doing it best.

Feel the Flow

Flow is among the most important organizing principles when considering how your design will look, and the type of narrative you are presenting with your information will influence the way you lay out your print. “Compositional flow determines how the eye is led through a design,” according to Smashing Magazine. Your reader is guided by the eye, tracking along by “where it looks first, where it looks next, where the eye pauses, and how long it stays.” All of this can be managed by the way you set up the page around your content. The F-Pattern layout and the Z-Pattern layout, as illustrated below, are common patterns that demonstrate eye movement when reading text on a page.

F-Pattern, Z-Pattern
F-Pattern, Z-Pattern

One of the finer examples of creatively building a narrative through flow digitally comes from The Boat, an illustrated interactive story produced by SBS. The layout of the text and images change with the story to accommodate what the story presents and the story pace on an interactive level.


While your printed page won’t be able to move to create a flow, the way you line up your words in columns and around images will affect the way the page is read. If you are putting together a presentation with a lot of information, columns framed with graphics can also help break up the amount of time the eye spends on each line and ease eye fatigue. Creatively using text wrap around the contours of a shape as illustrated with the guitar body in this InDesign tutorial makes an eye grabbing effect that augments the natural flow of the eye and causes the reader to interact more intimately with your design.

Using images and graphics to channel the reader along through your text can speed up or slow down the pace your reader moves, slowing them to study graphs and tables or moving them along quickly with catchy and engaging images. A creative demonstration of this can be found in another NY Times piece “Riding the New Silk Road” where locations along the route is mapped to photos that tell the story in living color.

New York Times' Silk Road
New York Times’ Silk Road

Mix Your Media

On the other side, using a full page image overlaid with information creates an engrossing effect that pulls the reader into the full experience of your design. Combining text blocks with wide images or allowing the image to serve as a backdrop for your design creates a scene for your story, and several outlets have used this technique to create incredibly evocative stories that add to the mind’s eye when reading. The Boat once again demonstrates this perfectly with its engaging interactive narrative.

The Boat by SBS
The Boat by SBS

Integrating images, graphs, maps, and tables—media, in short—into your design should be done in such a way that it feels both natural to your flow and useful, not just tacked on for visual effect. Be wary of unnecessary media, however, as the effect could be messy or tedious for the reader if overdone. Adding visual media to your print should fill gaps in the story, illustrating what is crucial to your objective. Good imaging should be well-timed in your overall design and adds visual effect that empowers your message rather than “bells and whistles” that distract. Another SBS story (shown below) illustrates how using the right complementary media can enhance a story.

SBS: Junko's Story
SBS: Junko’s Story

Make the Most of Your Components

Effective interactive narratives–like The Silk Road and The Boat mentioned earlier in the article–is user-friendly, engaging, without being overwhelming. The design elements are assembled in a way that will pull the reader into a narrative and guide them through towards a target–like a funnel. It’s smart to remember when assembling your print that each little element matters; think much in the way a UX designer will analyze the buttons and signups on a webpage. Everything you put on the page will either add to the experience or take away from it. Here are some of the more important items to consider:

Shapes. One key design element that can affect how the reader engages with your print design are shapes, known in the design world as forms. “All forms carry some kind of meaning,” Steven Bradley at Vanseo Design writes, “though no one form is better than another at communicating meaning. Your choice in which forms to use, however, is an important consideration in communicating the right message, your message.” Slight changes in curve, orientation, or shading can radically change the look of your logos and tables, and change the way your reader interacts with it.

And while there’s no real surefire guide to what every type of circle or arrow means in design, there’s a wealth of online resources and research from the graphic design and UX community that can guide you when making a decision for your small business print.

Fonts. You may not realize it, but the shape of each letter you write is a form, and it has an effect on how your reader interprets your print. Typography is a powerful way to tell the reader what you’re all about, and different fonts will highlight the personality of your print. Or, as Ted Hunt at the Daily Egg so eloquently puts it, your font choice will convey your message in a certain light. Knowing a little more about fonts and choosing the one that describes your business can make a big difference.

Similarly, the tiniest changes of typography, such as font size, boldness, and color, will affect whether your message blends into the composition or stands out. This gives you a lot of control over how you want to manage your message, but used improperly can result in your text getting lost in your print. The Boat is a perfect example of how to properly use a variety of font styles without distracting the reader from the story.

SBS: The Boat

Colors. The colors you choose to accent your print are more than just an aesthetic choice. People engage with different colors on a deeper unconscious level too, and considering how color interacts with human psychology in your print is a smart decision. An observation with quite a few of the interactive journalistic pieces mentioned earlier on is that they tend to be dominated by a neutral or monochromatic tone. And wisely so, as this allows the creator to emphasize certain areas of the story with just a slight shock of color.

Just remember: too much of a good thing can distract, too. There is a very real possibility that these elements applied too densely can overwhelm the message you’re presenting, or as one Medium noted regarding Snowfall: “Almost every example of ‘snowfalling’ that I’ve seen in action puts reading second to the razzle-dazzle. Can you even remember what happens in Snowfall?” Always be judicious about what is necessary for the story and what isn’t.

Bringing It All Together

Combining the right visuals, text, and tones in your print is how you create interactivity on the static page and give people something that they feel inclined to share with their friends. Using space is perhaps your last and most important consideration, as it draws each element of your design together in concert.

This is something that National Geographic has used effectively for decades, combining good quality content with full page images, maps, and graphic visuals in magazine spreads to put the reader exactly where they need to be to understand the fullness of the story. You can employ similar tactics in your presentations and other printed matter by keeping track of how you manage white space and using images and various elements effectively to pull everything into one flowing cohesive piece.

The way we receive information is undoubtedly changing, but that doesn’t mean that the old forms can’t change with the times. Studying effective printed matter and web design, particularly when it comes to storytelling, can help you create superior presentations perfectly curated for your business—no matter what your needs may be.