OOo Off the Wall: Building Characters
For many users, customizing the pre-defined styles is all that is necessary. In particular, if you are planning to export to MS Office format, you might want to change the font used by the Bulleted style. By default, Bulleted uses the StarSymbol font to create bullets, while MS Office uses MS Symbol. Because of this difference, bullets often don't translate between the two office suites. If you create a document for export that uses another font that Windows has access to, such as Times New Roman, you can avoid this problem.
In addition, the pre-defined character styles do not include several styles that would be useful to many users, such as a superscript or a small capital style. Depending on your needs, you might want to create styles based on any of the other options on the Font Effects, Position or Background tabs. Don't forget, though, that only one character style can be applied per selected text block.
As an alternative to character styles, you might consider altering paragraph styles using conditions. Available only for styles and not for manual formatting, conditions are not a substitute for character styles in the middle of a paragraph. However, they are useful replacements for headings or other short paragraphs, such as table headers or a paragraph set up for outline numbering. Conditions and outline numbering will be discussed in future columns.
Character styles largely are selections of fonts and font settings. Unlike FrameMaker, character styles in Writer have no convenient As Is setting for borrowing attributes from the paragraph in which they are applied. Because of this lack, you cannot create a single character style for italics and use it for both body text and a heading paragraph style of a much larger size. Instead, you have to create individual character styles for both the body text and heading paragraph style. The exception is the Default character style, which returns the selected text to the attributes set in the paragraph style.
Most of the time, the character style should be the same size as the font for the paragraph style in which it is used. Otherwise, line spacing is affected for any line on which the character style is used. The easiest way to ensure that the size is the same is to use the same font, but in another typeface.
If you do use another font, don't be surprised if it looks bigger or smaller than the paragraph font even though it is the same size. Remember that a font's size denotes the amount of vertical height given to characters, including the empty space around the actual letters. If one font uses more space around the letters, then the letters that use the font will be smaller than letters in another font of the same size.
Remember, too, that as with other sorts of design, parsimony is essential to successful type layout. Only a few years ago, amateur designers--especially the writers of technical manuals--tended to overdose on the options offered by digital type and used as many as a dozen different character styles in a single document. Some technical manuals would use six or eight different character styles: one for commands to enter, one for menu items, one for new terms and so on. Not only was the result a cluttered page, but the conventions nearly were impossible for readers to remember. Mercifully, this type of overkill has become rarer as people learned to take the options for granted. Today, far fewer character styles are used in most cases.
Two conventions that have not died are the tendencies to use bold weights everywhere and to use a monospaced font such as Courier for commands. Too frequent use of bold weights makes a page look like a pimply teenager suffering an outbreak of blackheads. Nor is the appearance helped by the fact that, in many word processors, bold weights are simply thickened versions of the regular typeface rather than fonts specifically designed to accommodate the thickness of the letters. This appearance is especially common in word processors that cobble together bold characters on their own rather than using the typefaces that come with the font. Fortunately, OpenOffice.org does not create its own bold weights; if a font lacks a bold weight then the regular typeface is used instead. Still, the over-use of a bold weight is a problem even in OpenOffice.org. A better solution in a paper document is to use italics. On-line, try using the same font as for headings, headers and footers. Because the font is being used already, the result usually is a more aesthetic page. Often, too, in any media, you can replace any character style with a word in the paragraph's main font, referring to the File menu rather than the File menu.
Similarly, the habit of formatting computer commands in a monospaced font has more tradition behind it than thoughtful design. True, command lines tend to look better with a monospaced font, especially when arranging text in columns, as in the output returned for the cal command. Yet that is no reason that a document has to do the same. The fact that the most readily available monospaced fonts, such as Courier and Franklin Gothic, are plain ugly makes the practice even less desirable. Better monospaced fonts do exist (for instance, see www.ragnarokpress.com/scriptorium/monospaced.html), but they are rare, and you should be prepared to pay for most of them.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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