Before we get too well underway, let me start by warning that I am not a typographer by trade. What follows here is my understanding and subjective opinion on the choice of typefaces for academic articles, working papers, books and pretty much anything with a high amount of content that needs to be presented. Many of my observations here will most likely not matter to those who are creating flyers, posters, etc., as there are pretty much no rules that I am aware of that governs those materials.

Since TeX was Donald Knuth's fix to the ugly digital typesetting of his books, The Art of Computer Programming, it seems relevant that we take a bit of a pause from the intricacies of TeX to look at readability of the text we are producing with this system. The last task in Knuth's The TeXbook simply states, ‘Go forth now and create masterpieces of the publishing art!’, but like Stefan A. Revets remarks in the Octavo package manual, then Knuth probably did not intend that everything published with TeX was supposed to ‘shriek “TeX” from every page’. So why is it that almost every TeX-based publication is so easy to identify and for many, so easy to dislike. Apart from the standard document layout that we have already covered how to customise with memoir in earlier posts, this what we will try to take a look at today.

Typefaces come in all sorts of varieties, light, heavy, condensed, wide, and in as many standard configurations that there are typefaces. The norm for legible typefaces used to be that the width of the English lower-case letters, a to z, would take up approximately 13 em. Narrower than this can be good for shorter lines and for saving on paper, wider than this gives more whiteness on the page, which can be used to provide a greater sense of space. Like we saw in the post on microtypography, then a uniform ‘grayness’ of the page can help to improve the aesthetics of your text. With too narrow fonts the blackness of the page will usually take an overhand, and too wide fonts, the whiteness will be too much. So we would like to find the ‘just right’ balance, which is typefaces where the lower-case alphabet takes up about 13 em of space when set. Of course, this being an art-related topic, we should note that the rules are here to be broken, so if something works better for you or for something you are producing, by all means, go ahead.

So, for these purposes, let us take a look at a number of standard available LaTeX fonts, and a couple free, but non-standard fonts, and how they measure up against this 13 em measurement.

Width of lower-case English letters for different fonts

‘Nimbus Roman No9’ is an adaption of the world famous ‘Times New Roman’, although this version is a bit wider than the original. You can use this typeface by issuing the command \usepackage{times}. In order to understand the use of ‘Times New Roman’, it is necessary to understand its origin. In 1931, ‘The Times’ commissioned a new typeface that should be legible and economise space, because the less space articles can be printed in while remaining legible, the less will ‘The Times’ have to pay in publishing costs (since you could run fewer pages or more advertisements). ‘The Times’ has since then had several other typefaces created to succeed ‘Times New Roman’. ‘Times New Roman’ has also served much popular use since Microsoft has been including it as the default serif typeface in all versions of Windows since Windows 3.1. It should be remembered, though, that the typeface is created to save money while maintaining legibility, not for optimal legibility, which we may also see in the figure above as it is the narrowest of the ‘normal’ serif typefaces in use in the LaTeX world.

‘Computer Modern’ is the typeface that Donald Knuth created together with TeX. The version depicted in the figure above is from the cm-super package that contains Type1 outlines of the ‘Computer Modern’ font family, rather than the original METAFONT definitions from Knuth. ‘Computer Modern’ is the standard typeface in use in any TeX or LaTeX document, it is the hallmark of the thing that shrieks ‘TeX’. The glyphs are thin and the contrast of the font is rather low for a serif typeface, in effect causing the typeface to feel ‘too light’. There are, thus, other factors than merely the ‘13 em width’ we are currently looking at, that influences the quality of a typeface. For the mere purpose of not shrieking TeX, we will recommend the use of another typeface for texts.

‘Gentium’ is a relative new-comer to the typeface scene of freely available typefaces, and is designed by the award-winning type designer Victor Gaultney. It has been designed for good legibility, to be reasonably compact, attractive, and freely available. It is also intended to embrace the Latin alphabet world with all its plethora of diacritics and provide a common OpenType font that can be used in all these countries. It is not trivial to get this font to work with LaTeX, but it is a reasonably nice alternative to the free fonts that are available in the LaTeX distributions and the non-free ones that come with a bunch of strings attached (like ‘URW Garamond No8’ below). Its compactness is almost neglible and does not cause legibility to suffer, it is only a few points short of the 13 em width.

