Lions and tulips | osp blog

osp blog

Lions and tulips

Designing with TeX: episode II

"Users only need to learn a few easy-to-understand commands that specify the logical structure of a document". If only we had sooner understood that user here is writer, not designer, we might have given up earlier. The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2 goes on to explain: "They almost never need to tinker with the actual layout of the document" ((The Not So Short Introduction to LATEX2 in 141 minutes; by Tobias Oetiker; Hubert Partl, Irene Hyna and Elisabeth Schlegl; Version 4.26, September 25, 2008)).

'Funny' lions (TeX and LaTeX) and digital tulips (ConTeXt)

It is harder than we imagined, to start from scratch. How on earth does one change a font? How to work across packages? Marking up a LaTex document does resemble working with CSS or HTML, but only slightly. Each command, each tag is particular to the magnificent world of LaTeX itself. Many times we meet the paternalist humor of TeX's father, as it has infected the whole TeX community it seems. We learn to understand the tong-in-cheek concept of 'badness' (depending on the tension put on hyphenated paragraphs, compiling a .tex document produces 'badness' for each block on a scale from 0 to 10.000), and a long history of wonderful but often incoherent layers of development, that envelope the mysterious lasagna beauty of TeX's typographic algorithms. One day we will try to draw you that on the map.

But however exciting to designers like us, LaTeX does resist anything that shifts it's model of 'book', 'article' or 'thesis'. Fit for academic publishing but too tight for the kind of publication we'd like Verbindingen/Jonctions 10 to be: multilingual, multi-format, multi-layered. Small changes can be made without much trouble, but major ones (try for example to combine a custom paper size AND change the display of headers simultaneously) explode the document beyond repair.

At the point we are ready to give up, we remember Pierre Marchand's comment to our earlier post. Following his advice, we finally decide to try out ConTeXt, another 'macro package' that uses the TeX engine. "While LaTeX insulates the writer from typographical details, ConTeXt takes a complementary approach by providing structured interfaces for handling typography, including extensive support for colors, backgrounds, hyperlinks, presentations, figure-text integration, and conditional compilation" (( This could be what we were looking for.

ConTeXt was developed in the 1990's by a Dutch company specialised in 'Advanced Document Engineering'. They needed to produce complex educational materials and workplace manuals and came up with this interface to TeX. "The development was purely driven by demand and configurability, and this meant that we could optimize most workflows that involved text editing." ((

However frustrating it is to re-learn yet another type of markup (even if all two are based on the same TeX language, none of the LaTeX commands works in ConTeXt and vice versa), many of the things that in LaTeX we could only achieve by means of 'hack', now are built in and readily available. There are plenty of questions, bugs and dark areas still but we breath again.

We're in the middle now of typesetting the book we've been working on for so long, so it is a bit early to know whether we will succeed in the end.

To be continued!