Posts Tagged 'communication'

Typography and You

Typography and You

Today we will be discussing a fundamental building block in the basic pragmatic and aesthetic functions of document design and technical communications: font choice. Although to some, choices in font may seem arbitrary, a matter of taste or preference—choices in font are vital to a document’s ability both to be pleasing to the eye and to be easily legible. Particularly when dealing with longer documents, maintaining both of these aspects of presentation will result in a document that is easier and less tiresome to read, which is ideal for your user. While certain technical documents will be dictated by a style guide that pre-selects the appropriate font and sizing, many times a choice in font will be left open to interpretation, and in those moments it is useful to have a few design principles in your back pocket to understand typography better.

First, let’s discuss three of the basic types of font categories, their characteristics, and their uses.


Serif fonts are globally some of the most popular typefaces, and are recognizable by the linear flourish or flares emanating out from the letters, emulating brushstrokes. These marks are the serifs themselves. Examples of popular serif typefacing are fonts such as Times New Roman, Palatino, or Garamond. Serif fonts endure in popularity in part because they are so easy to read as large bodies of text. While they may not have the contemporary style and clean lines of a san-serif font, your general serif font such as Times New Roman will look best in a long body paragraph like an essay or long email. Serif fonts are especially useful when employed in ink-and-paper, non-electronic print media.


Sans-serif fonts, are—as the name implies, fonts that have been stripped of their brushstroke emulations in favor of a cleaner typeface style that is more congruous with bold statement pieces of texts such as headings and logos. Examples of common sans-serif fonts are Verdana, Arial, and Helvetica. Helvetica has been favored in use in both advertising, and infrastructural signage in part because of its clear and legible style that can be rendered in many languages. Sans serif font allow the designer or communicator more creative control with the size, weight (how thick or thin the typeface seems), and kerning (letter spacing). However, it should be noted that since sans-serif fonts do not guide the eye along in a horizontal fashion like serif fonts do, sans-serif fonts are best employed for emphasis and for short-form pieces of text.


Script typefaces are the most formal and elaborate forms of typeface, meant to mimic calligraphy or handwriting. Script fonts are essentially cursive, and have the most flourishes of any font type. Because of this, they are perhaps the most aesthetically distinctive and expressive of the typefaces, but they are also the least legible and least suitable for bodies of text. Due to all of their flourishes, script fonts also tend to take up the most space on the page. It is important when using script fonts to pay attention to the size and kerning of your font choice, since all of those flourish-heavy letters will often compete for space and attention with one another. The most appropriate uses for script fonts are for cards, invitations, letter head, and other formal and announcement-based contexts for typeface.

For more information on typography, check out:

-Hannah Ross


Designing Dynamically

Technical writing is often built around encouraging action on the part of the reader, like instructions for building a piece of furniture. While words alone can be effective, many have chosen to use illustrations as part of that, not only including pictures of objects, but of objects being acted upon by a visible person. In American popular culture this has been seen before and technical communicators can learn from the art of the comic book.



                The most obvious is the figure itself. In comic books you develop personalities that are developed over time and then reinvented for a new audience when the original personality no longer connects with the intended readership. While technical communication rarely develops personalities, it can try to connect to the audience through art as well as words.

In some technical documents, like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the author is very clear about his reference material… he draws himself as a guide. But, in mainstream comics, the figure is often masked or hidden. The first is a way of connecting to the reader on a personal level, but it doesn’t create a persona for the reader in the way that mainstream comics often do. Arms and hands are often visible, and perhaps the most important element of all is the ¾ rule… the figure is not shown straight on or completely from the side, but a mix of both. This creates dimensionality and encourages engagement.


McCloud himself points to the simplicity of comic art as a good thing; it emphasizes what the artist is trying to communicate. This is already an active principle in technical communication, but the awareness of it. Michael Opsteegh’s article for “Techniscribe,” “What Technical Communicators can learn from Comics,” covers much of the elements that can be duplicated in technical communications, such as wavy lines to indicate a bad smell, or straight lines to show speed.


