It’s well-known that good typography matters. Reading a poorly typeset document can be difficult. Poor typesetting and poor typography can occlude information, driving readers away in frustration and defeating information exchange.
However, not everyone sees it this way, and some even see nefarious intent in typographic efforts to make information more approachable and easier to read.
I am highly critical of publishers’ typesetting. Almost everything I say is conjecture as typesetting occurs in the publisher’s backroom process, possibly including outsourcing. I can only guess what happens. . . . The purpose of typesetting is to further the publisher’s business. I spoke to one publisher and asked them “Why don’t you use standard fonts such as Helvetica (Arial) and Unicode)” Their answer (unattributed) was: “Helvetica is boring”. I think this sums up the whole problem. A major purpose of STM typesetting is for one publisher to compete against the others.
Murray-Rust then goes on to heap virtues on LaTeX as having solved the typesetting problem in mathematics and physics.
It’s interesting that Murray-Rust explicitly admits ignorance about how typesetting is done at most publishers while also implicitly admitting ignorance about typography in general. For instance, he conflates Helvetica and Arial above, as if they are the same fonts. They are not, as the graphic above shows. Helvetica is categorized as a Grotesque font, and was designed in 1957. Arial is a Neo-Grotesque font designed in 1982. Arial was a standard element in Windows until recently, when it was replaced with Calibri. The differences between Arial and Helvetica are subtle but real — the “R” and “G” above show some of these clear differences. The “1” is clearly different, as well. Arial is widely believed to be a hasty redraw of Helvetica by IBM in order to avoid licensing fees, and Microsoft took it over later, making it a Windows 3.x standard in 1992. The “G” in Arial is inferior to the “G” in Helvetica, for instance, with its lack of a right foot.
But the question he begs by claiming typesetting is done to further the publisher’s business is, “What is the publisher’s business?”
Well, the publisher’s business is to know how to take rough information, see if there is enough of an audience for it to merit the work involved in refining it, and then refine it. Part of this refinement is typesetting and typography. Recent research has suggested that some typographic choices lend more credibility to information, or make it easier to accept. This comports with what every typographer or typesetter has seen dozens or hundreds of times — the same word or words in different fonts affect people differently. In dense type, readability becomes an issue — legibility, comprehension, and endurance (how long you can read without fatigue). In headlines or signage, emotional aspects come into play.
And, yes, using LaTeX involves typography.
I remember in college taking a linguistics class, where the instructor asked us on the first day to write down what kind of accent we had. I have a nondescript American accent, but at the time I was stupid enough to write, “I don’t have an accent.” I was sharply and properly made an example of — “We all have an accent!”
All machine-published text is typeset and typographic. Even these words you’re reading now. There is no “non-typographic” type.
is a machine language that uses XML or RTF as a substrate for some CSS or ML layer, which turns builds on the TeX typesetting language to transform the underlying information into a typeset page. Word and its equivalents do roughly the same thing. But because LaTeX includes a typographic approach, it is amenable to typographic improvements, as well. The Association for Computing Machinery has three different LaTeX typographic standards, matched to one or more journals. The journal Econometrica has different LaTeX typographic standards for different manuscript stages. PLoS Computational Biology has LaTeX standards and templates. The list goes on.
Why do publishers create, propagate, and maintain these LaTeX typographic standards on a per-journal basis? Because readers actually have aesthetic expectations of the journals they use. It’s why the PDF remains the format of choice, even this deep into the digital age.
There’s an interesting paranoia here — that visual display work is being done by publishers in order to tighten their dastardly grip on authors and scientists. The non-paranoid reality is that publishers are careful about the aesthetic they provide because they are serving authors and scientists, who are very sensitive to typographic and design issues, and react negatively when these deviate from their expectations. I’ve redesigned journals, and the band of acceptable typography and brand treatments is relatively narrow, the boundaries unequivocal.
A hard left comes in Murray-Rust’s complaint when he points out that in one formula, some typographic wannabe actually set a flipped and upside-down italic “3” as an epsilon (ε) in a calculation, rendering it unreadable for a speech translation program for the blind. Complaining about this is complaining about poorly done typesetting, not well-done typesetting. And one error doesn’t invalidate the entire practice of typesetting calculations. In fact, it underscores how important it is to typeset them well and accurately.
Now we get to my favorite part — his mockery of a publisher saying, “Helvetica is boring.” I’m pretty sure the publisher likely said more than that, but if he or she didn’t, allow me to. Helvetica is a poor choice for a reading font. It is a sans serif with a significant x-height, two factors that decrease its reading contrast and speed, and results in a blended reading field, which you can more easily lose your way in. If line lengths and leading aren’t carefully managed, a page of Helvetica can look like a gray jumble. And in a justified page, the rivers on the page can cause a Moiré pattern. Helvetica may or may not be boring (it is currently experiencing a resurgence among signage and public space designers), but it is a poor choice for a reading font.
Do publishers use typesetting to exploit the market? That’s a paranoid and ill-informed perspective. Publishers are careful about how they present information because serving authors and readers is fundamental to what publishers do, and readers and authors in the sciences have expectations about how their articles look in finished form. Typography, and the typesetting necessary to achieve it at a high level, is a big part of meeting those expectations, and also has a role in transmitting new findings effectively.
(Hat tip to DC for the pointer.)