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While there are no standards, I personally opt for high
readability--and I find Times and its many variants not particularly
good in that regard. It was, after all, originally designed to be able
to cram many letters in the narrow columns of newspapers rather than
to stress ease of reading.
Thus, if given a preference, for technical documentation I opt for far
more open faces.
One of the best samples I have seen used a combination of Sumner
Stone's Stone Serif and Stone Sans, which while obviously being
distinct still had sufficient similarity to produce a highly
consistent and pleasing combination that was at the same time
extremely easy to read.
Some of the considerations for maximum readability may also suggest
considering fonts designed for online use. I would not discard the
notion simply because the piece may not be intended for that medium.
However, as I said, I do not regard Times as a particularly good font
for technical material even though it is fairly ubiquitous online.
You should also pay attention to the face used for code examples, if
you use any. Here, I opt for something very readable in a monospaced
font designed for code...which distinguishes between the
often-confused characters such as "I" (capital i) and "1" (number), or
lower the letter "o" from the zero figure. I even have a preference
for this purpose for a font with a crossed number seven so there is
absolutely no confusion.
I suggest, too, that as you choose the fonts to use that you pay
particular attention to font size. Often, a font's apparent size may
be in large part a function of the x-height and body width combined to
a somewhat lesser degree with the stroke weight for the design. One
font at a given point size may appear far larger than another. In the
most extreme cases, one font in a ten-point size may appear visually
as large as another at 12.
If you have the luxury of space, I also would consider using a
somewhat larger point size than you may be accustomed to--again for
maximizing readability. In my printed correspondence, for example, for
many years I have used eleven or eleven and a half point type as a
It is true that documents set entirely in sans serif type are
increasingly common today. However, in many cases that makes them
harder to read. Too-wide columns, leading which is too small or too
large, tracking and kerning which is not properly done--all can make
passages in sans more challenging to read without effort and increase
the likelihood of misreading.
Obviously, until at least the widespread adoption of some of the
newest Web standards that should empower a much better type selection
online, the choices at present are far more limited for materials that
will appear both in print and online. If you have the relative luxury
of only contending with print, a little care in layout can produce a
beautiful but highly readable and useful end result.
Personally, I am also rather sad that programs such as Word do such an
abominable job in this regard--including leading that is at the very
best a rather poor compromise in many situations. As you become
sensitized to artful typographic layout, you increasingly appreciate
the saying that "Words are to a word processor as food is to a food
Your understanding that font choice can be extremely helpful for both
the appearance and the impact of a printed document is a very good
I have mentioned the Lyx document processor before. Since it is based
upon the TeX typesetting language, even its standard output is
generally far superior to any normal word processor. However, for tech
docs, I think it represents a bit too large a learning curve if this
is the only advantage you seek. For someone writing a dissertation,
scholarly article, or a math or science textbook or the like, however,
in my opinion it remains one of the best choices available.
I greatly enjoyed a few projects I did with InDesign, too. The
incredible control over all aspects of typography was great fun--but
for those of us who don't do that sort of layout often, it can be
extraordinarily time-consuming as well.
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