Archive for the 'Typography' category

 | December 28, 2011 1:49 am

Elegant-Book-page1One of the most difficult (and, subsequently, rewarding) publications to create is that of a photographic or fine arts book. Unlike a novel, or a book with a sane number of images, fine arts books have a lot of variables. These include a written narrative, photographs and the artwork, and the typography. Additional page decoration add to the complexity. Things can get really sticky because all of the different elements rebound against one another, but it’s essential that they all sing harmony to the melody.

The photography needs to match the timbre of the text, and the typography should cause the whole to resonate. When everything comes together well, a carefully crafted volume will draw readers like famished revelers to a feast. They’ll linger on the artwork, study the captions, dwell on the text, and ponder the message.

About a year ago, I played around with different layouts for such a publication. Initially, I wanted to experiment with a style known as “formalism”, which combines some of the best aspects of Swiss/Modern school with a slightly more relaxed attitude toward using decoration and embellishment. I had planned on developing a template for a side project.

An Elegant Book - Page Spread 1

Unfortunately, I never got much further than the layouts that you see here. Life and circumstances prevented me from completing the side project, and the typography didn’t have the right tone for other things I was working on. So, the template I was going to create languished.

Until last week, that is.

An Elegant Book - Page Spread 2

A little under six months ago, I got married. As part of the celebrations (which are still ongoing), I created a wedding album for my wife. Instead of working from scratch on the album, I chose to use the “Elegant Book” template. This means, that I’ve finally cleaned it up enough that I feel comfortable releasing it into the wild. I hope that someone is able to enjoy and make use of it! (Merry Christmas, belatedly.)


An Elegant Book. This archive includes all of the files and fonts needed to install the template. A PDF example can be found here.


To install, download the .zip archive. Then, extract it and open up the main document file, which ends in the .sla extension. Once the file finishes loading, select the “Save as Template” option from the “File” menu. Be sure to place a checkmark in the “Include Font” and “Include Color Profile” boxes. Select the directory where you would like to save the template (you will probably want to make a new one). Finally, click on the “Save” button.

When you save a template into the Scribus Templates folder, it will copy the template file, photos, and fonts to the directory you specify. It will also add the template to the template gallery.

Template Use

Once you have downloaded and installed the template, you can create a new document by clicking on the “New From Template” link in the “File” menu. When the template file first loads, it will provide you with several example pages that can be used in your layout. Simply delete the sample text/images and replace them with your own.

To adjust the appearance of a particular block of text, you can apply character and paragraph styles from the “Text” section of the “Properties” dialog. To modify the appearance of a whole page, you can make use of the “Apply Master Page” option under the “Page” menu.


Below, you can find a few of the page layouts I used in the wedding album. The template contains additional examples.

Book Cover

Book Title Page




Bridal Veils


Memories of Weddings Past

 | November 29, 2011 8:34 pm

Sometimes it’s important to be extremely fussy about otherwise inconsequential things. There’s a reason why people fight over the proper pronunciation of már ‘habitation in Quenya (the m takes on an mb sound), pirates versus ninjas, and the proper placement of footnotes. It’s not that any of these particularly matter, but when pronounced, understood, or typeset correctly, such miscellanea greatly enrich the world.

For months, I’ve been distressed about how LaTeX handles footnotes. (Which, to be clear, is much better than how Word handles them.) Notes are used for subordinate details, which provide additional information, insight, and wit. In that role, they provide an important supplement to the main text.

Depending on which type of note you choose to use – foot, end, or side – there are certain rules which govern how they should be typeset. Robert Bringhurst, author of “The Elements of Typographic Style” and the authority on book typography lays it out pretty well:

Footnotes are the very emblem of fussiness, but they have their uses. If they are short and infrequent, they can be made economical of space, easy to find when wanted, and, when not wanted, easy to ignore …

In the main text, superscript numbers are used to indicate notes because superscript numbers minimize interruption. They are typographic asides: small because that is an expression of relative importance, and raised for two reasons: to keep them out of the flow of the main text, and to make them easier to find. In the note itself, the number is not an aside, but a target. Therefore, the number in the note should be full size.1


Unfortunately, this isn’t how LaTeX does it. Instead of having a superscript in the text and a full sized numeral in the notes, it uses superscript for both.2 Not only is it wrong (as far as anything can be wrong in a war of opinions), but it’s really hard to change. Most of the document classes only give you one or two options for the footnotes, and they’re not generally any better than the default. Nor does the heavy of all footnote packages, footmisc, provide a fix. Which means, if you want to adjust the way that the number appears, you have to hack the class at a lower level. (Sigh.)

