Sunday, October 19, 2014

Design notes: brackets and braces ( [ ] { } )


Brackets are squarish symbols which are somewhat common in prose (indicating an insertion in a quotation, or a footnote), though less common than the parenthese. They are also heavily used in mathematics, and as an uncommon emoji.

Brackets are not all that hard to design at all. They can be made from one side of a capital ‘I’, stretched to the dimensions of the parenthese. Oftentimes the bracketing (no pun intended) of the serifs is made more horizontal to give the bracket character a more shelf-like shape. The stem of a bracket is thinner than a normal stem, but it is usually thicker than the vertical bar and the hairline characters. Brackets, while resembling them, are not hairline symbols.


Braces (sometimes called “French curly brackets”) are a third type of parenthetical character. Braces are not naturally occurring glyphs. They have no usage in any form of writing, except as a math symbol used to denote sets such as x = { 1, 3, 5, 6 }. The only reason they even made it onto the standard keyboard is because computer programmers make heavy use of these glyphs in their code (which should be set in monospaced type anyway).

Braces are difficult to describe. The best way to learn how to draw them is to look at examples from existing typefaces. Braces are also perfectly symmetrical (a rarity in type design), so you can draw the top half and just mirror it to make the bottom half.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Design notes: hairline symbols ( | / \ + = _ )

There exist a handful of lineal symbols—slashes, the equals sign, etc. which are relatively simple to design, even if some confusion exists about their dimensions and placements. In almost all typefaces, these characters are plain rectangles.


Slashes—‘/’, ‘\’—sometimes called solidusses (or solidi) are hairline characters derived from a third glyph—the vertical bar ‘|’.
Dimensions of the various slash characters
Dimensions of the various slash characters
  • The vertical bar is optically the same width as the en-dash (or em-dash), though since it’s oriented vertically, it needs to be a bit heavier (like 0.044 ems vs 0.040 ems).
  • The vertical bar is supposed to extend across the entire em height. That is, the vertical bar is 1.0 ems high. But not all fonts obey this rule. There is some confusion over whether or not the bar is continuous. The vertical bar is always continuous—the broken form ‘ ¦ ’ is a separate character.
  • Spacing of the vertical bar varies across typefaces. I like to go with sidebearings that are twice the width of the bar itself.
  • The slash is the same width as the vertical bar, just inclined exactly 18 degrees away from the vertical. This figure is incredibly consistent across typefaces; in fact, many designers will naturally create slashes tilted 18 degrees without even knowing about the rule, simply because that angle looks the best to the eye. The backslash is an exact mirror reflection of the slash.
  • For most typefaces, the top of the slash terminates at the ascender line. The descent of the slash varies—some fonts bring it almost to the descender line, others to the bottom of the parentheses, and others just below the baseline.
  • For many typefaces, the slash is just a long, thin, tilted rectangle. Many other designs however, include slashes that are shaped like parallelograms, with flatly-cut bottom edges.
  • Spacing the slash is more important that most other punctuation marks, since its leaning shape and common occurrence adjacent to letters (like in ft/sec) make it prone to collisions. The general rule is to space the slash so that if it extended two-thirds the way to the baseline, the ends would just barely extend over the shank (metrical width of the glyph, shaded in the above diagram). This holds even if the slash itself terminates above or below the “two-thirds” line.

Design notes: terminal punctuation ( ? ! )

The question mark and the exclamation point are some of the most well known punctuation marks, despite the fact that they are fairly uncommon in most prose—the reason I didn’t include it in the essential punctuation posts. The question mark is not rare, though it is not common in most writing—the exception being text with an abundance of dialog. The exclamation point is rarer; most manuals of style actually recommend against using it (though in conversation, the exclamation point is close to default, and it is the period which must be used sparingly).

A long time ago, the question mark and exclamation point were ligatures of a ‘Qo’ and an ‘Jo’—the ‘Q’ standing for “question” and the ‘J’ standing for “joy”, respectively (the ‘o’ comes from the Ancient Latin versions of these words, which both ended in ‘o’). The ‘Q’ degenerated to become the curved stroke over the ‘o’, which collapsed into a dot, forming the ‘?’. The  ‘Jo’ degenerated in a similar way, with the ‘J’ becoming the stem of the exclamation point (though the ‘J’ was written as a straight vertical stroke, ‘I’, back then anyway).

