| August 12, 2010 3:14 pm

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.

* * *

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?”

Helvetica-ShowcaseTake 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.

gill sans2Yet.

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.”

imageIf 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.

General Advice

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.




4 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Fonts (August 2010 Edition)”

Stephen wrote a comment on October 15, 2010

>>”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 ”

My issue with Computer Modern is that it screams “this was produced with TeX/LaTeX”, rather than “this looks good, and is really clear”. I think documents should first evoke the response that it looks good etc, encouraging me to actually read them, which is surely the intent. Only as a much later response should the reader think about how it was produced, or which package was used.
Word documents often scream “this was made with Word”, if only because they have clearly used the template defaults, which will eventually end up making them look very dated as new versions and defaults emerge.
Books that have been word processed rather than typeset often stand out as such, if only because they are not the pleasure to read that they should be. Good layout should help and encourage me to read what is written whatever type of content is there. Just because material is heavy going academically does not strike me as a good reason to cram more on a page that is appropriate and make it more difficult to read than it already is.

Robert Marma wrote a comment on January 8, 2011


Your posting was most illuminating. Thank you for submitting it. I have been working on a newsletter for a ministry. Initially, I was using MS Word, but decided to try laying it out using Scribus, which I’ve been using occasionally for about a year. Although I still consider myself a Scribus “newbie”, I have come to appreciate the greater precision of a DTP app. However, I find myself missing some of the more convenient features of Word, such as its “drag and drop” for text and image import with auto-sizing, as well as its simple dialog box for line spacing.

I certainly have a decent selection of fonts from which to choose [close to 1,000 fonts installed on each of most of my systems], but, as I’m sure you already know, sometimes an overabundance of selections can be worse than an inadequate one because the choice can be confusing and, therefore, agonizing.

I have contacted you, not for specific advice about font choices or even layout design in general, but because I am actually considering installing and trying to learn to use one of the LaTeX packages–preferably one that possesses a relatively short learning curve. I am thinking about one of the LaTex variants because I thought it would be useful for automating the creation of master pages, which will be identical for all issues, at least as far as page headings are concerned. I would prefer free or open source software, since (1) I am retired and living on a fixed income, and (2) I am not getting paid for any of this work, at least not currently.

Another concern is page numbering imposition, which naturally will vary from issue to issue. My newsletter will be printed double-sided, two pages per side, and center folded–in other words, four pages per sheet. This means that each issue must have a total page count that is exactly divisible by four. I wrote the script for a very simple BASIC program that automatically produces a page order list after you enter the page identifier data. It works beautifully, but I would prefer to be able to use a built-in imposition utility, and I was hoping that one of these LaTex variants has one. Also these automated master pages must be able to accommodate two to four small images, and I don’t know if LaTex can manage images.

Anyway, any advice or guidance that you can offer will be greatly appreciated.

Your humble servant,

Bob Marma

José Valdez wrote a comment on January 15, 2012

I enjoyed reading your post and I totally agree with the following: “Myriad is a nice counterbalance to Minion. I personally think that They go together like peanut butter and jelly.”

On the other hand, no one has to suffer because of math typsetting, specially with XeLaTeX (“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’ve used mathspec package for typset math using XeLaTeX and works perfectly. Specially with “Pro fonts” like Minion, Warnock and others (they must have greek characters, if you use them in your math). So it is possible to use your favorite fonts even for a lot of math (at least with XeLaTeX!).

Greetings from Guatemala

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on January 16, 2012

Hi José,

Thanks for the information about mathspec. I experimented with it a while ago, but got inconsistent results, so I didn’t pursue it much further. It looks like I really need to go back and look at it again. Thanks for the push!



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