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In technical writing, I generally use LaTeX, and I'm generally happy with LaTeX's usual figure placement at the top or bottom of a page. However, some of my colleagues who are used to Microsoft Word are of the opinion that figures should appear immediately following the first paragraph in which they are referenced, even if that is in the middle of a page. For some reason, they are not impressed by my reference to LaTeX as an authority on this point, and tend to see the figure placement issue as a weakness of LaTeX instead of a strength.

Hence, my question is: Are there any authoritative sources that discuss good design/typography, which are not specifically related to LaTeX, and which recommend placing figures at the top or bottom of a page? Ideally with some arguments for why this is good practice. By "authoritative sources" I mean things like books, commonly used style guides, etc. Sources that can reasonably be expected to reflect the practice of many people.

As an example, I found that the APA style guide on figure setup says that figures should either be on a separate page, or at the top or bottom of a page with text, not in the middle of the page. (However, it does not give any reasons for this practice.)

As another example, I found that also the Chicago Manual of Style (Section 3.8) says that figure will usually appear at the top or bottom of a page, but again with no reasons.

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  • If you like to have figures as close as is possible to point of insertion, use positioning option [htb]. Their position is opinion based, however LaTeX work hard to make document beautiful.
    – Zarko
    Jan 30, 2022 at 11:22
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    I don't quite understand your colleagues. What if the paragraph ends just before the bottom of the page? What if having the image immediately after the paragraph would cause a single line of text (or two) between the image and a page break?
    – Teepeemm
    Jan 30, 2022 at 18:45
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    I don't understand them either.
    – Tor
    Jan 31, 2022 at 20:57
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    If you want the figure to appear immediately after the text and without a caption, you can always just use \includegraphics{...} without surrounding it by a figure environment. This is relatively rare in published documents but can be useful in more informal documents. I've also seen it in maths papers. You can even wrap the \includegraphics in an equation environment if you want to, so the image gets an equation number, which can make sense in some circumstances.
    – N. Virgo
    Feb 1, 2022 at 7:01
  • Thanks for your suggestions. While I wasn't actually wondering about how to place figures, but rather why, it's still useful to know about. Cheers.
    – Tor
    Feb 2, 2022 at 8:17

5 Answers 5

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Why traditionally figures were placed on top, bottom or on a page of their own has to do with the difficulties early typographers had to overcome. Typesetting a book was a laborious practice. The text had to be typeset using metal type, while the figures were sent to an engraver to prepare the plates, first as wood-cuts and later on copper or steel. Space was allowed at the top or bottom of pages to enable the process to start in parallel. If books had a lot of figures, it was not unusual to have a separate volume altogether with "plates" and in the text it would refer you to Plate I, II etc. Even at recent times paperbacks had photos on separate pages using glossy more expensive paper. So the decision was one of technology. Many journals in the humanities still have "plates".

Today there is no compelling reason to follow this practice other than it looks better to most of us. Typography experts are now called graphic designers. Most publishers now employ "book interior designers" or sent the publication out to "Consultants" to prepare the final copy. Aesthetics and fashion go hand in hand. What looks nice to you, might not look as nice to other people. What is nice for Western Typography, might not be nice for Eastern Asian Typography. Knuth and later Lamport studied what was commonly used by typographers at the time and designed TeX and LaTeX to incorporate many "typographical rules" prevalent at the time. LaTeX's Output Routine which is responsible for laying out the images, certainly can be improved. While we may have to wait for that, nothing stops us for inserting figures manually and adjusting them as necessary, same way one would do it in InDesign, which I consider as the nearest competitor to LaTeX. In my experience, since figures attract the eye more than the text, you need to spend time adjusting their size and proportions to suit the pages for your final copy.

As to references for your friends a visit to Alexandra Elbayan's library and perusing books by some publishers such as Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale etc., can point them to current trends.

The reference to Bringhurst in Peter Wilson's post, is a good one although personally I do not like his style of writing, as I find it too dogmatic for my taste.

As a final word on "Word" this would be the last place to get advice on typography.

