What have we learned about information design in white papers?

Not too long ago, I concluded that we need some research on white papers if we want to offer evidence-based guidance for their writers. (You can get some background with my summary of the available evidence on writing white papers and more about what experts say about developing content for white papers.)  We — that’s Dr. Jefrey Naidoo and me — have been at work on that research so I thought I’d offer what we’ve learned so far about information design within this genre.

[Some updates made October 12, 2014]

What We Did

We collected a corpus of 20 recent, high-tech marketing white papers from TechRepublic with the “top rated” label in two topic areas: business intelligence (BI) and security (S). The table provides basic info about our corpus (the 20 sample white papers).

No. Topic Title Sponsor Date
1 BI Building your Ecommerce Strategy: Four Steps for Getting Started Rackspace 2013
2 BI Taming the Data Beast Dell 2012
3 BI The Risks of Using Spreadsheets for Statistical Analysis IBM 2013
4 BI Improving Engagement with Multi-Channel Service Aberdeen Group 2012
5 BI Managing your Error-Prone Spreadsheets IBM 2013
6 BI Optimizing Storage with All-Flash Solutions IDC 2013
7 BI Expanding BI’s Role by Including Predictive Analytics SAP 2009
8 BI Reaping the Benefits of Next Generation Dashboards SAP 2010
9 BI The Value of Social Data Oracle 2013
10 BI Types of Electrical Meters in Data Centers Schneider Electric 2013
11 S Avoiding the Pitfalls of Outdated Disaster Recovery Plans IBM 2013
12 S Getting the Most Out of Your Next Generation Firewall Cisco 2013
13 S Samsung KNOX: An Overview for Business Customers Centrify 2013
14 S Best Practices Guide for IT Governance & Compliance Dell 2012
15 S IT Security. Fighting the Silent Retreat Kaspersky Lab 2013
16 S Who’s Spying On You: No Business is Safe From Cyberespionage Kaspersky Lab 2013
17 S Networking for Cloud Computing IBM 2013
18 S Symantec Intelligence Report: January 2014 Symantec 2013
19 S Post-breach Survival Guide INetU 2013
20 S Building a Better Network Security Strategy HP 2014

[Update: For this corpus, each white paper averaged 12 pages and ~3,500 words, with a range of 4 to 29 pages and ~950 to 7,000 words.]

What We Have Learned about Their Design

Our corpus suggests white papers are overwhelmingly produced as conventional business reports:

  • all print on standard paper size (8.5×11 or A4) although one prints as a booklet with a single page folded in half
  • 13 include a cover page
  • 17 appear in portrait orientation, while two use landscape orientation and one mixes orientations

In general, our corpus shows that the page design of high-tech marketing white papers is fairly sophisticated. Because these documents strive to generate sales leads, their sponsors are investing resources in their production. For example, of our 20 samples, at least 7 were written by an external author on behalf of the sponsoring organization.

Evidence of sophisticated design — 12 of 20 use a two-column layout for the body of the document, and 16 of 20 use sidebars or call-outs to highlight content. In the sample below, the purple boxes present stats of predicted interest on the left-hand page and the blue boxes present quotes from authorities on the right-hand page. Sidebars in white papers_Page_04

This sample also demonstrates the use of color, another relatively sophisticated design element. None of our 20 samples were produced in black and white, and only one used fewer than three colors. Because white papers are delivered almost entirely in electronic form, Russell Willerton (whose research is cited below) has warned that the use of color may be problematic if potential customers are printing the documents in black and white to read.

[sidebar] This is probably a good time to note that we’re not judging the effectiveness of white paper design at this point. We know that using the gray background for body text in the sample above flies in the face of guidance for producing legible text. But, at this point, our goal is simply descriptive. We want to collect a body of evidence about what top-rated white paper sponsors actually produce. You have to start at the beginning, folks. [end sidebar]

Before I leave the topic of sophistication, I’ll disclose that only 9 of the 20 samples displayed balanced margins. Most used large left (or right) margins and a couple used large bottom margins. See the examples below. A generous amount of real estate on each page was occupied by white space.

large left margin
large left margin
large bottom margin
large bottom margin

Distribution of Graphic Types in White PapersSlide1Our corpus shows these white papers include multiple types of informative graphics: an average of two different informative graphic types per sample.  (Of the 20 samples, only 3 had no informative graphics at all.) The distribution of types appears in the bar graph above. Diagrams like the one at left appeared in more than half of the corpus. Tables, photos, and bar graphs appeared in more than a quarter. These graphics are not simply decorative but convey content.  We intend to calculate words per page as a measure of text- vs. visual-density.  But you’ll have to wait for those results. [Update: Words per page ranges from ~30 to 550.]

Our corpus also demonstrates that sans serif typefaces are the predominant choice for paragraph text in white papers. Of our 20 samples, 15 used these sans serif typefaces:

  • Arial (2)
  • Nautilus Monoline (2) (see the visual at right)Slide1
  • Myriad Headline (2)
  • AG Book Extended
  • FF Basic Gothic
  • FP Public
  • JAF Bernina
  • Nina (Microsoft)
  • PTL Maurea
  • Trump Gothic East
  • Univers Extended

These 5 serif typefaces were used for body text:

  • Bingo Serif
  • Farmhouse
  • Janson
  • Mafra
  • Non Solus

All typefaces were identified using IdentiFont — a nifty tool. But we need some corroboration that our results are accurate. No doubt some of you are thinking the choice of sans serif typefaces runs counter to prevailing wisdom. . . Just remember our goal is descriptive at this stage.


Our results corroborate Willerton’s when he interviewed white paper readers. Overall, the information design in high-tech marketing white papers is somewhat more sophisticated than an in-house business report. But those few with the most sophisticated design (landscape orientation and low text-density) definitely stand out.  And not in a good way.  As one of Willerton’s interviewees explained, white papers should look

clean, minimal and professional

because, as another interviewee stated,

the IT guy reading the paper might get suspicious of all that color

We presume that non-standard page orientation and low text-density would also elicit reader suspicions about the relative value of a white paper’s content. [Update: The white paper with ~30 words per page is certainly a case in point.]

What’s Next?

I’m only updating you on the information design features we’ve identified at this point. We are also analyzing the rhetorical move structure and linguistic features (think: style) of the corpus. In fact, Jef and I are meeting with our coders for the rhetorical move structure analysis this very morning. We will be talking about this research at the IEEE’s International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) at Carnegie Mellon University on October 14.  Hope to see some of you there!

Further Reading

R. Willerton (2007). Writing White Papers in High-Tech Industries: Perspectives from the Field. Technical Communication, 54(2), pp. 187-200.

R. Willerton (2008). Proceeding with Caution: A Case Study of Engineering Professionals Reading White Papers. Technical Communication, 55(4), pp. 370-382.

R. Willerton (2012). Teaching White Papers Through Client Projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 76(1) 105–113.

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