Unless, you’re using memoir, that is.

It turns out that memoir provides hooks to customize everything about the footnotes. This includes the style, the size of the font, and … the numerical label. (If you’d like, you can even use symbols.) The code below will give you properly formatted references:

  • superscript in the text
  • full sized numeral in the note
  • numeral out-dented into the margin by 1 em
  • note text typeset left flush


The \footmarkstyle macro is used to remove the superscript, \footmarkwidth is the size of the box containing the note label, \footmarksep is how much to offset the numeral from the text.


  1. The footnote is flagged by a superscript in the text, but the note itself is introduced by an outdented figure of the same size for the text of the note. (Taken from “The Elements of Style,” page 69.)

2 Which is, frankly, unsightly and distracting.

 | November 16, 2011 5:59 pm

For the past several months, I’ve found myself teaching technology courses. (Which is strange, since I’m not really a technologist.) To date, I’ve taught courses about Web Development, Programming, Networking, and (most recently) … Microsoft Office. I hope that you can appreciate the irony in this.

While I don’t have anything against Microsoft [1], I have a grudge against Office. This isn’t because it’s unstable, that it often makes easy things impossible, or that it has mangled and masticated my work. No, my single biggest complaint against Microsoft Office is that it contributes to an uglier world.

Don’t believe me? Consider the default typefaces: Times New Roman and Arial [2].

There is a reason that Times New Roman (as used by Word) and Arial are reviled. The one is a knock-off of a newspaper font meant for narrow columns, and the other is a Helvetica copy. In Word, they are used for the body and headings, respectively, and that is wrong. Using Times New Roman for body text results in way too many characters per line and makes the text more difficult to read. Using Arial with Times New Roman leads to a font-mismatch of epic proportions. Fonts have histories, personalities, and contexts and Arial and Times New Roman just don’t fit.

And I’ve said nothing about Word’s notoriously poor type-handling and typographical quality [3]. Whether it’s optical margins, font kerning, ligatures, or numerals; it’s all consistently wrong. Microsoft is a big company, if they wanted to get things right, they could.

But, they don’t.

For that reason, I spend most of my time convincing people not to use Word. I steer them toward writing tools like Scrivener, which provides a lovely way to capture ideas and create drafts; page layout tools like Scribus and InDesign, where they can exert fine-toothed control over the appearance of their document; or (best of all), technologies like LaTeX and LyX, which combine the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, though, Microsoft Office is one of those pieces of software that everyone needs a familiarity with. It’s in every industry, and many companies, universities, and organizations mandate its use. For this reason, I’ve kept most of my venomous opinions to myself. (Moreover, it would be bad form — crass, even — to directly slander the Office Suite to students taking an introductory course in Microsoft Office.)

* * *

Instead, I’ve decided to take a different tack. Rather than directly attack Word as the embodiment of “good enough,” [5] I’ve been trying to cultivate an awareness of beautiful communication.

We’ve had class discussions about what it means to communicate responsibly, looked at why an author [4] has a special accountability to her audience to facilitate understanding, and I’m planning a discussion about how beauty influences understanding. And while I’d prefer to be teaching LaTeX, LyX, Scribus, and the related technologies, these conversations have made the course extremely enjoyable; insightful, even. What’s more, I’ve been tremendously impressed at the depth that many of the students have shown.

For the most parts, these aren’t graphic design students or art connoisseurs. Yet, they know what beautiful communication looks like. They recognize carefully crafted writing, differentiate between effective and distracting illustration, can filter out chart-junk, and appreciate beautiful design. Nothing needed to be taught, they just knew. Certainly, they might not have the vocabulary to express the technical details, or the knowledge to produce similar work on their own, but the apps students know what good is when they see it.

