Other posts related to typesetting

 | 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.

 | 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.

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 | December 1, 2010 7:22 pm

Note: Still working on the book.

In my readings in typography, I’ve come across two distinct schools of thought about what typography “should” be.  Hermann Zapf succinctly summarizes the position of the first school:

Typographic design [has been] misconstrued as a form of private self-expression for designers. But as Bringhurst puts it: “Good typography is like bread: ready to be admired, appraised and dissected before it is consumed.”

In the first school of thought, typography is seen as a way to enhance a message by conveying it clearly. To a member of this group, personal eccentricities are dangerous because they detract from the spirit of the text.  To quote from Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style):

In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must draw attention to itself before it will be read.  Yet, in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn.  Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency.  Its other traditional goal is durability: not immunity to change, but a clear superiority to fashion.  Typography at its best is a visual form of language linking timeless and time.

The second school, in contrast, sees typography as a form of self-expression.  Amongst proponents of this way of thinking, what the typographer wishes to convey is at least as important as the message of the author.

Personally, I think that both schools have their place.  Moreover, there may even be a third school in the middle which combines elements of the two.  It is possible to both clearly communicates the message while still providing room for personal expression.  For example, consider this book design beauty from Behance, which consists of interpretations of Bob  Brown’s essay, The Readies.

Clearly, the typographer has something to say, but I would hardly argue that he usurps Brown’s message.











The book was created by Jihad Lahham.  More examples from his portfolio can be found here.  Again, this looks like a portfolio piece, which means that copies are nowhere to be had.

 | November 29, 2010 11:18 pm

Note: I am still working on the book.  This is why there have been few postings.  I am plugging away full steam, but creating all of the needed illustrations has been much more time consuming than expected.  I hope to have updates soon.

For the past month or so, I’ve been helping to redesign the KDE eV Quarterly report.  (It is very much a team project, and I am only one of several people working on it.)  Below are several page layouts from one of the concepts.  I’m not sure that they’re going anywhere, but I liked how they turned out.

Therefore, I thought I would post them.  Thoughts, ideas, critiques, and flames are all welcome.  The theme of the template is “people.”





 | November 18, 2010 10:00 pm

Note: Still working on the book, but some things are simply awesome and must be shared.

One of the great things about working on this book project has been the opportunity to immerse myself in the world of print design.  It’s a fascinating and beautiful world, and though web design has improved enormously, the best stuff still happens in print.

While combing examples on Behance, a showcase site for designers and other creatives, I came across a spectacular example of typography.  It’s a medium size pamphlet (about 60 pages in length) that was designed by Steven Acres, an upcoming designer who just graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

The book design incorporates a lot of design ideas from the golden era of printing and shows how classical book layout (with a few modern touches), can produce a truly spectacular volume.

(More images can be found on the project page at Behance.)












Though I don’t know the history behind the project, it looks as though the book was produced as part of Mr. Acre’s student portfolio, and for that reason, isn’t available for purchase.  Which is a true pity, this is a book I would love to leaf through and explore.

 | September 28, 2010 2:26 pm

Note: The normal programming of the website is still temporarily on hold in an effort to finish the Open Source Writing book.  I fully intend to pick things up very soon, but I must first send a finished draft to my editor/publisher.  They’ve been very patient and I’ve been irresponsible.

While I am trying to work in seclusion (or at least a reasonable approximation thereof) in order to finish the Open Source Writing Book, I put together a layout that I wanted to share.  (Mostly because I liked it and thought it cool.)

It covers the typographical niceties that distinguish a typesetting system from a traditional Word Processor and will appear in the “Writing and Editing” chapter of the book as a double page spread.  (In this layout, the material appears as a single, long-form poster.)  I’d love to hear people’s comments, thoughts or suggestions.  Particularly if there are any additional elements that I missed and you think might be included.

You can download a PDF version here.  Many thanks to Dario Taraborelli for creating his wonderful essay, the Beauty of LaTeX, from which this layout borrows heavily.

The poster is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share and Share Alike license.  Copyright 2010, Rob Oakes.  Some Rights Reserved.

Typographical Detail

 | 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.

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 | December 2, 2009 11:19 am

Publications are the currency of ideas.  Through them the experts, thinkers and dreamers of this world can share their thoughts and insights.  A good publication is not only influential, but it’s even capable of shifting the course of a whole society, as Martin Luther King demonstrated with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

Since publications are so important to the dissemination of knowledge, there is a rather high expectation that an academic author should publish prolifically.  The mantra “Publish or Perish” is not just a clever quip, but a very serious way of life.

It is ironic, then, that the most prolific of academic writers can suffer from a surprising problem: it can be very difficult to keep track of all of their work.  Yet, an up to date CV is very important.  After all, publishing your work in influential journals is an important first step toward establishing tenure!

