Over the past two days, there has been an interesting (and wide ranging) conversation happening on the LyX users mailing list. Steve Litt, author of the troubleshooters series of books, started a conversation about favorite LaTeX packages. Then, someone wrote in to ask about document classes and the best way to craft a thesis.
This finally morphed into a conversation on the aesthetics of document design. (Or at least, that’s I summarized the main point of the thread in my head.) It’s also the point that I decided to jump into the conversation.
I sent the following letter in response to a question about which fonts I prefer to use when writing with LaTeX. It lays out some of my thoughts on fonts, layout and document appearance. I liked it so much, that I thought I would post it here. (Yes, I know you’re not supposed to smitten by your own writing.)
Note: This isn’t exactly the letter that was sent to the LyX-Users list. Just the one I wish I had sent. It has been proofread, edited for clarifty, and expanded when compared to the original. I have also toned down the snark (if only barely).
Image from http://new.myfonts.com/newsletters/cc/200711.html. Shows letter form sketches from the notebook of Dino dos Santos.
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Dear LyX Users,
“Since this discussion is turning to matters of taste, what do you think about the font choices? The default font is obviously dated, if elegant. What do you people use?”
Take care with calling Computer Modern dated. I personally don’t like it, but a lot of people do. It works very nicely for mathematics and it has a cult following.
(I’d use stronger language — such as calling it rigid, pompous or ghastly — but that got me in trouble last time. So I’ll refrain. There’s no reason to start unnecessary forest fires.)
Beside, fonts never really become “dated”. Look at Helvetica, or Gill Sans. They’ve been around for 60 and 80 years, respectively, and are not going anywhere. Helvetica is everywhere and Gill Sans is (more or less) the default sans serif for Mac computers. Not bad for old timers.
My Favorite Typefaces
Trying to pick your favorite typefaces is a lot like trying to pick your favorite child. It isn’t to say that you don’t have one, just that it is uncomfortable to admit it. Moreover, it can change from day to day, depending on your mood.
As far as my personal preferences go, I’m a big fan of the Minion and Myriad Pro fonts, especially long-form texts such as books and essays.
Minion was inspired by Renaissance-era type, which gives it a classy appearance, but also goes to great pains to remain legible and readable both on screen and in print. When he wrote The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst used Minion as the typeface. Since Bringhurst’s book is considered the Bible of Typography, Minion’s designer must have done something right.
Myriad is a nice counterbalance to Minion. I personally think that They go together like peanut butter and jelly. I haven’t quite found a mono spaced font that I like.
Courier Std works in a pinch. (If anyone has any other ideas, I would love to hear them.) I leave Latin Modern for math. Customizing math fonts in xelatex is a pain that no one should suffer willingly, so I don’t bother.
I like to use the OpenType variants available with xelatex. This gives me access to all of the advanced typesetting features available. I don’t actually use them all, but it makes me feel better knowing that they are there. There is also a MinionPro package that can be used with other tex variants. The upshot of using the package is that it will customize the math fonts for you.
Palatino: Refined Elegance
The letter forms of Palatino may be the most refined ever created. Unfortunately, I’ve never really been able to find a sans-serif and mono-spaced font that matches well. (At least not per my aesthetic taste.) For that reason, I don’t use it often. A good designer friend says that Univers (or if you really need to go there, Helvetica) are appropriate pairings. I think he consumed too many magic mushrooms in his youth. (I actually agree with the Univers pairing. It offers good typographical contrast and the final effect really is quite nice. Just not for really long texts.)
Margins and Detail
If you’re using Minion, be sure to set appropriate margins. Minion is slightly narrower than Palatino and other fonts, and your margins should be adjusted accordingly. This is actually an important typographical detail that a lot of people overlook. The number of characters on each line of text, and the spacing between them can greatly effect their “readability.”
If the text is too dense, or the line is too long, it can cause the letters to blend together and make them more difficult to read. Magazines and newspapers have refined readability to art form, which is why you can read for minutes (or hours) at a time without strain or difficulty.
However … I’d worry about fonts and appearance until the end. The choice of font should complement the subject of your thesis, and it is usually impossible to choose before it has been written. Book design follows the writing of the book, not before.
(I’m speaking from experience, rather than trying to be preachy. I’ve been working on a book about Open Source writing and I’ve wasted inordinate amounts of time fretting about fonts, margins, and headings. This is why authors should also not be their own book designers.)
With the disclaimer, I would start looking at every book you see. Spend time in the bookstore browsing titles that are similar to your thesis and look at how they lay things out. In the front matter, it will usually say who designed the book and what typefaces were used. If you find a pairing that you really like, by all means, steal it.
There is no reason to re-invent wheels if you don’t have to. Also, note how wide the margins are and whether they use fully justified text, or ragged right. These things really matter, a lot. Designers have done lots of research about what makes for exceptional layout. For that reason, modifying a professional layout is often a better choice than starting from scratch. (For an introduction to the principles of legibility and readability, the Wikipedia page on typography is a good start.)
With all that said, the default package pairings in LaTeX are really quite good. Consider using one of those. The LaTeX companion has an overview and I would highly recommend you take a look.
Just wait until you are finished, though, and know what type of effect you want to achieve. It will save you hours of tinkering. For working drafts, use Latin Modern.