Opsteegh even takes us back in time to Will Eisner’s M16A manual, given in WWII to soldiers in order to efficiently communicate the care and use of the weapon, but Opsteegh misses an important part of  the art of comic books, even in Eisner’s case. Instead of looking at an individual panel, or one piece of art, we can look at the page design. Comics have ranged from magazine size (in the Golden Age of comics) through to pamplets (like Chick Tracts, some Tijuana Bibles, and other experimental efforts). This has required some interesting artistic choices. Eisner, in “Comics and Sequential Art,” talks about the flow of information across panels, unifying the document. Any technical document that wants to motivate the reader needs to do more than just guide the reader with big arrows… it also needs to design the page so that the graphical elements in the instructions themselves naturally flow toward the next instruction.

You can bet that with the rise of graphic journalism, the need to communicate to non-literate audiences, and the ability to create information dense documents, you’ll be seeing more graphic communications in your technical soup.

Talking the Talk: Being Articulate at Your Job Interview

If you have expertise in Word and Excel, create InDesign documents just for giggles, and hold an academic resume that deserves an award, then I owe you a hearty congratulation. You are officially a technical communication geek! [Audience wildly applauds and chants your name.] You probably have spent a substantial amount of time and effort on learning how to manipulate various editing and publishing software and you are ready to move up in the world, as a professional technical writer. Presenting yourself in a resume, as a skillful and competent candidate, is just half the battle when persuading an employer that you’re the right one for the job. In Pete Geissler’s, The Power of Being Articulate, he interviews company CEOs who hire their management team not only for what they know, but their ability to effectively communicate what they know. The ability to communicate effectively, with Standard English, has taken a back seat in the Technological Age, while brief electronic messages have dominated interoffice communication.  It is one thing to be an SME, but lacking the ability to communicate your genius ideas it is another which brings me to my point.

Tip 1– Don’t be an ummm person. You know the language that is filled with excessive unintelligible murmuring.  We are all guilty of brain farts every now and then, but lacing your sentences with too many ummms can disrupt your audience from clearly hearing your message. Writing your thoughts before you present an idea will improve your speech delivery. You will be able to recall your main points quicker than if you had not prepared at all. You will be praised for your ability to deliver details without meandering and never getting to the point.

Tip 2 – Know your stuff, and tell it. For instance, if you are interviewing with a company that does contracts with the government, then you should look up some basic conventions for MIL-STDs (military standards). Be somewhat familiar with the writing style that you will use on the job and articulate your knowledge about it. If your interviewer is not impressed, then at least they have an idea of how well you take initiative to be prepared. You will be showing on-the-job skills before being hired! If your interviewer does not notice your initiative, then they are just a bad person. Hmph!

Tip 3 – Don’t be a chatterbox. In his book, Geissler mentions several habits that articulate people avoid, and one of them is being verbose.  He says, Articulates never interrupt or finish the sentence of those who are speaking to them, and they avoid people who do. While on your interview, remember that communication is a tool for conveying your ideas, answering interview questions, and articulating your awesome abilities. Make your responses concise and to the point. You may want to refrain from regurgitating the tech comm encyclopedia during your interview. Don’t fret! You can impress your friends with your new found jargon later. 

-Jennifer F.

Liberal Arts Meet the Hard Sciences: Combining Communication with Science

I recently read Technically Speaking: Oral Communication for Engineers, Scientists, and Technical Personnelby Harold Weiss and James McGrath Jr. The book discusses ways members of the scientific community can become better oral and written communicators. As a communication arts major, I started to look back on all my English and communications classes that I had had with any sciene majors and how the hard sciences and liberal arts had interacted together. Mixing the liberal art of communication with hard sciences such as engineering has never been an easy task from what I have seen. They tend to resist each other in the same way two magnets do when you try to push the ends with the same polarity together.

But a growing trend is the idea of these two different disciplines working together to make everyone’s lives easier.

