Thursday, October 30, 2014

Introduction to italics, part one

At this point, we’ve completed the entire ASCII block (save for the at sign (@) ).

Now, we could go on to do one of four things. We could add more glyphs to the font—fill out the Latin Supplement block with accented letters like ‘ å ’ and a few moderately common symbols like ‘ ¢ ’ and ‘ ° ’. We could go back and actually kern the letters we’ve already made to make the spacing look nicer. We could also derive the bold weight, or we could create the italic version of the font.

I recommend doing italics first. That is because between these four projects, creating italics will add the most value to your font. A functional font family includes a regular, or roman style, and an italic style. In many cases, italics are mandatory, for setting names of works of art, for example. They are also the best way to emphasize words in text. What about deriving the bold weight, you may ask? Well, bold is much, much less commonly used than italics. A font family does not need a bold weight to be functional, though it can be a selling point. Bold is usually used in contexts where it would also be appropriate to use a completely different typeface (headings, for example). The bold weight is also much more straightforward though tedious to design. It is also much easier to embolden both a roman and an italic typeface to create the bold and the bold italic than to italicize both a regular and a bold font to make the italic and bold italic. That is why I like designing italics before bold.

What are italics?

Italics are much more different from the regular style than the bold style is. In serif type, it is possible to machine-produce a passable, though ugly, bold font given a regular font, since emboldening is a relatively straightforward and mechanical operation. Indeed, dozens of weights can be automatically interpolated (with quite good results) from just three base fonts (extra-light, regular, and black). However it is impossible for a computer to automatically produce the italic style of a serif font (something the opposite is true in sans serif type, where the “italic” is very close to a machine slanted version of the original, and the different weights are given much more consideration). That is because the serif italic letterforms themselves are drastically different from the roman letterforms. Italic letterforms are much closer to calligraphy than roman letterforms are. In fact, the italic hand is one of the most natural styles of calligraphy. This is evident in the strokes of the italic letterforms, which are more cursive than those of roman letterforms.
(Somewhat messy) italic calligraphy of some lyrics from How You Get The Girl, in Taylor Swift’s 1989. While handwritten, this calligraphy is essentially the same as italic type. Compare this with the Proforma Italic sample below.

For comparison, here is a sample of the italics from the Proforma font (grouped by letter shape):

The letterforms are much more free-flowing and give a completely different texture than the roman style does. Here are some important differences.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Design notes: the ampersand ( & )

The ampersand (especially its italic form) is one of those glyphs that sees fairly little usage but for whatever reason type designers love obsessing over.

The ampersand, like the question mark, percent sign, and several other punctuation marks evolved from, you guessed it, a ligature—in this case, an ‘Et’ ligature—Latin/French for “and”. In most typefaces, the ‘E’ and ‘t’ have become so tangled up in each other that they are barely recognizable (italic ampersands are much more reminiscent of the ‘Et’). The pretzel-like form of the ampersand is very difficult to describe—your best bet is to just “look” at ampersands and try to copy them. The symbol has a leg that resembles the leg on the ‘R’, and its two bowls are more asymmetrical versions of the ones on the numeral ‘8’. It also contains a serif on its arm, which is similar to the one on the ‘v’ and rather unremarkable except that it is usually skewed with the longer side facing inward. Ampersands are usually the capital height, but have the stroke weight of the lowercase letters.
An ampersand from Floribunda

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Design notes: miscellaneous punctuation ( * ^ ` ~ )

There exists within the ASCII block a handful of assorted miscellaneous symbols—the asterisk ( * ), the raised caret ( ^ ), grave mark ( ` ), and tilde ( ~ ). The forms of these symbols are poorly defined, so type designers have a lot of free reign over these symbols. Except for the asterisk, these symbols are also incredibly rare, serving no purpose and having no use in proper typesetting, so they are kind of a typographical backwater.

Asterisk ( * )

The asterisk, or “star”, is the only one of these four symbols to be typographically significant. All asterisks resemble a star shape, but renditions of this glyph vary wildly among typefaces. An asterisk can have five, six, seven, or eight points, and occasionally many more.

The arms of an asterisk can be wedge shaped, pointing inward or outward, or they can be teardrop shaped. Sometimes the arms are not joined at the center. An asterisk is usually about half as tall as a capital ‘I’, and its upper edge is often affixed to a font’s capital overshoot. Many asterisks, particularly in old style typefaces, are rotated about ten degrees clockwise from a normal “up-pointing” star orientation.
Properties of the asterisk and caret in Floribunda.
Properties of the asterisk and caret in Floribunda.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Design notes: slashed characters ( < > # % $ )

From the various hairline characters and slashes we’ve designed, several more glyphs can be derived— ‘<’, ‘>’, ‘#’, ‘%’, ‘$’. These symbols, however, require slightly more artistic consideration, and their design varies much more among fonts than that of the hairline characters and slashes.

Greater than and less than symbols ( < > )

The greater than/less than symbols are chevron-shaped characters used in mathematics, computer programming, and occasionally as terminal punctuation, serving a purpose similar to ‘?’ and ‘!’.
Less than signs from various typefaces. The acute angled form is by far the most common.
Less than signs from various typefaces. The acute angled form is by far the most common.
The design of ‘<’ varies greatly among typefaces. There is no single angle prescription, like there is for ‘/’ or ‘v’. Most fonts compress the glyph vertically, rendering a shape that’s wider than it is tall (giving it an acute angle). Others arrange the arms at right angles, like Proforma does. Neither form is easier or harder to design than the other, nor is one form superior to another. The orthogonal form can be made from the ‘+’ glyph, its arms stretched to √2/2 times the x-height. The stretched form can be made from two rotated slashes, perhaps with beveling added to the vertex.
Some properties of the ‘<’, ‘>’, and ‘#’ symbols

Octothorpe (number/pound sign, hashtag) ( # )

The octothorpe, also known commonly as the hashtag, or less commonly, a “number sign” or “pound sign”, is a grid-like character which is usually paid little attention in type design. The octothorpe is smaller than the capital height, and centered within it. It is often, though not always, slightly oblique; less so than the slash though. The horizontal cross strokes may be made thicker than the vertical/oblique strokes. The four strokes should appear to visually delineate nine congruent spaces.

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.