I’ve been so impressed in the comments and insights, that I’ve found myself wanting to repeat the conversations with a slightly different audience: the readers of this website. You, dear readers, are an interesting group. Some of you are coders, designers, and artists. Others are scientists, engineers, and technologists. Still others are horse people. But despite the diverse backgrounds, many of the people I’ve met through the postings here have greatly impressed me with their knowledge of writing, typography, art, and design.

For that reason (and if you will indulge me), I’d like to pose a few of the same questions that we’ve been discussing in my apps class and to hear your thoughts [6].  Here is the first:

While the soul of a message lies in what you have to say, there are other aspects of creating a presentation, numerical report, or written draft that are important as well. One of these is how beautiful the final product appears.

Whether we like it or not, Western culture has a bias for beautiful things. We like slick electronics, nicely designed clothes, and carefully typeset literature. Indeed, in many cases, it is expected.

Companies like Apple, IKEA, the Gap, and others spend millions of dollars each year making sure that the materials their customers come into contact with – literature, advertisements, signage, etc – are beautiful. In the advertising world, such branding and impression management offer lucrative opportunities.

But how important are such considerations for individuals? Should a teacher judge the contents of your final report based on the font you choose to use? Should an employer reject an applicant because they used Comic Sans when composing their resume?

For that matter, what makes for a beautiful report, poster, paper, or flyer? How can you strike the balance between what you have to say, how you have to say it, and the impression that the final product gives to others?

Please let me know what you think in the comments.


[1] Indeed, unlike many open source people, I have a great deal of respect for the people at Redmond. They’ve created some very nice technology. Their developer tools, for example are superb (though costly) and their expression design tools are handy (once you get the hang of them).

[2] I will concede that more recent versions of Word have gotten much better in the default fonts department. The default font in Word 2007 and 2010, Calibri (for body texts) and Cambria (for Headings) are nice fonts, but … the default document settings are still lackluster. And when you start considering the default color palettes … well … we’re back to ghastly.

[3] Yes, I know that Word 2010 supports advanced OpenType features. But it is inconsistent and requires quite a bit of work to get right. As far as I’m concerned, another example of actively making the world an uglier place.

[4] I’m using the terms “author” and “audience” very broadly. In addition to those who string words together, I’m also including those who speak, present, and use numbers to communicate larger truths about the world.

[5] I’ve got a serious peeve about “good enough.” The enough is a qualifier. Good enough prevents people from striving for excellence. Instead of making the additional refinements which would transform the draft, picture, service, or product into something truly outstanding, people stop at “good enough.”

[6] In full disclosure, I also have a somewhat selfish rationale. I am currently workshopping the last few chapters of Open Source Writing and I’ve found these conversations help to inform the information found in the book.

 | October 2, 2011 4:19 pm

LIbreGraphics Magazine - Issue 1.3LibreGraphics magazine is one of those sorts of bold things that the open source world needs more of. It’s designed as a catalyst for discussion and, more importantly, a showcase of what can be accomplished with open source software.

In the graphic arts world, a sizable number of graphic design users have this idea that the only software worth using is a suite of proprietary (and extremely expensive) tools. For that reason, one of the stated goals of LibreGraphics magazine (part of their manifesto, in fact) is a desire to shatter this idea.

They want people to know:

As users of [free software], we know that our work, when executed well, is indistinguishable from work produced by more traditional means. Thus, ehre we will unite all our previously disparate successes. We will elevate the discourse around LibreGraphics as a professionally viable option, raise awareness, and show that it is the vision of the artist (and not the cost of the tool) that is important.

They do an excellent job.

Issue 1.3 of the magazine was just released. It takes a look at what it means to work collaboratively. It is available for download on the LibreGraphics website or for purchase. (If you have trouble downloading from the main site, there are mirrors available.)

The Voice in the Shell - Page Spread

LibreGraphics - In Print


Colored Extravagence

Breaking Into Floss

 | September 28, 2011 4:28 pm

If you’ve followed this blog for long, you probably know that I have a slight interest in typography. I’m fascinated by the aesthetic quality of letter-forms, the psychological effect they can have on those who are reading them, and the ways that they are created.