Everyone’s got a gift for something. For some, the gift is speaking. Others can write. And then there are those that can send rockets to the moon.

Then there are the tasks that people do not have much of a gift for. Not everyone was born to sing. Some cannot write. They just do not have the words. Others do not know much if anything about thermodynamics. I myself can write and use words pretty well. But I definitely am not gifted with a talent for any type of engineering. Basic concepts I do get when explanined to me. Go beyond that and I am out of my league. Luckily for me (and all of those others not born to be engineers) there are those gifted with a talent for engineering.

Many of those gifted with engineering talents often find themselves not exactly poet laureates. That is where someone like a technical communicator who is gifted with a talent for words and writing comes in. The game is changing. It’s not enough to be a groundbreaking engineer. You have to be able to talk about it to an audience who may or may not have any knowledge of engineering in an articulate fashion. And this is not always an easy task. It can be difficult to translate technical jargon into common everyday language. Enter technical communicators. They can use their gift of writing and words to help show off the talents of a great engineer in a way that people can more easily comprehend and thus appreciate more.

Everyone has gifts and it is important to share those gifts with others. Engineers and scientists are some of the most brilliant people in the world. Many of them do work that I cannot even begin to fully comprehend. But not everyone in the world can know and appreciate this because these same brilliant engineers and scientists just do not have a gift for oral and written communication. In steps technical communicators, who have a gift of words and writing. Why not let the gifts and talents of one discipline help show off those of another? Engineers and scientists need to share their brilliant work with the masses who may or may not be engineering experts. Technical communicators can help engineers and scientists accomplish this task. The engineers and scientists get to show the world their brilliant work. Technical communicators get to use their gift and writing and words to help. And people get information presented to them in a comprehensible manner.

So in the end, the formula reads:

Engineers and Scientists brilliant work + Technical Communicators writing and words = Brilliant work that can be understood and appreciated by everyone a.k.a Happy People.

Sounds like a winning formula to me.

– Jay Cavender

So Does This Mean I’m Stupid?

Not something that I would normally characterize myself as, but this was my initial thought after coming across a book by French journalist Franck Frommer entitled, How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid:  The Faulty Causality, Sloppy Logic, Decontextualized Data, and Seductive Showmanship That Have Taken Over Our Thinking.  Whew.  So I decided to read the book and although I am not a fan, (a future book review will further delve into my opinion),  there were some interesting observations made.

The man credited with inventing PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins, initially created the software for office meetings or the presentation of products and services.  For all the negative attributes of PowerPoint, there is a general consensus that PowerPoint transformed the concept of the meeting.  As Frommer points out, it is in fact almost impossible to contemplate a meeting without a presentation device.

But why is PowerPoint so popular?  The use of PowerPoint does not cease outside the Boardroom.  Its users run the gamut from students and teachers to advertisers and engineers.  PowerPoint has a universal appeal.  But why?

  • You can present material quickly
  • You can present material at a low cost
  • The presentations are accessible and reasonable for everyone
  • It allows even the most technical people to display their creative esthetic

(See what I did here?)

As an employee, student, and teacher, PowerPoint is almost an everyday part of my life …..Picture it:

You’ve been called to a meeting.  As you make your way into the room with your pen and pad, you see someone in the front of the room fumbling with a projector and laptop.  You immediately kick yourself for not bringing that report you need to read (or in my case that stack of papers that need to be graded).  You  find a seat and resign yourself to the newest, most boring meeting of your life.

This is precisely the fault Franck Frommer and others find with PowerPoint.  He cited a study which renamed PowerPoint presentations “corporate sleeping pills” (106).  Frommer feels that when PowerPoint is in use, the speaker is in direct competition with the presentation for the audiences’ attention.  Honestly, how many times have you gone through all the bullet points on a slide and began the descent into your lackadaisical stupor, all before the presenter finishes discussing the first bullet point?  Ironically, Frommer found that the very things used to bolster the effectiveness of presentations, such as bullet points, obtrude on the concentration of the audience and causes them to forget the material.

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