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Representation In Text

A picture is worth a thousand words, unless it isn’t. My early training was that every single piece of, for example, a connection had to be shown in a section and if that meant three or four sections for a single connection, then we drew three or four sections. (Language nit-picking clarification: all drawings are sections of some kind, where we take a plane and draw what we see where it intersects the building. If the plane is horizontal and a foot above the floor looking down, it’s a structural plan; if it’s horizontal and halfway between floors looking down, it’s an architectural plan; if it’s vertical and doesn’t actually intersect the building it’s an elevation. All details are sections of some kind, most often vertical cuts, but also horizontal cuts (plan sections), and sometimes oddball cuts like the oval helical sections I mentioned on Monday.)

Using some text can save a lot of drawing. Say, for example, that I’m going to use some expansion bolts to anchor a steel angle to a concrete wall. I need a section to show the orientation of the angle and, usually, whatever is sitting on that angle the made it necessary. There are four pieces of information about the bolts themselves – the type of bolt, the diameter, the embedment length, and the spacing – that need to be provided for someone to build it. There’s no way around using words to call out the bolt type (the manufacturer and trade name) but in theory I can show everything else. I can draw the bolt to scale and use dimension lines to show the diameter and embedment length. However, to graphically show the spacing, I need to cut a second section at right angles to the first, and the only additional information on that second section would be a dimension line showing the bolt spacing. So I can draw an entire second section, or I can put at 16″ o.c. after the bolt type on the first section. Which sounds easier?

Once you start down that path, the line between when a section is needed and when it is not gets blurry fast. Do I absolutely need that first section? I could draw a line on the plan indicating the angle location and put a note that gives the angle size and orientation and then describes the bolts. It wouldn’t even be a very long note. Whether or not that is okay depends on whether you believe it is more likely to be built correctly if you draw a section.

Whether text is a good idea also depends on whether or not it’s readable. The Army Corps of Engineers drafting standards I mentioned yesterday has seem very definite ideas about that. Text is to be 3/32 of an inch high and all caps “since capital letters retain readability when reproduced at one-half size.” To pull back from drafting from a moment and discuss typography, 3/32″ is 6.75 points. That is very small text. Our standard text for letters and memos is 12 points, and there are a few places we drop down to 10 points. Small text is more difficult to read when anything is not perfect: lighting, paper cleanliness, the vision of the reader… Reproducing drawings at half size is a fairly common practice, and having text that is effectively less than 3.5 points high is brutal. To make matters worse, all-capitals text is less easy to read because there is less variation among the letter shapes. Finally, that drafting manual recommends using Arial, which is Microsoft’s more-or-less version of Helvetica. Arial lettering has a single lineweight and no serifs. (Typography nit-pick: such typefaces are known as “grotesques,” which is a great name for anything serious.) Arial and similar faces are less easy to read than ordinary text typefaces with varying lineweights and serifs. So this manual is specifying text that is difficult to read because it’s all caps, difficult to read because of the typeface, and difficult to read because it’s very small. What if you use bigger text in a more readable typeface? Since it will be more readable at half-size, you can use caps and lower case, which makes it more readable. And if it’s more readable, then you can feel more confident using notes rather than drawing every last detail.

These are two different approaches and I don’t think one is necessarily always right and the other always wrong. But drafting has tilted the Corps manual way for a long time.