June 28, 2021

Visual Strategies for Text Readability

Make Your Proposal Easy to Read so it’s Easy to Fund!

As writers, it’s our job to take abstract ideas and make them easy for our readers to understand. As we pack the many important details of our organization’s work into the pages of a proposal, it’s helpful to consider things from the reader’s perspective. Have you ever clicked onto a web page, only to find that all the ads, buttons, and banners have buried the information you seek? Have you ever tried to read an article presented in large blocks of uninterrupted text, forcing you to undertake a tedious hunt for the more important bits of information? Including all the needed information is necessary, but when there’s too much of it, or when it’s presented in a confusing way, it can leave the reader feeling lost and frustrated.

For this reason, a visually cluttered proposal is not just an aesthetic problem—it could make reviewers less receptive, or less able to understand, your message. Potentially compounding this issue is the fact that your proposal is one of many proposals reviewers must read within a relatively short timeframe. An already-fatigued reviewer may not be amenable to laboring through text that is long-winded or that lacks clarity. This type of mental labor is referred to in Cognitive Load Theory as Extraneous Cognitive Load.1 Extraneous Cognitive Load happens when we’re presented with too much information at once, or when our minds must do too much work to process the information presented. This can make it harder to absorb and retain what is being conveyed.

So how can we ease the cognitive load for our audience, thereby improving readability?

1. Less is More

Often, in our quest to answer every proposal question thoroughly, and paint a complete portrait of our programming, we end up including some information that is not truly necessary. When crafting a proposal, remember to stick to answering the questions asked. If you include information that is not expressly requested in the instructions, be sure that it really is needed to strengthen your case. Including too much unnecessary information may create an undue cognitive load for readers, exacerbate reading fatigue, and detract emphasis from the most important points.

2. Utilize Visual Cues

We humans are inherently visual communicators, as our brains are wired to respond to visual cues to draw our eye, and tell us where to direct our attention. When essential information is logically differentiated and easy to find (rather than buried inside a wall of homogenous text), we are better able to understand what is being said.

Consider the following visual concepts2:

  • Contrast—helps readers identify the main point
  • Hierarchy—helps readers see relationships between different components
  • Flow—helps readers understand the order in which to process information
  • Unity—helps readers sense that information belongs together
  • Consistency—reduces visual noise, and increases clarity

Headings or subheadings—Even in cases where a proposal includes its own section headings, it can be helpful to add subheadings to contrast subsections and make that content easier to locate. Headings and subheadings should be visually different from the rest of the text, and a difference in hierarchy should somehow be indicated. These goals can be achieved by using different sized fonts, bolding, underlining, varying horizontal location, and even using different colors. However, remember to keep visual consistency of headings and subheadings throughout, or you’ll risk adding too much visual noise to the proposal. Investing the time to explore the built-in styles options of your text editor can be a useful time-and-energy-saving tool in this regard.

Highlight key text—Though all text in a proposal is important, there surely are some parts that are more important than others. Using color, bolding, italics, or underlining to highlight key elements or ideas can help reviewers distinguish the most important components from the rest. Longer texts or very important points can be highlighted by putting them in a text box.3

Color—Colors are powerful in creating  contrast and have their own hierarchy, which is defined by the color’s influence on readers’ minds.4 Consider the contrast between bold colors, such as bright reds and greens, compared with weak colors, like grey or muted pastels. Bold colors draw the eye more quickly, so writers often use them as a means of highlighting or setting contrast. Moreover, you can show unity between different text or sections by highlighting them or their headings with the same color, indicating that they are connected. If you choose to use different colors, consider your organization’s branding and color guide, if one exists.

Font—Typographic hierarchy can be used to draw attention to the most meaningful text and help emphasize flow. Using different sizes of the same font, or using different fonts within the same family of fonts, can divide the text into different levels so that readers perceive the information gradually. However, remember to keep the different fonts and sizes to a minimum. A rule of thumb in the world of web design is to use no more than three different fonts or sizes, to keep text from looking too messy.4

3. Keep it Simple & Consistent 

The use of bold characters, italics, underlined text, and large or colorful fonts is helpful, but there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” Visual cues should be clear, consistent, and minimal.

Simplicity—Too many effects and too much variation are a recipe for Extraneous Cognitive Load. Don’t make something bold, large, and red, if simply making it bold will do.5 Similarly, highlighting too many sentences, or adding too many text boxes, will obscure the key messages. If everything is highlighted, nothing is highlighted! Limiting the number and variation of effects, levels of information, horizontal alignment, and headings or subheadings will reduce visual background noise.

Consistency—Whichever visual effects you choose to use, maintain consistency throughout your proposal. To avoid inconsistencies, the “Paste without formatting” (or “Keep Text Only paste” / “Unformatted text”) feature of your text editor can be useful when importing text from external sources.3 It can also be helpful to zoom out, which allows more of a “bird’s eye view” of your document. This can help you get a sense of whether it’s visually unified with consistent formatting, or whether it looks messy and confusing.

White space—Remember that white space itself is a visual element. White space, or negative space, is not just the area between the text, it is a core component of visual composition that allows writers to group or separate ideas, and give more weight to particular elements.4

In Conclusion, make sure your messaging comes across loud and clear by crafting a proposal that is as easy to read as possible. For reviewers who may have already spent hours sifting through proposals, reading one that is clear, concise, and logically organized, with easily identifiable components, will be a welcome relief, and might even make reviewers more receptive to your ask!

Contact: Amorena Almand, Resource Development Officer, amorena@thegrantplantnm.com


In creating this post, I referenced several great articles and books, including:

1. “Cognitive Load Theory.” Psychologist World.  https://www.psychologistworld.com/memory/cognitive-load-theory#:~:text=Extraneous%20Cognitive%20Load%20Extraneous%20cognitive%20load%20is%20produced,task%20more%20complex%20than%20it%20needs%20to%20be.

2. Duarte, Nancy. Slide:ology. Sebastopol, O’Reilly Media Inc., September 2008.

3. “Grant application: Top tips for a visually-successful application.” Enspire.Science. https://enspire.science/grant-application-top-tips-for-a-visually-successful-application/ .

4. “User Experience: Best Practices on Effective Visual Hierarchy.” Design4Users. https://design4users.com/best-practices-on-visual-hierarchy/ .

5. Colborne, Giles. Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design. E-book, New Riders, 2010.

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