Re: Font usage in manuals

Subject: Re: Font usage in manuals
From: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- PLAMONDON -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 11 Jan 1996 12:32:54 -0800

Here are the rules I go by:

1. Don't mess with the basic rules. In running text, use ordinary
punctuation and emphasis conventions (periods go inside the
quotes, use italics for emphasis, and so on). Messing with the
basic rules annoys those readers who notice such things. Running
text, even in technical writing, is still running text.

2. Use a separate font for technical mumbo-jumbo. For example, I
typically use Adobe Sabon (and old-style font with the virtues
of Times Roman without the ugliness) for my book font, and Helvetica
for signal names, register names, assembly-language mnenonics,
high-level-language keywords, menu items, etc. This differentiates the
jargony semi-words from real English in a completely unambiguous
way and eliminates any need to put the terms in quotes (thus avoiding
the temptation to mess with the basic rules).

3. Make your separate font a contrasting font. If your book font is
a serif font (and it should be), your contrasting font should be a
sans-serif font. Don't use bold -- it violates rule #4. Don't
use Courier -- mixing serif fonts on a line is not only hideous
(Courier looks like Times' mutant offspring when they're on the
same line), but using fonts with ANY similarity to one another makes
it too easy to miss the transition.

4. Pay attention to good book-design principles. You don't want to
draw the eye to low-level things. Boldface draws the eye strongly;
italics don't. That's why italics are used for emphasis in running
text -- you don't want people to skip two paragraphs because their eye
was attracted to the emphasized passage; you want them to get there
sequentially. In-line emphasis should be less eye-catching than the
lowest-level heading. Each level of heading should be more eye-catching
than the one below. Bullets, like emphasis, should be less eye-catching
than the lowest-level headings.

5. Boldface doesn't xerox well; the difference between the book face and
its bolface tends to vanish when photocopied or faxed. Italics
retain their identity, as will a contrasting font. Thus, don't
encode vital information into whether a font is bold or not.

Most of the issues that have been discussed here recently vanish if
you just use the second font, and leave everything else the way the
style guides specify.

-- Robert
Robert Plamondon, President/Managing Editor, High-Tech Technical Writing, Inc.
36475 Norton Creek Road * Blodgett * Oregon * 97326
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com * (541) 453-5841 * Fax: (541) 453-4139

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