Microsoft Word can do more than bang out simple letters and plain text. Delve into its Design and Layout tools, and you'd be surprised at how much it can help even novices produce attractive layouts for brochures, flyers, and newsletters. 

The more complex your layout and contents, the more you will need a design professional's help--and maybe a high-end desktop publishing package, too. But before you do that, give Word's built-in design talents a try.

Work with a template...

The easiest way to create more elaborate documents in Word is to use a template. Word has hundreds of them, from newsletters and flyers to business cards and faxes. To get started, go to File > New in the left navigation bar, which brings up a selection of popular templates (including the default blank page) topped by the search window.

Templates come pre-populated with images and dummy text, both of which are easily replaceable with your own (you can either click on a block of text and start typing, or paste in text or images you've previously copied to the clipboard). But even if you want to change design elements (such as fonts, for example), you might start with a template just to pick up preset margins and other basic layout parameters that would be annoying to create from scratch.

...or work with themes

If you prefer to start from scratch on a blank sheet, you can set up page dimensions, margins, columns, and other basic defaults in the Page Layout ribbon. You might also want to click the Design tab and choose a theme--a collection of fonts for popular layout options such as titles, subheads, and plain text. You could, of course, specify these individually as you work, but the fonts in a theme are chosen and sized according to generally accepted design precepts so they'll look good together.

The Design tab also provides collections of color palettes and effects you can apply to add character to your layout. You might choose one color from a palette for a border and another for subheads, for example. (Once you select a theme, the colors in the palette will show up when you click the Font Color icon on the Home ribbon.) You can experiment with different looks by hovering over a theme (or, for that matter, any other design element in the ribbon), which is then applied to the appropriate area in your document. To make the change permanent, you click on the desired element.

Another option in the Design tab lets you apply a background color, pattern, or even an image to your document. Click on Page Color to see these options--they're a pleasant alternative to the usual plain white.

Play with typography

Nothing is more boring than a page full of plain text, but sometimes you don't have a lot of images to relieve the monotony. Tools to make your layouts more interesting include drop caps, subheads, and pullquotes--and it's relatively easy to apply them in Word.

Adding drop caps--large initial capital letters--to a paragraph is child's play: In the Insert ribbon, simply click on the Add a Drop Cap icon in the Text tools. You can choose between having the enlarged initial capital letter embedded in the text or in the left margin. Drop Cap options let you change the font, the height (in number of lines of normal text) of the character, and its distance from the text.

A pullquote is a quotation from the text that you copy into a box and use as a design element, much the way you'd use an image. It's a way of highlighting an important nugget from the story, while at the same time adding visual interest to a page. In Word, put the cursor in the general area you'd like to place a text box, and click the Text Box icon in the Insert ribbon. This brings up a menu of several pre-formatted text box options. When you choose one, it will appear--with canned text--in your document. You can then replace the dummy text and adjust options such as font size and color.

To the right of the box, a small icon lets you adjust how the box fits into the layout. You might, for example, opt to have text flow around the box, or you could choose to have it above and below (but not around) the box. You can also opt to fix the position of the box on the page or tie it to the copy around it, so that if the copy moves, so does the box.

The Word Art icon on the Insert ribbon lets you use colorful display fonts with flourishes and effects you won't find in standard fonts. You can use these characters to liven up a page, but avoid going overboard: A little of this sort of eye candy goes a long way.

Adding images, charts, and other content

By now you may have noticed that Text tools take up only a small area on the Insert ribbon, since there are so many other items you can add to spruce up the look and impact of a document.

Images are an obvious choice. Current versions of Word include tools that let you perform basic image editing from within the app. As with the text box, you start by placing the cursor in the area where you want the image to appear. Then click on Pictures (or Online Pictures if you want to look for images in Office's huge collection of clip art), and click on the image you want to insert.

A couple of things will happen: The image will appear in your document--if not exactly where you intended, close enough so that you can easily drag it to where you want it. You can also make fine adjustments with arrow keys when the image is in moving mode.

At the same time, the Picture Tools ribbon will appear, filled with options for everything from cropping to artistic effects and frames. As with text boxes, you also get an icon next to the image that gives you choices for how it fits into the text.

Word also has special tools for inserting shapes (for simple diagrams), SmartArt (for more complicated business diagrams), and even Excel-style charts that you create on the fly.

The newest graphic element in the Insert ribbon is the Screenshot icon: Click it and you'll be able to insert any currently live screenshot on your Windows desktop--a useful tool for people who want to illustrate computer processes.

You can add captions to graphic elements using the Insert Caption feature in the References ribbon, but there's a catch: Because the feature was intended for academic publications, it automatically assigns numbers to them (in sequence)--and it's all but impossible to get rid of them in print unless you want to go into Word's field codes. If you want your images to have captions that aren't numbered, you have to either create a text box below (or beside) the image just for the caption or put them both in a box to tie them together, another complicated procedure.

Making adjustments

Many of Word's tools can be applied on the fly, so if you don't like the way something looks you can easily change it. For example, you can flow text into columns simply by selecting it all and clicking on the number of columns you want in the Page Layout tab.

If you've added several elements to a document and they aren't behaving the way you want, you might find help in the Arrange section of the Page Layout tab. Here you can find features for aligning objects and bringing them in front of or behind other objects.

Finishing steps

Most commercial printers who work with small businesses will accept documents in PDF format, and Word lets you save documents as PDFs. There are, however, different types of PDFs, so make sure to check with a printer beforehand--ask if they can work with the PDF format generated by the Word version you are using.

Word can't do everything a high-end desktop publishing program can do. For example, if you need crop marks on pages, Microsoft advises you to export your Word document to Publisher, the Office desktop publishing app. Desktop publishing packages can usually export to all major PDF types. High-end packages also let you create multiple master pages to serve as templates for complicated documents. While Word makes it easy to create pages with headers and footers, it's not so easy to mix them up with other page styles in the same project.

But for people who are simply looking to enhance the appearance of everyday documents--flyers, brochures, booklets and the like--Word has much to offer. The learning curve isn't too steep, and if it's already on your desktop, the price is right.