| Business, Design Basics

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Microsoft Word is a cornerstone of the business world. It’s the most common word processing software in the US and a mainstay of every business computer.

However, Word is not a design or publishing program and there are many reasons and many occasions when you should not be sending Word files. Here are some of the issues that arise when sending out Word files to different users.

  1. Font substitution. When you work in Microsoft Word, you are choosing from the fonts on your computer. But those fonts don’t get transferred with the file. So if the person who opens your document does not have the font installed, another font will be substituted. If you use a “corporate font” as part of your brand identity, this cannot be reliably carried over within a Word file.
  2. Layout changes.Because fonts get substituted, line breaks and pages breaks can be affected. Different fonts run larger or smaller based on how narrow or wide they are (even at the same size), which can mess with alignment. Below is an example of a worksheet I was asked to fill out that was sent as a Word file. The header of the table separated from the body because of bad page breaks. But worse than that, it was very confusing to use the form because the numbers were supposed to aligned vertically, but were not. Because of poor formatting and font substitution the numbers no longer lined up, making the exercise very confusing.

    Bad line breaks and alignment in Microsoft Word
    This screen shot shows both a bad page break and a bad alignment of text in Microsoft Word.
  3. Graphics lose quality. This has been a dramatic realization for me lately. I can look at a gif file in Photoshop, and place it in a professional layout program like InDesign and it looks fine. But if I place the same file into Word, it looks terrible. Microsoft has its own import settings which tend to degrade graphics and can be very frustrating to work with.
  4. The inability to work with eps files. You really cannot place an eps file within Word. Usually you just get a box with an X across it. Sometimes eps files print ok, but if you can’t view them correctly within Word it’s not really a workable solution. Eps files are the preferred way to place files like logos, because they are vector-based, but eps files are essentially unusable in Word.
  5. Poor typesetting results. You can take the same font, and set it at the same size in Word as you do in InDesign and your typesetting will look worse in Microsoft Word. Professional layout programs, such as InDesign, use complex mathematical formulas to make the type look beautiful. InDesign is able to read all of the information included with a font, and can make subtle kerning, tracking, and ligature usage decisions. Word ignores many of these details. InDesign is especially good at making justified type look good by balancing word spacing, letter spacing and hyphenation across paragraphs of text. Word does not have that capability. It’s these small details which make text look so poor when typeset in Word.
  6. Not everyone has Word. While Word is extremely common, there are more and more people without Microsoft products on their computers. Or, they may have an older version of Word that is unable to open your file, or can only open it with some sort of converter. Whenever you are sending a file and the reader does not have your exact version of Word they are either unable to open the file at all, or there will be the possibility of formatting issues as it gets converted.
  7. The content is live and editable. This is not always a concern, and in fact there many times when this is a benefit of Word. Your reader can go in and edit, track changes, or copy your work. Other times you are allowing your work to be too easily copied, changed or otherwise compromised.

Microsoft Word has it’s place. But there are many instances when you should NOT be sending out Word files.

Alternatives to sending Word files

There are two main alternatives to sending out Word files.

  • Convert the Word files to PDF. This will preserve the look of your fonts and the formatting that you’ve set up. You still have the master file in Word if there are changes, but your recipient receives a file that will exactly match the formatting you set up. Also, since Acrobat reader is free, there is no reason to expect someone not to be able to view a PDF.
  • Use a professional design software (or have your graphic designer use it). You have to realize the limitations to Word. It is not a layout program. It is a word processing program. Even if you use a professional layout program, the file will likely be saved and distributed as a PDF document.

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