RE: Manual Design Questions

Subject: RE: Manual Design Questions
From: "Michael West" <mike -dot- west -at- oz -dot- quest -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2001 09:09:54 +1100

Paul asked about a "current consensus" on a number of
publication design issues.

No, there is not now, never has been and never will be
a "consensus" on these design choices.

There are many useful publications about graphical
design for print and online. No two of them give exactly
the same advice, but the attentive reader can find good
solutions to common problems. In the end, intelligent
designers make choices based on understanding and
observation, not "consensus."

> * Is there a current consensus on serifs?

No. Serif face body text doesn't usually work best in
low-res (online) because the critical differences in
stroke weight cannot be rendered on a VDT, and the
result is a lot of visual noise. Most "experts" agree
that on-screen, low-res text in large quantities calls
for a purpose-built sans serif typeface for online use.
Verdana is one example. There are some other sans
serif faces, like Optima and Stone, that combine
some attributes of serif faces and sans serif faces
for optimum results in both low and high-res output.

In print, most readers find serif faces give better
readability for body text because of the subtle
differences in stroke weight that cannot be rendered,
as I've said, onscreen. For headings and other display
type, most readers (we're talkin' English-speaking
world here) prefer sans serifs. But clever designers
can do the opposite with pleasing results, if they
understand the underlying principles of how the
display media and the human visual apparatus work
together (or, more often, fail to work together.)

There is no typeface, with or without serifs, that is
equally readable online and in print, except at very
large sizes. Some come closer than others.

>* Is there a current consensus on chapter numbers
> in the page number (that is, 4-3 vs page 15)?

Chapter-page numbering makes it easy to issue updates
to individual chapters or sections. If that's not an issue,
two-part page numbering seems an unnecessary
affectation to some readers (me for example).

>* Is there a consensus on mixing font sizes so that the
> actual page number stands out more?

The only consensus I know of is that too many sizes
and styles of type on a page spell confusion. But if
you want to make the page number bold, go for it. I
do it all the time when I'm required to use "Page 3 of 259"
type page numbering. I've even been known to set the
page number in reverse type to make it stand out from
the other stuff in the header or footer. Why? Not because
there's a consensus but because I saw it done somewhere
and it made my job as a user of the document slightly easier.

>* Is there a current consensus on chapter tables of contents;
> are they a helpful aid to navigation.

There is no consensus, but haven't you ever found them
helpful? I have.

>* Is there a consensus on rule rules? Do they rule:}
>* or ...:<? We're currently using them to frame our content
>* area and in a different way to add a visual element to our
>* cover design.

Good designers advise against adding rules and borders to
textual content just for the hell of it. Use rules to separate
one thing from another when a user is likely to be confused
if you don't. Sometimes, though, white space makes a better
separator; in fact, most of the time.

There is an important principle enunciated by Edward Tufte
in "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information". He calls
it the "ink-to-data ratio." Check it out.

Graphics for covers and title pages are a different thing. If
you don't have a graphic designer on call, copy the best-
looking cover design you can find from a high-quality
commercial publication--making sure it is appropriate
to your audience and content, and omitting, of course,
any proprietary marks or logos. Do-it-yourself graphic
design by amateurs is seldom successful--nor is it a
productive use of a non-designer's time.

Michael West
Technical Writer

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