In this TEDx talk from UCLA, graphic designer Andrew Byrom touches on all of those, and more. He speaks to the heart of a common artistic challenge: how to reveal the form within.

 | March 28, 2011 4:57 pm

kde-iconNext Monday, I’m going to be giving a talk entitled “Writing and Publishing With Open Source Tools” at Camp KDE, the annual KDE conference for North America. For those interested in attending, the talk happens at 12:15 pm at the Hotel Kabuki, in San Francisco.

I’m really excited about the talk and I think it’s going to be excellent. (I know, having high expectations for your own performance is the route to obscurity, disappointment, and insanity.) If you live in the bay area, or are going to be near San Francisco next Monday and Tuesday, please consider coming.

Note: While I think you should come to hear me, you might also be interested in the conference as a whole. There are going to be a number of interesting talks that cover KDE developments and core technologies.

I’m particularly excited to hear about what KOffice/Calligra is up to. The abstract talks about “Office Engines” and how KOffice/Caligra can be used to build custom applications. I’m wondering if the technology might be adapted for a mobile project I’m working on. The talks on QtWebKit and the Qt Graphics tools also look neat.

One of the reasons why I’m so excited about my talk is that it brings developments with the book full circle. I first started writing “Writing With Open Source Tools” due to a request for proposals  launched by KDE nearly two years ago. Now, I’m going back to KDE to talk about the (nearly) finished project.

I’m also going talk on other developments I consider timely. For example:

  • How open source publishing tools can be used to target print, web, and eBook platforms from a single source file.
  • How editors, writers, designers, and production people can work together in a seamless, collaborative manner.
  • The strengths of an open approach and where things stand to improve. (Especially for writers and designers.)

While there will be motifs common to the Salt Lake Linux User’s group presentation, most of it is exciting and new. (Which also means untried and untested. So, if it goes well, you can expect to be enlightened. If it goes poorly, expect to be entertained. Either way, it should be a good time.) Since I haven’t quite finished the presentation, it’s also adaptable. If there is anything specific you’d like to see covered, let me know in the comments and I will try to oblige.

Show me more… »

 | March 26, 2011 10:15 pm

Though it’s not really related to my work, one of my side interests is is the workflow of writers. I’m fascinated by where ideas come from, the tools we use to corral them, and how great thinkers create. While a portion of that interest derives from a practical desire to emulate their techniques, I’m also very curious about the underlying ecosystem of success, creativity, and innovation.

As I’ve traipsed across the ideas landscape and meandered the moors of their implementation, there is one lesson that rears its head over and over: great success – whether intellectual or commercial – turns on the hinges of small details. Steve Jobs and his iPhone, for example, weren’t successful because iPhone was new and innovative – in most meanings of the word, it wasn’t – but because it superbly implemented a core set of powerful features. It, in effect, got all of the important things right.

While I can (and will actually, it’s part of the promotional plan for the book) write a whole blog post on this idea, I wanted to talk briefly about one example in a Lifehack post. (This is mostly because I stumbled across it the other day and have found it to be brilliantly useful.) Specifically:

What is the best way to structure margin notes and comments in a book or report?

Show me more… »

 | February 1, 2011 1:57 am

Venice City Crest - 1895

The other day, while picking through my typography RSS folder, I stumbled across a marvelous link. Originally shared by Johno of “I love typography”, it pointed toward a late 18th century title called “Early Venetian Printing.”

The book is a collection of illustrated pages from 14th and 15th century works printed in Venice. They cover all of the masters in addition to a few individuals I hadn’t ever heard of. It shows examples of their work and discusses  the principles that early typesetters followed. Additionally there are printers’ marks, water-marks, examples of music printing, and alphabets upon alphabets of initials.  It concludes with a section on the art of Venetian binding.

The book is a beautiful volume, and one that I desperately would love to have in my own personal library. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Early Venetian Printing is an extremely rare book that’s been out of print for decades.

Luckily, though, you can download the entire text (with all of the illustrations) from in PDF, EPUB, or Kindle formats. You can also browse the whole text online.

Here are a few of the images, just to whet your appetite. The full text can be found here.

