Searching for the font of knowledge

Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica?  Out of the hundreds of fonts available to you, which one do you choose?

Before choosing a font, you must understand your audience.  Are they reading your document online or on paper?   Do they have good eye-sight or weak?  What tone do you want for your document – friendly, humorous, or commanding? Once you understand the situation, you can start on font selection.

Remember – Readability is always the foremost consideration!

1. Your first choice is for either serif or sans-serif fonts.

Serif fonts

  • Have serifs (A serif is a small line trailing from the edges of letters and symbols.)
  • Guide the reader’s eye to follow the line of type
  • Are commonly used in printed documentation
  • Examples are Times New Roman, Century and Baskerville

Sans-serif fonts

  • Do not have serifs
  • Are commonly used on computer screens
  • Examples are Arial, Helvetica and Verdana

2. Your second choice is for the general appearance of the font. Choose a font that has the right look for your document.  Are you designing a wedding invitation?  Use a calligraphy font like Lucida Calligraphy.  Are you designing a technical document to be read online? Use a simple sans-serif font like Verdana.

font moods

3. Your third choice is whether to use only one font per document, or add another.  The general rule is to stay with one font type for all of the body text.  Headings can be either the same font in a larger size, or a noticeably different font for emphasis, that still conveys the correct message. Switching fonts can be confusing for the reader, unless you do so for emphasis.  For example, warnings may be in a bolder or more dramatic font, if you wish to bring attention to them.

4. Your fourth choice is font size.  Choose a size for the body text that allows readability on a small screen. If you can set your copy to 10px and you can still make out what it says, then that’s a good indication you’ve chosen a readable typeface. As a general rule, designers like to set their body copy at the very least at 12px. Most, however, chose a larger size like 14px, which is even better for readability.

For all other choices, such as color and spacing, just keep readability as the primary requirement. As a writer, it is vital to familiarize yourself with the different font families, so that you can easily choose the right one to get your message across.

For interesting information on fonts, here are some links you might enjoy.


First things first: know your audience

Before starting on any document, you have to understand who you are writing for. The process of trying to understand your reader and their needs is called analyzing the rhetorical situation.

rehtorical situation

The rhetorical situation has three basic elements. You, as the author, must consider the audience, purpose, and context of your document.

1)      Audience

  • Demographics: age, education, sex, cultural background, etc.
  • Previous knowledge of the subject
  • Attitude towards the subject, the presentation, and the presenter

2)      Purpose

  • To persuade
  • To teach a concept
  • To enable performance of a task
  • To increase understanding
  • To change an attitude

3)      Context

  • The physical circumstances in which readers will use your document, such as at a desk in their office, in a noisy plant, or at home
  • The temporal circumstances in which readers will use your document, such as in a rush, during summer holidays, or late at night

You are writing your document for your reader to use. To do this well, you must analyze the rhetorical situation, so that you understand your audience.  Once that is done, you can start designing and writing your document, keeping the specific needs of your reader in mind.

For more information on analyzing rhetorical situations, check out the Purdue Online Writing Lab at

A picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes….

In technical writing, figures and illustrations are often added as an afterthought. You, as the writer, may want to insert graphics to liven up the document, fill in space, or add color.


A graphic has to add value to a document, support the text, and aid the reader. If it does not directly relate to something in the text, and if it does not clarify or enhance the text, then it has no value.

Look at the following example.


Does the graphic add anything at all to the slide?  Does the slide get the message across without the graphic? Is the graphic of any use at all to the reader?

Ask yourself these questions when you want to insert a graphic, and if the answers are no, no, no, then don’t insert the graphic!  Your document will be more effective without it. See more examples of bad graphics at

Technical writing craves visual design!

Technical writers are wordsmiths. They are experts at analyzing a situation, and writing the document that is needed.  They can organize topics, break down tasks, write steps and procedures, and produce a wide variety of documents on a vast array of subjects.

All too often, though, the documents are either plain and boring, or too complex to comprehend. Written content alone does not convey a message adequately.

Visual design to the rescue! Visual design encompasses everything from font color, size and type, to the size of the page and location of toolbars. Understanding the basics of visual design allows writers to make their documents effective and usable.

There are four levels for examining visual language.

  • Intra: Linear components, such as font style, size, spacing, and effects such as underlining
  • Inter: Fields and nonlinear components, such as headings, numbers, bullets, lines, and shading
  • Extra: Data displays, pictures, icons and symbols, such as tables, figures, charts, and all the relevant components such as style, angle, captions, and call-outs
  • Supra: Top-down design elements, such as page size and orientation, title pages, chapter and section titles, logos, and backgrounds

There are also three modes of design elements.

  • Textual
  • Spatial
  • Graphic

The Visual Language Matrix, developed by Kostelnick, demonstrates how these levels and modes relate. By analyzing and understanding these components, technical writers can strengthen their documents.


For more reading on Kostelnick’s work, check out