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    +1 for "As a final word on "Word" this would be the last place to get advice on typography." :-)
    – Mico
    Jan 30, 2022 at 21:31
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    Sometimes for older books color-prints had to be on separate pages using different paper even (maybe even covered with some semi-transparent protective sheets) while the rest used just black ink.
    – U. Windl
    Feb 1, 2022 at 8:38
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    More specifically: if you're setting everything by hand with moveable type, you want to put (space for) your figures in first, and then flow the text around them - otherwise you risk finding that there isn't enough space for the figure.
    – avid
    Feb 1, 2022 at 18:38
  • @avid's point is implicit in the way we, and Word users, still consider text to flow around images, despite those images being capable of floating around
    – Chris H
    Feb 2, 2022 at 10:59
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It is a matter of aesthetics, though why anyone would imagine that Microsoft has anything to do with aesthetics is beyond me as a GOM (Grumpy Old Man).

LaTeX lets you place illustrations wherever you want them; the figure environment does it's best to put them in good places but there are other methods.

I would take your two references as a good starting point but why should they be concerned with trying to explain why "good practice" is good practice?

An excellent book on typography is Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, Hartley & Marks, ISBN 0-88179-132-6 (or later). In it he says

Make the visible relationship between the text and other elements (photographs, captions,tables, diagram, notes) a reflection of their real relationship.

and later says

The typographic page is a map of the mind; it is frequently a map of the social order from which it comes. And for better or worse, minds and social orders change.

Essentially I think that each page should be considered in its own light, provided that there is general consistency among all the pages.

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In my opinion, "here" figures counterindications (that you can have in LaTeX too, using h, and maybe changing parameters to make them a bit more frequent --- check for example this megapost) are related to continuity of the reading flow. Captions and text into the figure can be distracting (unless they are graphically very different, which can be done, and in that case I sometimes like them).

The only thing you can't do with LaTeX is to put a wide (page-width-spanning) figure in the middle of the page in a two (or more) column document. But this is a clear no-no in my opinion: you never know where to start reading again when reaching the figure: some column after the figure? Next column at the top?

So the answer is that you can do "here" figures in LaTeX in reasonable conditions, even if it's better to think about that.

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    You can put full-width figures across multiple columns in the middle of the page with the multicol package, see example here: tex.stackexchange.com/a/30988/146885 Nevertheless, I agree: that's a big no-no.
    – D. Kovács
    Jan 31, 2022 at 12:14
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    Sometimes h can actually improve the flow of reading when it helps to avoid going forth and back in case when the text refers to details in the picture. I know a popular book that refers to figures by numbers (and not by page numbers, too), and you have to scan through the pages hunting for the figure with the given number, especiually when it is several pages "away"...
    – U. Windl
    Feb 1, 2022 at 8:43
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There's less of a necessity for it with computer typesetting than in early print, but I still think floating to top or bottom, or a dedicated figure page, is a good default because it maintains the integrity of the body text. The reader gets to choose when they want to check out the corresponding figure, rather than have it thrust into the middle of their reading flow and have to figure out where to resume. Even if only a fraction of a second annoyance, it's a "paper cut" impediment to reading that doesn't need to be there.

Using "here" placement of figures also has a tendency to "trap" isolated pieces of text, e.g. the one line of body text that appears above a figure at the top of the page, or below one at the bottom. I've even seen effective figure-pages with two floating figures and a single, easy-to-miss line of body text connected to the surrounding pages, either in-between the figures or at the bottom. A good way to reintroduce some of Word's aesthetic issues into TeX!

There are of course times to use inline placements, but in those cases you can just do a \includegraphics (or a tabular environment) and skip the floating figure (or table) env. Certainly best to avoid a caption in that position, since it'll be hard to distinguish from the body text that butts up against it.

The one place where I am amenable to using [h] placement with figures is when the fig or table is the very last element in a section: as it'll be followed by a new section title, there's no ambiguity and this placement (with caption) can be better tailored to the reading flow than a top- or bottom-float. As long as the section ends at a good place in the page, e.g. 1/3 down, otherwise we get the same continuity issues again. I've never felt this to be a critical issue, and would always go with default float placement until the text is more or less final and I do an aesthetic "placement pass" over the document.

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To complement the answers, another point is the importance of the placement of the figures for readability.

When placing a figure in the middle of a page (especially with a lesser density of letters such as A5 documents), the space for the text will make it more difficult to fit a paragraph. It is then hard to segment the caption of the figure from the flow of the text. The typical work-around are then to wrap the caption below the figure, such as with wrapfig.

Placing on the top or bottom, the caption of the figure will be more easy to naturally separate from the text.

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