‘URW Garamond No8’ is an adaption of 16th century type cutter Claude Garamond's typeface. The ‘Garamond’ is one of the most often-used type families when it comes to professional works, owing in particular to Slimbach's beautiful digitalisation in Adobe's Garamond Pro typeface. URW's adaption of ‘Garamond’ fits exactly within the 13 em measure, but the different adaptions vary somewhat to both sides. Unlike the previous three fonts we have looked at, ‘URW Garamond No8’ is not free and does not come with LaTeX distributions by default. It can, however, be downloaded from CTAN under the non-free fonts. Be sure to investigate the license that accompanies it for whether your use is applicable. In order to use this font in LaTeX, after it has been installed, you can add the following code to your preamble: \renewcommand{\rmdefault}{ugm}.

The last typeface we will look at is, ‘URW Palladio L Roman’, which is an adaption of Hermann Zapf's Palatino. It is a somewhat wider typeface than the rest that we have looked at, which in some opinions may improve legibility. Like ‘Garamond’ and ‘Times New Roman’, ‘Palatino’ is one of the most often used typefaces, probably also owing to the fact that Microsoft also provides it since Windows 2000. LaTeX provides this together with a correspondingly designed maths typeface in the package mathpazo. There are several versions of Palladio available in LaTeX, including versions with smallcaps and old-style figures (both absent from ‘URW Garamond No8’, and the latter unavailable in ‘Gentium’).

So if we want to save a lot of space while maintaining legibility, we should probably be using ‘Nimbus Roman No9’ (or if you have professional typefaces one of the ‘Times New Roman’ successors like ‘Times Modern’), if we want good general-purpose text with a classical feel to it, we should probably be using ‘Gentium’ or ‘Garamond’ (or ‘Plantin’, or... there are really many great serif typefaces in this category, but most of them are fairly expensive, unfortunately), and if we want a lighter feel to our text while consuming more space, there is ‘Palladio’ (or many other more recent typefaces).

As I hinted to in the discussion of ‘Computer Modern’ there are several more measures for the fitness of a typeface for a particular purpose, but being an artform in itself, there are so many varying and opposing opinions that only very vague guidelines exist. So instead of trying to uncover all of these, let us do like the rest of the crowd seems to do and let us rely on our subjectivity and take a look at a bit of text typeset with each of these typefaces.

Comparison between Nimbus Roman No9 and Computer Modern Roman

Here we see that the wider ‘Computer Modern Roman’ takes up a line more for the paragraph excerpt; this will run up in cost when you publish, but the cost of the narrower font is of course it is not as pleasant to read most of the time. However, we can also see that ‘Computer Modern Roman’ feels a lot more light than ‘Nimbus Roman No9’, not making it particularly ideal either for typesetting a paper, let alone a book. So let us continue and take a look at some of the more traditional book typefaces.

Comparison between SIL Gentium and URW Garamond No8

Here, ‘URW Garamond No8’, at least, has proven its worth by surviving from the 16th century until now, in widespread use. However, both typefaces present strongly and have each their distinctive style while maintaining familiar, pleasant and good readability. When you want to choose a typeface for publishing an article, book, or the like, then picking a typeface that falls in line with either of these two will most likely be a good bet.

Comparison between Nimbus Roman No9 and URW Palladio L Roman

There is a rather stark contrast between the narrow ‘Nimbus Roman No9’ and the wide ‘URW Palladio L Roman’. To some, the wider ‘Palatino’ may be too wide, but if you need to provide your pages with a lighter feel (without increasing the line spacing), then it and other wider typefaces may prove very useful. In the end, though, the typeface you choose will be a matter of personal preferences and what you think look good. But do not use ‘Comic Sans’ for anything serious, ever.

Now, with that out of the way, I will not go long into a discussion on the merits of using sans-serif typefaces for the main text. Several psychologists (a bunch of them working for Microsoft) has done various studies that indicate that there is no discernible difference in reading speeds or preferences between the two. However, for the sake of tradition and the beauty of the serifs, I suggest we keep using serif typefaces for main text. There is, however, another thing that is relevant to look at, namely the length of lines. One of the LaTeX packages that sees widespread use in a lot of Europe is the a4wide package. For those who are uninitiated into this monstrosity, it makes the margins a lot smaller than the LaTeX default. Let us look at the difference between standard and wide margins:

Standard margin text
a4wide margin text

So what is the difference here, other than saving paper by printing more. It is the distance that our eyes have to travel when we reach the end of one line and skip to the beginning of the next line. The longer the lines are, the easier it is for the eye to get lost and you have to backtrack and pick up at the right spot again, either because you reread the same line again or because you skip a line too far ahead. So unless there is a really good reason for the much smaller margins, do not do that.

This is about as far as we will go into the intricacies of typefaces and layout today, there is much, much more to expound on the topic, though, so I might return to it some day.