Palatino and Source Sans Pro, the only fonts a scientist needs

The title of this post is both my subjective opinion and the TL;DR version of this post. If you’re interested in why I no longer bother with any other fonts, let me explain.


The fonts are free

Source Sans Pro is free to download. In fact, it’s open source and developed on GitHub. It doesn’t come much freer than that.

Palatino isn’t technically free, but we can simply use the free clone URW Palladio. (I’m just sticking with the more familiar name for this post.)

The fonts are professional

Despite being free, the fonts aren’t created by amateurs. Adobe is in charge of Source Sans Pro, and URW (a German font foundry) is in charge of the Palatino clone. Broadly speaking, professionally designed fonts are more likely to ‘just work’ as you would expect and look better for reasons that you may or may not realise. (Think kerning, for example.)

As well as being professional, the fonts are widely used. They therefore contain (probably) all the characters you need. Character sets included in both fonts include the obvious: Latin and Greek. There’s also the not-so-obvious: Braille, Gothic, Coptic, etc, though I’m not sure a scientist would ever need these?

Unfortunately, Source Sans Pro does not currently have italicised Greek letters. (When I need these, I use the similar-looking Roboto as a stand in.)

The fonts do not stand out

There’s nothing gimmicky about either font. Ideally, readers won’t notice the fonts. That’s a good thing, by the way. There are far too many fonts that are inappropriate for most uses, let alone science. This article provides a good summary of the various reasons that a font may be a bad choice: illegible, out-of-date, inauthentic, or just plain ugly.

The fonts easily work with LaTeX

Changing fonts is difficult in LaTeX. Both Source Sans Pro and Palatino, however, have associated packages that make life much easier. To use Palatino, add the following single line to the preamble


To additionally use Source Sans Pro for the headings, include


The result looks something like this


Much better than the default Computer Modern:


Computer Modern is simply too common. It’s not a bad font per se. It’s just too easy to recognise as a default, plain choice.

Source Sans Pro comes in multiple weights

Many fonts come in either normal or bold. Not so for Source Sans Pro, which comes in six different weights.


Admittedly, I’ve never needed to use Ultra-light, Bold, or Heavy. I do, however, frequently use the Light variant for title slides and in figures to distinguish key details from ancillary information. Here’s an example from a recent paper of mine:

Light and Normal variants of Source Sans Pro

Palatino does not have weight variants beyond normal and bold (as far as I know). As a font for body text, however, there isn’t much need for light or semibold variants. 

I lied, a third font is necessary

Coding requires a monospaced font. I use Ubuntu Mono. What you choose doesn’t really matter, since no one will see what you pick.

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

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