I'm about to dive into LaTeX in preparation for writing a (technical) Master's Thesis. Since I'm kind of disappointed with the disregard to typography that is sometimes shown in such works I want to do it better, and just picked up The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.

Thanks to LaTeX and clever templates there are of course many things I no longer need to worry so much about, but there were interesting notions such as using small caps for acronyms and text figures ("old-style" small numbers), which I'll likely use rather frequently. I've found the syntax for these two, but I fear there are other aspects that I should also know right from the beginning so that I correctly set the markup right away and don't later need to go through the document for all that stuff.

So long story short: Does someone know a nice guide on using LaTeX in regards of good typography, rather than all the technical aspects of constructing and structuring a document for which there's plenty of reference?

  • 1
    Look at the documentation for the KOMA bundle, or the memoir class. Somewhat heavy going, but quite informative.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 10:27
  • 4
    There's also “A few notes on book design” by Peter Wilson (the memoir author). If you're speaking German there's a short overview on typographic practices by Christoph Bier called “typokurz”.
    – cgnieder
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 10:32
  • Considering oldstylenums, you can activate them easily, just remember that then you have to enclose all maths into dollars or other math mode delimiter, because numbers in the math sense should still be typeset in the "newstylenums". This applies especially for any physical units (lengths etc.)
    – yo'
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 10:37
  • 1
    Could you please explain how the accepted answer addresses your original question? Other than 'use a good document class' there is no further advice. You were asking for guidelines for good typography. Choosing a suitable document class does not help at all in getting typographically pleasing equations and tables.
    – user26372
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 14:08
  • @user26372 I accepted it since so far it was the best answer I got, guess that was a bit premature. You're right that it does not directly answer the question asking for guidelines.
    – Lars
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 16:26

2 Answers 2


One of the key ideas in *TeX is the strict seperation of the two aspects you mention (writing your thesis and worrying about the typography). The aim is to free the author from having to think about »correctly setting the markup right away« when writing the actual content. Of course this strict separation is an illusion to some degree, as form and content always interact. But that's a theoretical issue we don't have to discuss here. In everyday life, you hardly ever have to think about the typography when writing your actual thesis. This is because all the formatting directives you include in your text are symbolic (if you're doing it right). That's the crucial difference to the way most people use WYSIWYG word processors.

For example, when in your thesis you say I want to \emph{emphasize} x, what effectively happens is: you tell TeX that there's a word that you want emphasized, but the question of what the emphasis looks like in print is an entirely different thing. Say, if for some reason you decide not to mark emphasis by italics but by yellow text with purple frames, you will not have »to go through the document for all that stuff«. You will set this parameter once, and globally for the entire document.

Or if you prefer one style of quotation marks over another, like »...« over ''...'', again, this is something you can change globally, if you remember not to input the actual quotation marks by hand, but using, e.g. a command like \enquote -- etc.

So what I'd suggest is starting with a document class that's been designed with decent typography in mind, such as memoir or the classes from the komascript bundle, which I prefer, and then see if over time you run into specific things you don't like -- and find out how to change them on a case-by-case basis. Really, there's no need to look into typography books or TeX manuals in advance, trying to come up with the perfect overall typographic concept for your thesis (which, according to Murphy's Law, will of course not be able to anticipate all the things you'll actually run into later on anyways) :)

  • 2
    See also tex.stackexchange.com/questions/79808/…
    – lockstep
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 10:38
  • A question about these two: I've looked at classicthesis, which looks rather nifty, though I haven't yet made my mind up about it. If I'd go for komascript now, would it be easy to use that later?
    – Lars
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 11:11
  • 3
    I'd rather not choose a document class based on what its standard output looks like, but on factors like flexibility, stability, compatibility, ease of access to support, among other things. That's because, IMHO, a document class isn't something you switch on a per-case basis. Ideally, it's something you choose wisely, get to know really well over time, and stick with until you feel you've reached the limits of what it can do for you. I'd say go for komascript now and work your way toward a decent typography from there. There's nothing classicthesis does that can't be done in komascript.
    – Nils L
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 11:42
  • 1
    that said, the komascript bundle and classicthesis aren't mutually exclusive, as the latter is a mere package, not a class. So you can use, say, the scrreprt class from the komascript bundle, and let classicthesis do the formatting.
    – Nils L
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 12:25
  • 3
    "One of the key ideas in *TeX is the strict seperation of the two aspects" - This idea isn't really present in Plain Tex, and while Latex has been guided by the idea, I think the implementation has issues. Context is better at this. Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 12:52

I'm in the same situation of writing a technical Master's Thesis. I did not thoroughly read through design guides ... but from my point of view:

We have to differentiate technically correct typography from design. The first one deals with how to properly set equations, plots, and that kind of things. For instance: ISO-31 is a standard that describes how to properly set variable names, function names, constants, etc.

I have read many books for my studies and many of them even fail this simple criterion. As a student, reading equations in these books is a pain. You never know if 'c' is a variable, physical constant or super-special-subscript because it was improperly typeset. A good nomenclature helps but turning pages all the time is time-consuming. For instance, constants are set always upright (same for greek symbols that are constants).

Therefore the first thing to care about: Are all your plots, equations, etc. properly typeset?

For anything that goes beyond, there is probably no extra credit and you should reconsider if it is really worth it to spend your time for having a fancy design. In addition to that, most examination offices still ask for documents that are compatible with pre-computer-era guidelines (1.5 line spacing and such).

For a simple but good design you may want to:

  • Choose a 'good' easy-to-read-font (with serifs) with a matching math font
  • Ensure a consistent appearance of all figures and tables (e.g., same font)
  • Plots either use same set of colors (online version) or dotted/dashed lines for a print version.
  • Layout according to proper book design (enough white space, not 'fullpage'), a suitable documentclass should take care of this already (book, scrbook, memoir)
  • Make 'nice' tables according to common guidelines, i.e., no vertical lines. Have a look at the package booktabs for beautiful tables.
  • Depending on your exact field of study, you may want to have a look at siunitx. This LaTeX package is a good start to properly typeset units.

From my point of view, a 'good design' for a thesis (!) must not stand for its own good but instead ease reading and understanding it. I somewhat doubt that fancy chapter headings and that kind of things are any good to this. Perhaps they even distract some readers.

The question also is on how LaTeX specific you want to have your recommendations. Another book to recommend for sure is: "Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by Tufte. Tufte's books are quite famous and therefore a LaTeX package exists to reproduce his style, e.g., 'tufte-la­tex'.

When it comes to typography, there are a lot of things to debate (paper type, paper format, choice of fonts, color, type area, margins, page break, line break, units, formulas, tables).

Perhaps you can indicate a specific topic the guideline should focus on. As you saw, there are complete books just focusing on fonts :-)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .