Ten ways to up your parish bulletin design (so people will actually read it)

Most parish bulletins are ugly. This has been obvious for some time: In 2015, Catholic Creatives, an online community of artists and entrepreneurs, met specifically to diagnose the issue of important information getting lost in bad bulletin design.

A redesign does not have to be a daunting task. I combed through dozens of parish bulletins from around the country and noticed a similar set of design issues. Most of them just need to be simplified. These 10 considerations can help create a bulletin people will actually read.

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1. Make sure your bulletin is legible. Most of the bulletins I have seen are simply too difficult to read. Text is disorganized, content is packed too tightly, and important information is easily lost. You should not expect readers to work hard to access the bulletin’s information. Consider asking a few trusted people: “Is this clear? Can you read this easily?”

2. Keep things organized. Reading a parish bulletin can feel like opening someone’s junk drawer. You have to sift through the pastor’s letter, the announcement about the clothing drive and even the odd quotation from St. Augustine before finding the schedule for Mass.

Think of visual organization like sorting items into boxes based on their function. For example, all parish announcements should be grouped together, Mass and confession times should be together, and recurring features like the parish directory should be found in the same place every week.

Reading a parish bulletin can feel like opening someone’s junk drawer.

But resist the temptation to use actual boxes with hard borders in your design. Even worse are “fun” borders. A concert announcement does not need to be in a box with a border of musical notes. This kind of embellishment is tacky, unprofessional and outdated.

3. Consistency is your friend. Designers at publications like National Geographic, The New York Times and America spend a lot of energy on eye-catching covers and inside pages. But they know readers come to expect certain elements, whether it’s National Geographic’s signature yellow border or the publication name on the cover of America. The same can be said of parish bulletins. If it seems as if you are designing from scratch every week, readers will sense it. Save yourself time and keep elements like font and color scheme consistent. If your parish has a logo, keep using that. The same rule applies inside: Each page should feel like a part of the same bulletin.

Strive for simplicity. (Angelo Jesus Canta)

4. Strive for simplicity. So many bulletins are overcrowded. Not only is there too much information on any given page, but unnecessary elements make the bulletin harder to read. I already mentioned “fun” borders, and no one needs a clip-art photo of a loaf of bread to know about next month’s bake sale.

The project of decluttering should affect every single aspect of the bulletin design. It starts with getting rid of “https://www” before every website address. Consider moving that list of parish committee members from the bulletin to the parish website. And do not cram the parish directory, the pastor’s letter and weekend Mass times on the cover along with a large illustration for that week’s Gospel reading.

5. Establish a hierarchy. Hierarchy in design has less to do with popes and bishops and more to do with clearly communicating what a reader should see first, second, third, etc. It allows the reader to move through the bulletin without getting confused or overlooking key information. For example, Mass times should appear higher in the bulletin’s hierarchy than the parish directory. You can establish hierarchy by changing an element’s size, placement on the page and color. Readers are drawn to bigger items first and tend to read from the left side of the page to the right. Be aware of this when putting together each page.

6. Less is more when it comes to typography. So many bulletins make readers dizzy by not only cramming too many words in too little space, but also casually switching between centered and left-aligned text, or using new fonts for each text box. Keep most text left-aligned; centered text is harder to read and should be used sparingly for high-priority information like the parish name or certain headlines.

Professional designers limit themselves to two different fonts per project. Choose a decorative but easy-to-read font for headlines and a more professional font for everything else. Let websites like Fontpair do the work of choosing professional fonts that work well together. Once you have chosen the two fonts, use italics or weights (regular, medium, bold, etc.) to work with your hierarchy. Do not use fonts like Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curlz, Kristin or Brush Script, even when you want to make things “kid-friendly” or “exotic.” These have a reputation for being overused and unprofessional. And under no circumstances should your bulletin feature WordArt.

7.Use images sparingly. Images pull readers’ attention quickly and thus automatically get bumped up in the hierarchy. Even if that photo from the parish picnic is tucked into a text box at the bottom of the page, it will likely be the first thing that someone sees. Therefore, use images sparingly and purposefully. Avoid dropping in clip art or stock illustrations just to break up text. And if you are going to use that parish picnic photo, do it to your advantage. Make sure the photo is high quality, and use it to lead your readers into the story that you have decided is the most important feature on that page.

8. Let your pages breathe. The overuse of images is associated with another glaring mistake in most bulletins: the lack of white, or “negative,” space. While bulletins do not have the luxury of using huge blocks of negative space (as in many effective advertisements), it is still important to avoid overcrowding pages. Good negative space allows the reader to move comfortably through the information without visual fatigue. So establish page margins, usually a half-inch to an inch all around. Make sure there is a good amount of space between the elements we discussed in Point 2. And resist the temptation of filling blank spaces with unnecessary elements.

9.Can we do something about the advertisement section in the back? One of the most poorly designed parts of any parish bulletin is the ad section. It breaks all the rules about simplicity and negative space. For many parishes, this part of the bulletin is outsourced to the company selling ad space. But there has to be a better way to present that information. Ken Homan, S.J., tweeted about how off-putting it is to have advertisements for funeral homes take up the most space in parish bulletins, giving the impression of a dying church. Perhaps having a simpler list of sponsoring businesses with contact information within the parish bulletin could help readers navigate through needed services.

10. Treat bulletin design as a ministry. Reading dozens of parish bulletins gave me unexpected hope for our church. I came across heartfelt letters encouraging parishioners through times of instability. I was surprised to find announcements for parish-wide discussions about the sexual abuse scandal, racism, climate change and interfaith relations. Local communities still use the bulletin as a tool to help the community think, pray and act together.

However, much of that good intention is lost with bad design. The bulletin should be an extension of the parish’s ministry. It may be the way a potential new Catholic finds out about the local parish. It could be a way to connect potential donors to parish projects. It cannot just be an afterthought.

The bulletin should be an extension of the parish’s ministry. It cannot just be an afterthought.

If you can, hire a local design firm to create a new bulletin template. If not, consider reaching out to someone in the parish with design experience, perhaps the young person in art school who needs to build up his or her portfolio. Failing that, look to YouTube and Skillshare for basics about design, software and best practices. As for examples from the real world, the best-designed bulletin I came across was from St. Teresa of Avila parish in Chicago. Their bulletins are clean, consistent and easy to read.

You do not have to employ cutting-edge design, but remembering the 10 principles outlined above can help your ministry be more effective.

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