OpenOffice.org Off the Wall: Fonts of Wisdom
The majority of fonts fall into two categories, serif and sans serif. Serif fonts have small feet or hooks at the tops and bottoms of vertical lines; sans serifs do not.
Times New Roman is the most widely used serif font, and Helvetica and Arial the most widely-used sans serif. Because many computers have these fonts, using them or near-replicas often means that exporting and importing files between computers is easy. But the price you pay for this convenience is an utterly conventional design. Hundreds of alternatives are available, including thousands of free fonts that can be found on the Internet.
The North American convention in printing is to use serif fonts for body text and mostly sans serif fonts for headings. By this standard, using sans serif fonts for body text looks innovative and avant-garde. By contrast, in Europe, san serif fonts often are used for body text, although in some places American cultural influence appears to be making this standard less common.
On-line, sans serif fonts are used more often than serifs. Screen resolutions are much lower than the resolution of text in the average book, and serifs often do not reproduce well. An exception is the sub-category of slab serif fonts, which use especially large serifs.
Other font categories include:
Script fonts: fonts that resemble handwriting, sometimes called calligraphic fonts. Whatever their name, they usually should be avoided in business documents or on-line.
Display fonts: fonts designed for headings or for brief lines or paragraphs in advertising, posters and brochures. Display fonts should not be used for body text, because they often can be hard to read in long paragraphs.
Monospaced fonts: fonts in which each letter is the same width. By contrast, most fonts are proportional, with different letters having different widths. Monospaced fonts were used in the original command-line interfaces on computers. For this reason, many people still use them to indicate commands to type in technical material. Courier, the most common monospaced font, is perhaps the ugliest font ever designed, but a few monospaced fonts look as good as proportional fonts.
Dingbats: fonts that consist of pictures or designs rather than characters. Hundreds of dingbat fonts exist. Some, like Zapf dingbats, have general-purpose pictures. Others have themes, such as flowers or portraits. One use for dingbats in Writer is as unusual bullets.
Whatever its category, each font creates its own impression. When you choose a font, think about the impression you want to convey and the tone and content of your message. In conventional typography, the goal is to enhance the message, not to call attention to the choice of fonts.
Fonts are easy to overdo. So many fonts are available these days that it is easy to use too many at once. Similarly, an office suite can transform them in so many ways that you quickly can enhance a font into illegibility. If you restrict your documents to no more than two or three fonts apiece, and minimize the effects, you should improve the readability and the design of your documents.
This restriction is not as rigid as it sounds. Each font generally is divided into several typefaces or variants. The standard font usually is called regular or roman, although in the case of some fonts designed by Adrian Frutiger, it is designated 55 instead. Most fonts have at least three other typefaces, some combination of regular, italic, bold and bold italic. Some fonts also have narrow, expanded, oblique, extra bold or other versions. For this reason, using only two or three fonts actually means having at least eight to twelve typefaces available.
If you are formatting manually, you can select from the available fonts by using the second drop-down list from the left on the Object tool bar. By default, the list previews fonts by displaying each font's name in the font itself. In addition, the most recently used fonts in the document appear at the top of the list, directly below the one in use at the current cursor position. Both of these options can be turned off to save memory in Tools -> Options -> OpenOffice.org -> View. Other buttons on the Object bar manually format the size, typeface, color and background. Alternatively, in Writer, you can select the default, heading, list, caption and index fonts in Tools -> Options -> Text Documents -> Basic Fonts.
If you want more control, select Format -> Character for the currently highlighted text string. If you want to format the entire paragraph, select it. There are no font settings in Format -> Paragraph. By contrast, if you are using styles, you find the same set of options in the formatting window for both character and paragraph style. In any OpenOffice.org application, the easiest way to open a style's formatting window is by selecting the style in the Stylist and then picking Modify from the right-click menu. Whether you are formatting manually or using styles, you can set font characteristics from three tabs:
Font: contains settings for the font, typeface, size and language.
Font Effects: font formatting.
Position: how the font is placed in relation to a line of text and the spacing between characters. This tab is unique to Writer, the application most concerned with text formatting.
In practice, you probably will need to jump back and forth between these tabs as you design.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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