Members of a research team or those who collaborate outside of their institution experience this same problem, only more so.  Such a person may work on many projects at once, but only have direct responsibility for one or two of them.  This places the researcher in the unenviable position of trying to track the work of others.  This situation becomes even more complicated if the collaborator refuses to play by the rules of common decency.

It would be nice, for example, if the primary author of a publication would notify the co-authors of its progress, or when it has been submitted.  But … that doesn’t always happen.  Academic researchers are busy people and soliciting feedback from all of your collaborators can be difficult … and there is a tendency for difficult things to go undone.  Thus, if you don’t follow what your team mates are working on, it is quite possible that an abstract might have gotten submitted while your back was turned.

To stay on top of the “delightful chaos”, you need to have some kind of system.  Personally, I keep my list of projects and publications in three places. The first (and perhaps most important) is the hand-written list in my experimental notebook. Any time I hear about a new project, it gets added to this list. I keep track of what I’ve contributed, what papers or abstracts have been created from the data, and what their status is. When I know that an abstract or paper has been accepted, I then create an entry for the item in my bibliography manager. Once in the bibliography manager, I can cite the reference in other documents such as proposals or related papers.

About once a year, I go through the tedious process of updating my CV. This typically involves manually sorting through both my project list and my reference database and account for new items or reconcile differences. Every time I do this, it’s painful; and because I’ve historically formatted the reference list by hand, it’s not uncommon for a typo to sneak its way in or for an author to accidentally get left off of a citation. These mistakes are never intentional, but they do happen.

When I find such an error in the reference database, I fix it. But since I often import these references from websites, the errors tend to be few and far between. Moreover, my reference database is something that I use every day; as a result, it gets a lot of scrutiny. My CV, on the other hand, gets updated much less frequently and errors tend to persist longer.

For a very long time, I’ve wanted to automate the process. Instead of keeping three separate lists – active projects, reference database, and CV – I’d prefer to keep only one (or two). But I’ve never found a really satisfactory way of doing so.  Or at least I hadn’t found a system until quite recently.

In my last review of different ways to typeset a CV, I came across an interesting article by Dario Taraborelli.  In it, he described how to create a CV based on the standard “article” document class.  It was well designed, elegant, simple and attractive.  From his work, I created the xetexCV document class.  Additional research turned up an add-on module that makes it convenient to automatically generate a list of publications.  So, for the first time  in a great while, I have finally found a way to automatically generate a publications list in a simple and automated manner.  In this article, I will demonstrate how that is done.

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 | November 30, 2009 2:54 pm

Many first-time users of LaTeX often mistakenly look at the language as a a type of glorified word processing software – albeit a particularly complicated one.  While such an analogy may be apt in helping new users become acclimatized to the language, it suffers from a rather nasty problem: LaTeX isn’t a word processor.

If anything, LaTeX shares more in common with a programming languages than any type of application.  In fact, the document processing system is really nothing more than a bunch of re-usable pieces of programming called macros.  Everything is a macro.  That includes the commands that every user is familiar with: \title{}, \section{}, \subsection{}; in addition to the internal formatting commands that allows LaTeX to function.  (Most of the macros were originally created or packaged by Leslie Lamport as a way of making TeX – the typesetting system created by Donald Knuth – easier to work with.)

This has some rather practical consequence; because everything in LaTeX is a macro, it is far more extensible than a word processor could ever hope to be.  If you require a feature that doesn’t yet exist, it typically isn’t all that difficult to add it.  And when your extension is packaged inside a style or class, you can use those customizations in anything that you want to write.

But though creating macros isn’t particularly complicated, it is a different beast than just using the stock macros for writing.  This is not surprising, the craft of design is inherently different than the craft of writing.  There are different conventions to follow and different topics to obsess about.  In the first article of this series, I introduced the xetexCV document class, which is one example of where I decided to don the designer hat.

But before you get too far down the road of customizing and extending, there are a some important things that you need to know.  These include the general conventions used when working with document classes, their internal anatomy, an understanding of how macros are created, and how to handle formatting and layout challenges.  In this article, I will look at these issues more in detail, particularly as they pertain to xetexCV.  In the process of reviewing these topics, I will also explain some of my design choices.

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 | November 25, 2009 12:02 am

Very few documents are more personal than a curriculum vitae (CV).  A CV lists a person’s educational history, who they’ve worked for and what they’ve accomplished.  Moreover, a CV is frequently used to judge a person’s inherent worth and value (or at least exploitability).  A quality curiculum vitae matters, a lot.

For that reason, a CV not only needs to include all the pertinent information of a person’s life, but it also needs to look good. An attractive CV with good spacing and contrast leaves a positive impression and makes it easier to find information.  When laid out correctly, a reviewer might just find themselves scouring past accomplishments for interesting tidbits: “I didn’t realize that this applicant organized a lecture series with Patch Adams and other notables, that’s interesting!”

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