The question mark

The question mark is one of the hardest punctuation marks to design.
  • For whatever reason, the stress on the question mark is opposite that of conventional western calligraphy. Why? It probably has something to do with the fact that when this glyph is drawn in pencil or ballpoint pen, it is most natural for us to put the most pressure on the diagonal strokes.
  • The stroke of the question mark terminates about one period’s width above its lower dot. The stroke’s finial rarely “points” at the dot, rather it’s directed to a location somewhat to the right.
  • The height of the question mark varies among typefaces. Some make it the capital height, others raise it all the way to the ascender line (usually more modern style typefaces). Many make the question mark somewhere between those two heights.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Design notes: loopy numerals ( 6 9 and 8 )

The numbers ‘6’, ‘9’, and ‘8’ are certainly the hardest numerals to design. They contain no straight lines and no obvious guidelines to design from. These numerals largely have to be drawn by eye, though we can employ a circle-method similar to the one we used for the ‘s’ to make the ‘8’.

6 and 9

  • Perhaps the best guide we have for drawing the ‘6’ is the lowercase ‘b’, as the stress on the two glyphs’ bowls is similar. The ‘6’ is also about the same width as the ‘b’.
  • The joint between the tip of the bowl and the numeral’s arc (left side) is rarely smooth. Usually there is a vertex on the inside.
  • The terminal often extends almost all the way to the right extreme of the glyph.
  • The ‘9’ is a perfect 180 degree rotation of the ‘6’. There are very few adjustments that should be made to it (though some designers like to shrink the bowl of the ‘9’ slightly). That means that if your ‘9’ looks funny, then it’s probably indicative of a poorly drawn curve in your ‘6’. In this way, the ‘6’ and the ‘9’ are, in a way, designed simultaneously, as each can help you improve the other.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Design notes: the numerals 2 5 7 and 4

The ‘2’, ‘5’, ‘7’, and ‘4’ can be derived from the ‘1’ and ‘3’.

2 and 5

The ‘2’ and the ‘5’ take the upper and lower bowls of the ‘3’, respectively, and combine it with a stressed horizontal stroke.
  • The ‘2’ is a hard glyph to design. The upper bowl of the ‘3’ has to be extended out all the way to the baseline, where it meets a stressed arm that ends in a beak serif.
  • The thickest part of the ‘2’ is the upper right portion of its bowl. The thinnest part is the joint between the bowl and the arm.
  • The joint is never a loop (as the ‘2’ is often handwritten), and it almost never bends back out (like it does in some poorly designed sans serif fonts). The vertex is thinner than the arm is.
  • The arm of the ‘2’ is slightly wider than the bowl is. It also carries stress, but is geometrically thinner than the stem width for optical reasons.
  • The lower bowl of the ‘5’ is almost traced from the lower bowl of the ‘3’. The terminal curves up less, however, and at least in the lining ‘5’, the top part of the bowl angles up before curving down.
  • The vertical hairline linking the ‘5’s flag (horizontal stroke) and bowl is sometimes angled slightly to the right.
  • The flag of the ‘5’ either has no serif (shown above), or has an overshooting upturn serif.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Design notes: The numbers 1 3 and 0

1 and 0

  • Numbers are often slightly shorter than capital letters. It can be convenient to set the capital line as the overshoot for the numerals, and the numeral line slightly below it. Lining numerals are also the same weight as capital letters.
  • The ‘1’ is a combination of the stem of the capital ‘I’ and the head serif of the ‘l’. The serifs of the ‘1’ are significantly longer than either letter’s.
  • The flag (top serif) of the ‘1’ is almost never curved, like it is in handwriting and some grotesque sans serifs.
  • The ‘0’ is about the same width as the lowercase ‘o’, just taller. Remember to match weights with the capital ‘O’.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Introduction to Arabic numerals: what are old style and monospace numerals?

Arabic (or more accurately, Indian) numerals are single character numerical glyphs like ‘1’ or ‘6’. Perhaps because of ease of access, Arabic numerals are somewhat overused, but they are mandatory for writing out numbers with more than two digits.

It’s not commonly known that numerals come in both capital and lowercase forms. Capital, or lining numerals, are the type most people are most familiar with today, probably because they are almost always the default. Lowercase, or old style numerals, are rarer, but still common in professional typesetting. Some type designers refer to lining and old style numerals as lining and old style figures—this means the exact same thing as numerals.

Numerals also come in different widths—monospace (or tabular) and proportional. Monospace means that all the numbers (glyph plus sidebearings) have the same width; proportional means that they only take up the space they need. This means that a font might include up to four different styles of numerals—monospace lining (usually the default), proportional lining, monospace old style, and proportional old style. Many fonts also include lowercase versions of symbols like the percent sign and currency symbols to go with the old style figures.
A font might include up to four different styles of numerals.
(The font used here is Warnock Pro, by Robert Slimbach).