Sunday, September 14, 2014

Glyph design: how to draw the looptail g

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The lowercase looptail ‘g’ is perhaps the most poorly understood letter of the alphabet. Its serif form has an extremely intricate architecture that virtually nobody knows how to write these days.

Just like with the ‘a’, there are two accepted ways to write the letter ‘g’. On the left below is the “proper” form, called the looptail or double story ‘g’. The script form (right) is much less common, and is generally only found in sans serif and decorative typefaces (and even then only occasionally). But since it is much easier to draw than the looptail ‘g’, most people handwrite the script ‘ɡ’. In proper serif type, this ‘ɡ’ is exceedingly rare. In fact, the only place this construction is found is as a phonetic glyph, and very few fonts include IPA support.
Linux Libertine is one of the few fonts (commercial or free) that contain the phonetic ‘ɡ’ along with the alphabetic ‘g’
Linux Libertine is one of the few fonts (commercial or free) that contain the phonetic ‘ɡ’ along with the alphabetic ‘g’

The calligraphic roots of serif type

If you’re new to serif type design, you might be wondering what’s going on with all that thick–thin stroke stuff. For example, why are the sides of an ‘o’ thicker than the top and bottom? The reason serif type has all that stroke contrast is because serif type evolved from broad-nibbed calligraphy, which produces such contrasting lines.

A long time ago, before ballpoint pens, people wrote with what were essentially sticks dipped in ink. But these writing instruments couldn’t be too pointy—or else they would break. So the nibs (writing points) were made wider to give them more strength. This became what is now known as the broad-nibbed calligraphy pen. Though they’ve since been eclipsed by the ballpoint pen, they are still somewhat common and there are many places you can buy them.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Glyph design: the lowercase k

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The letter ‘k’ is made up of a single ascending stem, and a diagonal arm and leg protruding to the right.
Components of a lowercase letter ‘k’
Components of a lowercase letter ‘k’
The left side of this letter is essentially identical to the lowercase ‘l’. Considerable variation exists in the right half of the letter, especially where the arm and leg meet, called the join of the letter. Sometimes, particularly in older style typefaces, the join is an extension of the arm and the leg offshoots from it, other times, the arm and leg are disconnected from the stem and the two parts meet at an invisible point.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Glyph design: the lowercase x

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The lowercase ‘x’ is one of those letters that isn’t hard to make, just tedious. The ‘x’, while seemingly simple, requires numerous (but well documented) optical corrections. You also have to consider the negative space in the letter, something you usually only have to think about with round letters like ‘p’ or ‘e’.

The superficial structure of the letter isn’t complicated. It has a single thick diagonal, crossed optically by two arms, collectively called the letter’s hairline, since it is supposed to represent the hairline thickness of the font.

The ‘x’ isn’t a very common letter. The most abundant English letter, ‘e’, is eighty-five times as common. In a typical page of English text, ‘x’ only occurs once every seven hundred letters, on average. Only ‘q’ and ‘z’ are rarer. But the letter is of great interest to typographers, since it stores a a lot of a typeface’s measurements. The height of the letter determines the optical size of the lowercase letters and sets the mean line of the typeface. This is why font size is sometimes expressed in terms of “x-height”, especially when point size is unreliable. The letter’s four corners (including serifs) roughly form a square in a normal style typeface—if it’s wider than it is tall, the font is extended, if it’s significantly narrower, the font is considered condensed. The width of its arms sets a typeface’s hairline thickness, and its hairline compared to the thickness of its diagonal can be used to measure the stroke contrast.
Components of a lowercase ‘x’
Components of a lowercase ‘x’
The diagonal of the letter can be made from the diagonals of two ‘v’s. It is important that the serifs of the ‘v’s align exactly to the baseline and the meanline of typeface, or else you will create an ‘x’ that is too tall or too short, which will be very hard to correct later on. The diagonal should be sheared over so that it spans slightly less than the width of the ‘v’.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Glyph design: the lowercase j

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The letter ‘j’ can be built straight from the ‘i’—in fact, long ago the two letters were one. The only difference is that the ‘j’ has a slightly curved tail descending below the baseline.
Components of a lowercase ‘j’
Components of a lowercase ‘j’
The top half of the letter is exactly identical to the ‘i’. The bottom half can be made from the hook of an ‘f’, though in most serif type, the two arcs of stem appear very different (in sans serif type, it is common for the ‘j’ to simply be a rotated ‘f’ with a tittle and no crossbar).

Monday, September 8, 2014

Glyph design: the lowercase w and y

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Just like how you can easily derive ‘p’, ‘d’, and ‘q’ from the ‘b’, and ‘h’, ‘m’, and ‘u’ from the ‘n’, ‘w’ and ‘y’ can be quickly made from the lowercase ‘v’ glyph. Both letters contain the ‘v’ in them, only slightly modified.
Components of a lowercase ‘w’. The ‘w’ is essentially a ligature of two ‘v’s.
Components of a lowercase ‘w’. The ‘w’ is essentially a ligature of two ‘v’s.
The letter ‘w’ can really be thought of as a ligature of two ‘v’s. In fact, in many languages, the name of the letter is “double-v” (English calls the letter “double-u” since when it was invented, ‘u’ and ‘v’ were still the same letter). Because of that, many typefaces render the letter as two slightly overlapping ‘v’s. Like the ‘m’ which is typographically composed of two ‘n’s, the ‘w’ is very slightly compressed (though not to any noticeable extent).
Garamond (left), Sabon (center), and Hoefler (right) all have ‘w’s composed from two ‘v’s.
Garamond (left), Sabon (center), and Hoefler (right) all have ‘w’s composed from two ‘v’s.
A few typefaces omit the serif between the ‘v’s, like Minion and Bodoni. Warnock appears to be intermediate. This form generally has much more compression than the ‘vv’ form, usually applied to the outer strokes of the letter.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Glyph design: the lowercase c

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The letter ‘c’ is deceptively simple. It is a single open curve, and much of the design work on this letter is purely visual so there are few pointers I can give you.
The bottom half of the ‘c’ is almost identical to that of the letter ‘e’. But instead of closing off into a loop, the top of the curve finishes off in a terminal, usually with blobbing. The top left of the letter is often flattened slightly.