Examples of Venice Book Design, 15th CenturyExamples of Venice Page Design and Illustration

Page Design, Venice 15th CenturyPage Design, Venice 15th Century

Full Page Engraving, 15th Century

Wood Cuts and Page Decorations, Late 15th CenturyPage Design and Initials, Late 15th Century

Venetian Biblical Engravings, Late 15th Century

Venetian Typography, Early 16th Century

The Winds

Interior Engravings and Initials

Title Page Engraving, With Decorative Border

Music Page Engraving from Venetian Hymnal

 | January 5, 2011 6:54 pm

Occasionally, I will find myself sharing somewhat generic thoughts in extended form.  Sometimes I will be intrigued by a thread in an online discussion forum or on a mailing list.  In other instances, it will be prompted by private exchange.  Regardless, though, If I think that the exchange can be of benefit to others, I will post it here.  This has resulted in posting about horses, fonts, and communication platforms.  (I also put things here because the website has increasingly become a  way to organize thoughts, ideas, sources, images, and other material I find interesting.  Like my notebook or journal, except available everywhere.)

One such exchange happened this morning with a user of Scribus.  He is preparing to typeset a 60,000 word novel and was trying to find advice on fonts and other design related issues.  Below, you can find a slightly edited copy of my response.  Note: I have mostly added clarification and links to help with context.

Dear Scribus User,

Before I go further, I want to congratulate you on finishing the book.  It is a major accomplishment and I doff my cap to you, sir.

With all that said, take a big breath.  Designing a book is also a major undertaking.  Perhaps not as large as writing one, but it is a task where each decision should be considered carefully.

One of the first steps is to choose a production technology.  At this point, I wouldn’t become too attached to any one option.  Use the tool which will save you most time and produce the best output.  That may be Scribus, LaTeX, or even OpenOffice itself.

I presume that since formatting has been preserved to some extent, I will not have a great deal of editing to do, apart for attending to widows and orphans.

When I refer to LaTeX, I am not necessarily referring to the editing of text. But rather the process of adding and manipulating text boxes on the page. This is more than attending to widows and orphans, though that is a big part of it. In Scribus, this work must be done manually, and, while the end result can be spectacular, it is a tremendous amount of work. (Even under the best of conditions.)

In LaTeX, page breaks, line breaking, etc. is all handled in an automated manner. For novels and short stories that are “rivers of words” without significant “islands” (photos, captions, etc), I consider it to be the superior solution. And while the learning curve might seem intimidating, it will likely result in significant time savings. I would argue that your time is much more valuable than any money you might have already invested.

The second step is to design the book as you wish it to appear. (This might also be the first step, but the choice of tool and the appearance of the book often evolve hand in hand.) In this case, you’ve described the basic steps.

[I need to]

  • Transfer it into Scribus using OpenOffice to preserve the formatting.
  • Choose a font which will avoid kerning issues as much as possible, since I read that Times New Roman has kerning problems.
  • Produce a cover with a coloured photograph.
  • Produce a PDF file of single pages for printing.

Yes, that’s the process. But there are other considerations as well. Most important, what is the book actually going to look like? What size paper will it use? What will the page layout look like? Will you use a header/footer? Will the design incorporate decorative elements? What sort of feel do you want the final volume to elicit? (These questions are in no particular order, and I’ve left out dozens.)

These decisions represent a major investment, and it is essential that they be done well. Moreover, they are independent of any conversation of software. (You could use either Scribus, or LaTeX for most novels, for example.) For this reason, I would recommend that you requisition the aid of a professional designer. She may not actually design the volume, but it’s worth $30 or $40 for a creative consultation (which will usually last about an hour).

The designer might recommend a style, provide examples, help you locate a photo, or comment on fonts that match the timbre of the prose. Most importantly, though, she can get you started on the right foot and help you plan both the practical and creative phases of the project. Again, it will save you hours and it’s well worth the money.

As to font choices … that is a bit of a can of worms. First off, there is nothing wrong with Times New Roman. Most of the kerning problems you describe are actually inherent to Word, not the font. They can be solved by using a different program. Scribus certainly qualifies.

With that said, there are much better fonts available. When choosing a font, I would refer you to the advice offered in Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style” (see Chapter 6).


