When I left high school, I went into art school (or rather, a polytech with a “creative studies” department). I planned to complete a degree in film-making and audio engineering—Avatar had just been released, The Hobbit was supposed to start filming soon, and the film industry in NZ seemed to be on the brink of becoming internationally important (outside of The Lord of the Rings)—but despite having already completed a qualification in Audio Engineering at just below degree level while in high school, the staff at the department decided that I either had to complete another two pre-degree qualification in traditional art and design first, or not be admitted to the degree at all. So, not having much choice—no university would accept me, but that’s a different story for another time—I started the two qualifications.
One of the most stressed elements, apart from traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture, was publication design. Indeed this was of such importance that by the end of the year one had to be able to design magazines and books to a commercial standard, or likely fail the course. I left after the one year; the department made the decision to heavily remove access to the various facilities needed to complete much of the work for the second qualification, and as a result a large number of the students, including me, were all set to have to repeat it before being allowed to start a degree. Fast forward a couple of years, and I’ve changed my focus back to science, for the first time since early high school.
The study of any scientific field requires a number of skills to be brought together. Primarily one needs to be able to think, explore, and question. Some mathematical ability is needed, the amount depending on the field; in biological fields one can normally do perfectly well with only simple statistics, while in chemistry more complicated mathematics will be needed, and in physics one needs to be competent in many branches of mathematics, particularly calculus. Another important skill is writing, for the backbone of science is publishing results.
So far science has very much held the belief that function is of primary importance in communication, and what form there is should serve only to not obscure the function. This approach works well enough for journal articles, which are designed to be read by other scientists, and to a lesser extent it also works well for textbooks. Indeed, no-one expects (nor wants) science to look like Vogue; however, my opinion is that a little more design, using form to complement and enhance the function, would not be amiss. Thus I intend to follow what I believe should be done.
The simplest way to introduce a bit of simple design to a document is through the typefaces used. Indeed, this is where we began when learning publication design. Typefaces are typically classified into one of three groups; serif, sans-serif, and monospace. Normally only the first two are used in publication; monospace typefaces are most commonly used in computing, for they make reading code easier. In science we often use computers to assist in various things, and it’s not uncommon to include source code from a program in published material, and so a monospace typeface is useful to have. Additionally, in a number of fields of science, equations are also very common, and so we can add a fourth category of typeface; those designed for displaying mathematics. What we want then is a group of typefaces—one serif, one sans-serif, one monospace, and one for mathematics—which all work well together.
There’s a problem though. Most typefaces don’t have a complete family with all of those categories; nor indeed even just serif and sans-serif versions. Therefore we will need to combine multiple families, and probably adjust the scaling of some (or all) of them to make them work nicely. To do this, I’m going to use a simple set-up in InDesign, using guides.
We’re considering a few things for scaling. X-height is the distance from the baseline to the top of the lowercase letter ‘x’, while cap height is the distance from the baseline to the top of an uppercase letter. We’re also considering the width of both upper- and lowercase letters. Thus the four sets each horizontally and vertically; one each direction for serif, sans-serif, monospace, and mathematics. Here’s what it looks like when the four sets are each given the appropriate typeface (The typefaces are Minion Pro, Myriad Pro, PragmataPro, and TeX Gyre Pagella Math respectively):
The first thing you’ll see is that they don’t fit the lines very well. This is because each typeface has its own x-height and cap height, so we need to choose one to scale the rest to. I use the serif typeface for this, as that’s the one that will be most used in a text. The next step is to proportionally (InDesign allows independent vertical and horizontal scaling, but most scientific writing is done with TeX, which doesn’t easily (if at all) allow independent scaling) scale each typeface until the x-heights are the same as the serif font.
Now, at first sight it seems that the monospace typeface has become rather narrow, and the cap height rather short in order for the x-height to match. This might not be a problem however, as the monospace font will be used for code, and code tends not to have many uppercase letters. We’re also only seeing the letter pair ‘Aa’, so the next step is to see how the entire English alphabet looks.
Despite the narrowness of the monospace typeface after scaling, and the shorter cap height, when seen like this it doesn’t look too out of place. However, it’s very rare that we’ll actually write the whole alphabet like that, so the next step is to see how the typefaces look when used more realistically. For that we’ll use the well-known English pangram ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’.
At this point they look alright together, and the narrowness of the monospace font has become un-noticeable, so the final test is to make a short paragraph where we actually use the various typefaces for the purposes they’ll be used for. Should they still look alright together, we’ll record the typeface names, and the scaling applied, and then we have our first group.
Everything looks fine, so we can record our grouping as being
- Serif: Minion Pro, 100%
- Sans-serif: Myriad Pro, 94%
- Monospace: PragmataPro, 80%
- Mathematics: TeX Gyre Pagella Math, 95%
Should we want, we can repeat this process to find a different grouping, should we want different typefaces either for design reasons, variation, or a specialist purpose. The grouping we’ve obtained now will definitely do for most applications; both Minion Pro and Myriad Pro have a decent language support, while code is almost always in ASCII, and a mathematics font by definition works for all mathematics.
It would also be possible to go through this process only using TeX or LaTeX; however, I find it much easier having the positionable guides, and the immediate visual feedback from changing the scaling, both of which are lacking with TeX or LaTeX.