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As a designer, most of the work I do is in professional design software. You know, that ridiculously expensive, extremely complicated Creative Suite that designers love. While I am in that camp, I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time designing in the humble and ubiquitous text editor, Microsoft Word, and I’ve been surprised by how much can be accomplished by pushing Word to—and past—its assumed limits.

Word is a useful tool for more than letters and notes. It has a number of formatting and typesetting options, if you are willing to explore the program and live with a few frustrations. With the help of a few tips and tricks, it is possible to create functional and well-designed documents, without paying the premium of professional layout software. This offers the ability for almost anyone to edit and control a document, while presenting a well designed product. There are certain limitations, but a Word based template doesn’t have to look old or outdated.

Below is an example of a Word layout template we created for a client, who chose a Word Template, both to save money and have more control over their content.

Magazine spread in Word
Magazine spread in Word

So what are some of these hidden tricks?

6 Things You Didn’t Know Word Could Do


Establishing Styles allows you to save and apply the formatting of text. This ensures all your headings, body text, or bullet lists use the same style, without having to manually and frustratingly take a guess at equal line spacing, font weights, etc.

  • Styles save time on long documents. The user can assign a style, which may have several characteristics—font size, color, margins—with one click.
  • Styles help maintain consistency. No need to remember the exact size of that 2nd level heading—just assign the style you previously set up.
  • Styles make document-wide adjustments easy. If you want to change font size, you only have to make a change to the style itself, rather than all the instances where it occurs.
Word Styles editing in Microsoft Word

To open the styles dialog box, choose “View > Styles,” or look for the styles button, shown above. From the dialog box, assign new styles or redesign existing ones. To apply the style, highlight the text, then choose the style from the dialog box. To change a style across a document, open the dialog box, select the drop-down arrow next to the style, and make your changes there. Updates will automatically apply to all text using that style throughout your document. Use the time you just saved to give yourself a high-five.

Show non-printing characters


When your document becomes complex, with indents, breaks, and styles, it can be helpful to display non-printing characters. Turning these on will display markers that govern the style of your text, showing paragraph markers, spaces, breaks, and more. Look for the backwards “P” symbol in the toolbar to toggle on or off. This can show you where an erroneous page break may be causing formatting to break, and helps you keep indentations in line.

Advanced copy and replace

Sure, you’re familiar with the search function, but selecting “Edit > Find > Advanced Find and Replace” provides more options. You can search for words with specific formatting or even hidden characters. For example, select all the hyphens in the document and bulk change them to em dashes. Or, if your Word Styles are inconsistent and you want to update all of a certain heading in one go, you can.

Format painter


This is a nifty tool allowing you to quickly grab the formatting from one paragraph and apply it to another. If you’re already using styles, it’s not as helpful. However, if you are not using styles, this will save you time as you update the unstyled text in your document. Look for the little paintbrush in the toolbar, and if you double click on the icon, it will remain selected, allowing you to format words in multiple locations.

Basic Image functions

Word does a pretty good job of allowing a user to crop an image to the dimensions desired. You can also mask an image to a shape, for example creating a circular profile photo, without having to alter the source image. When you select an image, a colored tab should appear in the ribbon called “Format Picture,” which allows you to crop an image, add a border, position the image, and more.

Word Format Picture

Paragraph Spacing and Breaks

Word Paragraph Spacing

You’ve finished one section of your document and want the next section to start on the following page, so what do you do? You probably hit the enter (return) key a bunch of times. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very accurate or efficient way of spacing. Word allows “before” and “after” spacing as well as column, page, and section breaks—features that are commonly used in professional design software. These paragraph spacing options make a document much cleaner and more precise. To see paragraph spacing, select “Format > Paragraph”.

So Word is pretty great, right?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Word is not a good alternative to more robust programs like the industry standard InDesign—not even close. But it still has merits.

Word works well for small documents and reports with more limited design aspirations and few images. It can also be useful for creating template files. We can create a well laid out template file which you can use to make similar documents. It’s a win-win; you have a professionally designed document, with total control over the file, including the ability to update or change the content.

While this doesn’t describe most of what we do at openbox9, there are certain projects for which Word is a time and money saver. We’re in the business of solving problems and bringing design solutions that make sense for each particular situation.

In Part 2, I will explore some of the shortcomings of Word, and recommendations for how to avoid them, as well as easy work-arounds. Hopefully you’ll learn a thing or two as we dive deeper into the murky world of layout in Word.

Josh Cutherell Photo
Josh Cutherell
Josh enjoys getting into the weeds of design - from small user interactions to the perfect font pairing - and strives to unite beauty and functionality.