  1. Choose a typeface that suits the task as well as the subject. Do not, for example, use Futura in a book about Renaissance Italy. It will look silly and out of place. Consider a typeface like Adobe Jenson instead. Futura would thrive in a book about the Bauhaus design movement, however.
  2. Choose a typeface that will furnish the effects you need. If you need small caps, use a typeface that provides them.
  3. Use what there is to best advantage.
  4. Choose a face whose historical echoes and associations are in harmony with the text.
  5. Use a typeface that you like. Other people may hem and haw, but there will be just as many who coo and awe.
  6. If you find the perfect typeface, then purchase it. Yes, typefaces are expensive, but it is worth the investment. It will greatly improve the appearance of your work, which will afford it a competitive advantage.

So I appreciate that this advice is probably not helpful as you face a field of bewildering options, but … I suppose that is why I offer it.

There isn’t going to be one typeface that meets your needs. There are dozens and you’re going to have to prowl the specimen books. In your search, consider starting with Bringhurst’s book. There are two major sections on typefaces which offer a insight into when one might be used over another.

I’d also recommend that you head to your local bookstore and scan the shelves. Find examples of books you like and note which typeface they use (it usually says either on the copyright page or in the back). Note how they use it and which variants are used for headings, running heads, etc. Don’t worry if you can’t articulate why you like something, that comes later. Just pay attention to which works feel “right.”

Finally, once you’ve found examples of work you like, read the opinions of other designers and see how they mesh with yours. See why a creative prefer a particular typeface, or if they eschew others. Browse a couple of typography blogs. If I might humbly suggest, you could take a look at my thoughts on the subject. If you choose to meet with a designer, bring examples to that meeting. She can help you sort out what you like and why.

And as I said earlier, there’s more to it than the typeface. The width of the text block; the spacing, alignment, and breaking of the paragraphs; the arrangement of the headings, and the placement of the footer all play major parts. To get a page that really pops, you need everything in its proper space. Finding what that is will take some time and effort on your part.

Regardless, though, it’s worth it. Please keep us posted on your progress, and I, for one, would love to see an example of what you come up with.



 | December 29, 2010 6:18 pm

2011 Calendar - Africa January

Over the past week, I’ve been helping a non-profit put together a yearly thank-you calendar.  I’ve been using Scribus, and so far, it’s been going very smoothly.

Scribus includes a nifty “Calendar Wizard” that lets you generate date grids for any month or year.  But though the Calendar Wizard works well, I found that it didn’t support all of the features that I would like.  Therefore, I spent a little bit of time and put together my own template.

In addition to a date grid, the template includes modified styles for the weeks, days and months (set to use the Linux Libertine typeface); the lunar phases; common North American Holidays; and miniature calendars for the preceding and following months.  I’ve also added image placeholders for all of the different pages.

Using this template, you should be able to create a  handsome, interesting calendar in almost no-time.  Though I had a “fine arts” feel in mind, it seems to work well with funny cat-pictures.  The sample pages shown here were all created from the template.

Because it might be of interest/benefit to other people, I thought that I would post the template here.  The download file below includes everything required to make the template work.

To install, copy it to your Scribus Templates folder.  (The templates folder is included in your Scribus user folder.  For Linux users, this is usually a folder called “.scribus” in your home directory.  If you wish, you can change it from the “Preferences” dialog.)  Because the template was created with Scribus 1.3.9, you will need that version or the upcoming 1.4.0 to make it work.


2011 Scribus Calendar Template (Formal).  A formal calendar template for users of Scribus covering January to December 2011.  The template includes a calendar grid, the lunar phases, miniature calendars for the preceding and following months, and common holidays.  By default, it uses Linux Libertine as the typeface, though this can be adjusted using the available styles.  (Typeface bundled with the template.)

The template is released under a creative commons, attribution, share and share-a-like license.  If you make any changes or enhancements to the layout, please be kind enough to provide a link in the forum.  That way, everyone can benefit.

Example Layouts

2011 Calendar - page0062011 Calendar - page005

2011 Calendar - page009

2011 Calendar - page011

2011 Calendar - page013

(The images in the examples were taken from Wikimedia Commons and from the Creative Commons photos posted on Flickr, though I converted them to black/white.  You can probably tell that I’ve been pretty influenced by Nick Brandt.  These are not the images that will be used in the thank-you calendar, just pictures I’ve been using to practice photo-manipulation techniques.)