Design tips for building templates in Word

7 months ago by

Our Friends over at Timplates are making the lives of designers just a touch easier – here are handy tips for how to build design templates in Word.

This article is in partnership with Timplates.


We design and build lots of Word templates, which means that over time we’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to layouts and how to end up with a template that is simple and intuitive for a client to use.

As part of our process, we’re always happy to provide feedback on a design, specifically about how it will work in Word (or PowerPoint). Here’s some of the tips we often give and why we usually start with the build of a letterhead template.

Why start with a Letterhead?

We find it useful to start any template journey with the simplest template you’ll need. In most cases that’s a Letterhead, but any short form template will do (a memo, minutes, or just a generic blank document). One of the reasons to have a suite of Templates is to ensure document consistency, and the best way to achieve that is to ensure that all the templates share the same themes and styes (where appropriate). Setting up a simple template to be used as the basis for all following templates is an efficient way to structure a template project.

What are some design tips?

There are a few things that can be factored into an initial design, that will make the template build and use much easier. It’s possible to build quite complex layouts in Word, however the life of a template really only begins when its passed onto the users, and it’s at this point: knowing the end users abilities and what they want to use the templates for, that some key designs decisions (or compromises…) can make the difference between a delightful and a difficult template. 

So we’ve narrowed it down to the following key items:

Even margins – when you change the page orientation in Word, it rotates the whole page, so if you have a portrait layout with a wide left margin, then when you change that to landscape, you will have a large top margin. This can be tricky, especially if you wanted a nice wide left margin to accommodate address blocks. So we’ve found that if there is a chance that the page will be reoriented to landscape, it avoids disappointment if the page margins are all the same.

11 point Normal text and smaller type in tables – Table styles can accommodate type formatting, but whether or not it works is influenced by the formatting of the Normal style. In this case, if you want table text to automatically be a different size to Normal, or Body text, then the Normal text has to be 11pt. Normal style, if its any other size, the Table text won’t change size.

Automatic colour – As with the 11pt text, table styles can be used to set type as a different colour, (for example white text in a Header Row), but only if ‘Normal’ style is set to ‘Automatic’ colour. From a design point of view Normal text will just appear as black against a pale background.

Both of these things can be got around by creating a set of dedicated paragraph styles for use in tables only, but that’s the sort of complexity that we think is good to avoid.

Six brand colours – you can only have six brand colours that will automatically load into a chart. You can add custom colours with some simple XML coding, but they won’t flow into a chart. Nominating six colours as part of the design means you don’t have to pick and choose during the build.

Follower page – easy to overlook, but usually there is nothing to stop page one text overflow pushing out to the next page, so its useful to include a follower page in your design, even if you decide it should be the same as the first page.

One column layout – although its simple to set text in two column (select the relevant text and go ‘Layout > Columns > Two), its much easier for end users to manage single column layout. Also screen readers can’t easily read two columns, so if Accessibility is an issue, then one column is best.

Custom fonts! – Custom fonts are the trickiest aspect to custom template building, because how they work and display is dependent on how they fonts have been built. Not all fonts will correctly display all the different weights, spacing or even be visible at all. In addition to that, custom fonts will only work if exactly the same font is installed on all users computers. So we recommend creating a design that uses a PC system font. 

Build decisions

Having created a watertight design, you can then launch into your build. There’s usually more than one way to do the same thing in Word, which can get confusing as it’s not always obvious why you would use one method over another. For example, should you lock elements on the page, or place them in the Header, do you use a Section Break or a ‘Different First Page’ to make the follower page different, and a key question: what should you use for sample copy? (We prefer a few paragraphs of instructions rather than Lorem Ipsum). 

It’s hard to generalise about build decisions as each one needs to be made on a case by case basis, and are usually determined by how the template will be used, but there is a middle ground for simple Letterhead builds that will work in most situations.

We’ve put together a PDF to guide you through the build of a letterhead template, available via our website. Click here to download the guide.

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