A sound knowledge of fonts is a must for any technical writer. In about fifteen or twenty years that may not be as crucial as it is today if and when the technical communication field makes a wholesale shift to “structured authoring” in which the writers may lose control over how their “content” will be formatted and “presented.”
But as these lines are written, we’re still living in the “unstructured authoring” era when technical writers not only gather the content but also decide how that content will appear in print, in a PDF file, on screen, etc. So that’s why they also need to have a good understanding of the fonts and how to use them properly.
First, you should be aware that when we commonly refer to a “font” in daily language we’re usually referring to a “font family.” It is also known as a “font face” or “typeface.”
A “font family” or “typeface” includes all letters of a given alphabet in one or more font sizes, all the punctuation marks, all numbers and a selected set of symbols.
For example, “Helvetica,” “Arial,” “Times Roman” are all font families. And within that “family” there are individual fonts, differing from each other by individual attributes such as “weight,” “style,” “size” etc.
That’s why, technically speaking, “Arial, 12 pt, Italic” is a different font than “Arial, 14 pt, Italic” because they do not have identical attributes (size, in this case). However, they still belong to the same “font family,” regardless of their attributes. This is especially true in print documentation.
However, the introduction of computers did change some of these basic definitions. Since size, weight and style of a font can be changed easily on a computer, the fonts that have different attributes (like weight and size) are referred to these days simply as a “typeface”. For example, “Arial 12 Bold” and “Arial 14 Italic” become “typefaces” in this new on-line design environment.