Typeface selection is subordinate to doc design

Subject: Typeface selection is subordinate to doc design
From: Paul Sholar <pks -at- GENSYM -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 5 Nov 1993 14:29:00 EST

Gentle technical communicators,

Talk of duelling typefaces is all well and good, but I find that the selection
a set of compatible faces for a given doc must be constrained by the doc's
design. When you have more freedom in design rather than less, decisions about
typefaces should be one of the _last_ decisions that the doc designer makes.
Of course, I don't believe that this decision is a trivial one, just that, after
through a doc design process, the alternatives for "appropriate" and
typefaces become significantly fewer in number. This is nothing new to many of

I would rather see my professional co-conspirators approach the subject of
from within the larger (and more difficult) realm of "appropriate doc design,"
rather than the other way around. Of course a doc's overall design is
subordinate to
its purpose (such quick tutorial, quick reference, exhaustive reference, etc.),
and so
on. That is another thread . . .

BTW: I have yet to pick up "Designing With Type," and I'm interested in whether
author reflects my particular "school-of-hard-knocks" bias.

Let's assume that the technical communicator thinks of docs as sets of
built from:

* Discursive text: The "discussion" or "narrative" (depending
on the "style" of the doc) that presents information
in a series of paragraphs. Even though the reader
should have to "read" as little of this as possible,
this text should appear in as "pleasing" a typeface
as possible.

* Headings Text that organizes (typically as a hierarchical
framework) the discursive text. Headings must be
easily distinguished from the discursive text, but
must also be "compatible" with other "tags" for
information used in the doc.

* Exhibits: Figures, tables, etc. that are integral to the
doc's "discussion" (i.e., that elaborate a
specific concept or reader activity).

* Parentheticals: Notes, warnings, cross-references (whether uniquely
tagged or not), and even certain exhibits, that are
not integral to a particular point in the "discussion."

* Separators: Design elements that help the reader distinguish
different kinds of information in the doc.

The selection of typefaces has to support the overall doc design, which in turn
has to
be appropriate for the "mix" of information elements (for example, the
ratio) that the doc must present. Depending on this "mix," for instance, it
be more important (or less important) to distinguish the text in tables from the
in the discussion itself and from the text that appears in other text-based
(examples, lists of procedural instructions, etc.). The importance of making
kind of differentiation in a particular doc (or doc set) affects how the
selects the typefaces.

To differentiate a doc's various kinds of information, the designer can use
_text characteristics_ (typeface, boldface, underline, etc.), or primarily
_other design elements_ (rules, white space, icons, other graphical techniques).

I'll stop here and watch where the thread leads . . .

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