LibreOffice: Fonts, page color, and the magic number

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Matching Fonts

Body and heading fonts should be compatible, but different enough so that one cannot be mistaken for another. In most cases, you need only these two fonts; however, this is not as limiting as it sounds. Most fonts include at least four font styles – Roman, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. Some have as many as nine, and a few have even more. Using too many font styles in the same document can look just as cluttered as too many different fonts, but you can generally use several font styles together without distracting from the document's content.

Matching fonts is an art form rather than a science, but you can increase the odds of finding fonts that go together by selecting ones that:

  • Share the same font family.
  • Are designed by the same typographer. A designer's preferences and habits may remain similar enough between fonts to give a common appearance.
  • Come from the same era or are described in the same terms. Countless terms are used to categorize fonts historically, but even if you are uncertain how a Humanist font (one based on Renaissance designs) differs from a Geometric font (one based on simple shapes), you can safely guess that the two are unlikely to go together. Of course, the more you know about the history of typography, the more you can match fonts by their origins.
  • Have a large number of font styles, especially if you plan to use the same font for both body text and headings.

The only way to be sure that fonts match, however, is to experiment with them, both on-screen and by printing frequent hard copy samples.

More general considerations in font selection can include:

  • Where will the document be used? The North American convention is to use a serif font (fonts with small hooks at the end of letter strokes) for body text, and a sans serif (fonts without the hooks) for headers. By contrast, in Europe, typographers are much less likely to abide by this convention. You can use a sans serif for body text in North America, but it may be perceived as an avant-garde choice.
  • Is the document for paper or online use? Even today, text on a screen is lower resolution than professional printing and may be processed differently by the brain than words on a page. For online use, you want fonts to have regular shapes, with a minimal of tapering. Often, that means designing mainly with sans serifs and the occasional slab serif (a font with very large hooks at the end of letter strokes).
  • Will recipients have the fonts installed on their computers to display the document properly? If you only want recipients to view the document, you can send a PDF file. Otherwise, you might be better off sticking to the standard Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, and Courier, or else the Liberation fonts, which are designed to take up the same space as the standard fonts. In recent versions of LibreOffice, you can also embed fonts in the document from Files | Properties | Font , but be aware that embedding just one font can significantly increase file size, to the point that some email accounts may bounce a file with embedded fonts.
  • Do you prefer to use only free-licensed fonts? If so, you will be unable to use some of the best-known fonts, although you can sometimes find substitutes [4]. However, free-licensed fonts are often cost-free. They also mean that recipients only need an Internet connection to install the fonts they need.

After you've chosen the fonts, you can turn your attention to the body font and page color it creates.

Page Color

The page color in this context does not refer to whether the text is black or green, but to how dark or light a page looks. As you can see by opening professionally published books, you want the body text to be neither too black or too washed out, but a consistent dark gray. Anything else is likely to make the document harder to read (Figures 9-11).

Figure 9: Too light a page color (using Raleway Light font).
Figure 10: Too dark a page color (Quattrocentro Roman).
Figure 11: A suitable page color (E.B. Garamond).

By contrast, the color of headings is usually darker than the body text, so it stands out and is useful when readers are browsing. For the most part, you can ignore the color of headings and concentrate on getting the right color for the body text.

The single most important influence on color is line spacing. Line spacing is defined as the measurement from one baseline (the imaginary line that the bottom of a letter like n or m sits on) to the next one (Figure 12). In LibreOffice, line spacing is set in the Line Spacing field on the Indents & Spacing tab for paragraphs (Figure 13).

Figure 12: The baseline is the imaginary line that letters sit upon. The space between two baselines is called the line spacing.
Figure 13: Set spacing to Fixed to adjust line spacing and to change page color.

In LibreOffice Writer, line spacing is averaged according to the font size. The exact measurement is displayed when you set the Line Spacing field to Fixed . LibreOffice sets a default line spacing based on the font size. For a 12-point font, that average is 14 points. However, because each font uses the space for characters differently, the default line spacing is not always ideal and may need to be adjusted by changing either the line spacing or the font size.

In theory or desperation, you can also use Position | Scale width to alter the width of the font's letters, or Position | Spacing to adjust the space between letters. However, in both these fields, small changes can have large effects on the appearance of a font. You need patience to use either field, and you may simply decide that any font that needs this careful attention should be discarded for another choice.

Developing an eye for line spacing and page color takes practice, so you might want to begin by comparing your efforts to a published book that is pleasing to your eye. However, certain contexts are more likely to need adjustments in line spacing than others, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2

When to Increase or Decrease Line Spacing

Increase Decrease
Fonts whose characters are narrow or have smaller spaces between them. Fonts whose characters are broad or relatively large spaces between them.
A line of text less than 45 characters. A line of text greater than about 80 characters.
Font sizes of less than 10 points, or more than 14. Fonts of 10-14 points.
Roman fonts that are too black. Regular fonts that are light gray.
Most sans-serif fonts; italic or oblique fonts. Some serif fonts.

If you think that page color needs adjusting, experiment with dummy text of at least three lines, so that you can concentrate on the page color rather than the contents. Often, dummy text is in a foreign language, which is why the fractured Latin that begins with "Lorem ipsum…" is often used. You can download copies of the Lorem Ipsum, as it is called, ranging from a few lines to several pages with a quick Internet search.

Copy the dummy text several times on the same page. First, apply each possible choice for your body text to a copy and compare the results. The chances are no better than 50 percent that LibreOffice's default line spacing will be ideal for a given font, so the next step is to make several copies of the dummy text that use your possible font, each with a different line spacing. Introduce changes in letter width or letter spacing only as a last resort.

Make small but systematic changes, comparing them frequently, until you have a page color that satisfies you. Adjusting page color is as much an art as a science, but viewing your samples both online and on paper and, from up close and from about 150 centimeters away, and consulting friends can all help you develop a sense of what works. Sometimes, too, economics enters the choice: Few hard copy publishers are likely to agree to 18-point line spacing for a 12-point font, no matter how aesthetic the results, because the extra pages it requires would seriously add to the cost of paper.

The Fixed line spacing – with or without letter width or letter spacing – that gives you a satisfactory page color is the magic number that will determine most of the rest of your design. Typographers designate a layout with the font size followed by the line spacing, so that a paragraph designated as 11/14 has a font size of 11 points and a line spacing of 14.

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