Create a Word template in 5 easy steps

Microsoft Word is a beautiful design tool. There! Now it’s on the internet, so it must be true, right? But actually, it can be.

Yes, the Microsoft Office Suite has its limitations, but a user-friendly Word template can be formatted to look good. Limited capabilities and strong design don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And great work is often inspired by limitations. So, I maintain that it’s true: You can design a beautiful, compelling, easy-to-use template in five steps. And I’m going to show you how right here.

Step 1: Set up a color palette. This is important for a lot of reasons – my previous posts about color discuss some of them. Regardless, if you’re following a brand standard, you’ll want to set up those colors in your template. If you’re not following a specific brand standard, you still need a cohesive palette of colors that will work well together to tell your story.

Theme colors PPTOn a Mac, set up theme colors in Powerpoint

Theme colors WordOn a PC, set up theme colors in Word.

To set up a palette on a Mac, you actually need to do the first part of this step in Powerpoint. Go figure. (On a PC, you can follow these same steps in Word.) Under the Themes (Page Layout) tab, choose Colors > Create (New) Theme Colors. Change each color to suit the look of your document by double-clicking on swatches (or using the drop-down menu and selecting More Colors). At the bottom of the dialog box, name your theme. Click Apply to All (Save) to close the box. On a Mac, under the Themes tab, click Save Theme and store it in the Office Themes folder, on your desktop, or in the job folder for the template. Then open a Word document.

On both the PC and the Mac versions of Word, click the Home tab, then select Themes. If you saved the theme in your Office Themes folder it will appear as a Custom Theme. If you saved the theme somewhere else, select “Browse Themes”, find it on your computer and select it. Your palette now appears in your formatting tabs, where you can access them quickly and easily.

Step 2: Create background images. You’ll use these in the header and footer. They can be full backgrounds that are the size of your document, or they can be individual elements, like a logo or a graphic that appears in one corner. Using image editing software (e.g., Adobe Photoshop, Pixlr, Acorn, etc.) create your images and save them as .JPG or .PNG files at 150ppi minimum, 300ppi if the document will be printed professionally.

Step 3: Format The Background. Think of this step as designing the “stationery” on which your content will appear. You’re going to create this background in the Header and Footer area of the page. Don’t be thrown by the idea of an actual header or footer – you actually can place header and footer images anywhere on the page. But because it’s technically part of the header or footer, it will be difficult for users to accidentally edit, move or delete those images when they’re adjusting text in the document.

Format Picture Mac

Format Picture PCSetting up the background or “stationery” for your document

Start by double clicking the header area of your document. Then, under the Home (Insert) tab, you can add and format the images that you created in Step 2, which you’ll select as “Pictures,” “Text” or “Shapes.” After placing each image, make sure it’s selected, then click the Format Picture (Format) tab. Select Wrap Text > Behind Text. This will allow you to move and resize the image as desired, without impacting any text on the page. Shapes can be formatted and used in the background, in the same way, as sidebars or other graphic elements. Add any background text and adjust the font size, margins, etc. however you want. If you want page numbers to appear on every page, you can do this from the Document Elements (Insert) tab, as well.

Step 4: Format Text Styles.


Format-Styles-PCChange font and paragraph styles

Start typing in your document – it doesn’t have to be real text, but you want to set up headlines, subheads, body copy, footnotes, and any other styles of text you’ll be likely to use. Format the font, size and color that you want to use for each. Now, open the Styles window in the Home tab by clicking Styles, selecting the icon with the ¶ symbol (or the expand arrow) to open the Styles window. Highlight the headline in your document and click on the dropdown menu next to Heading 1 in the Styles window. Select Update (Heading 1) to Match Selection. Use the same drop-down and select Modify Style. A new dialog box will open where you can change the style’s name and other attributes. Use the Format button in the lower left corner to adjust paragraph settings such as indentation, line spacing, paragraph spacing, tabs and many other options. Repeat this process for other text styles.

Step 5: Adjust the Layout. Under the Home tab in the Paragraph section, you can choose the number of columns on a page. Use the rulers at the sides and top to set up margins and insets from those margins.

Save your file as a Word template (.dotx). Now, every page using this template will have consistent design elements, which can be used over and over again.

Appendix: More Advanced Options. There are many more ways in which you can customize your template.

  • If you want a cover page, you can create a cover that differs from the interior pages (it’s a header/footer option –Different First Page).
  • If you want 2-page spreads, you can create facing pages that differ from eachother (another header/footer option – Different Odd & Even Pages).
  • If there are defined parts of your document, you can establish individual sections (Insert > Break > Section Break) and give each section a Different First Page.

As with the rest of the template, design your cover and interior pages creating text boxes for the document title, section title, footer information, page numbers, etc. The goal is to standardize any content that will appear in all documents created with this template.


Page-layouts-PCSet up a cover or section pages, and facing pages


Section-breaks-PCCreate a new section of the template

Word is not as precise, efficient or powerful as professional publishing applications. But when you need to create a document that non-designers can update regularly and easily, Word templates can give you a surprisingly effective way to do it.