Monday, August 25, 2014

Glyph design: the lowercase a

Once you know what kind of typeface you’re going to make, then comes the fun part—drawing the glyphs. If you are doing a lettering job, of course you already know which glyphs you need to do first, but for making a typeface from scratch, there are some letters that are useful to make first. Generally the first letters you should design should include o, n, v, b d p or q (pick one), and a couple others. It varies by designer. I like to make a o i b n e f and v, in that order. Many of those letters are useful because each one can be used to derive several other letters, so together, they define almost the entire lowercase alphabet (except for the letters ‘g’ and ‘s’). This first glyph design post will focus on how to design the lowercase ‘a’.




But of all the letters, why ‘a’ ? The letter ‘a’ can't be used to directly derive any other letters; in fact, it and its oddball friends ‘g’ and ‘s’ are the three unique outsiders of the lowercase alphabet. But while ‘a’, ‘g’ and ‘s’ are alone in terms of structure, they are actually really good letters for setting the tone of your typeface. The ‘a’ has a good variety of curves which help you work out the general shape you want your typeface to have. So ‘a’ can give you a good idea of how you want your ‘n’ and ‘o’ to look like, and even help you indirectly derive them, which in turn tells you how to make the rest of the lowercase alphabet. Of the three letters, ‘g’ is also harder to design than ‘a’, and ‘s’ is significantly harder than both of them, so ‘a’ is a better letter to start with. Most people generally know the shape of the letter ‘a’ better than they do the ‘s’ and certainly the ‘g’ (whose serif form almost nobody knows how to write these days). ‘a’ is also the first letter of the alphabet, and the third most common letter in the English language, making it a logical choice to begin a typeface with.

Basic shape of the ‘a’

First things first, this:
is not an ‘a’. This ‘ɑ’, known as the single story ‘ɑ’, is the cursive variant of ‘a’. ‘ɑ’ is common in script typefaces and italic fonts, but as typographers and middle school girls know, the true roman (not italic) form of this letter is:
Linux Libertine Regular
This form is called the double story ‘a’. Almost every serif font ever made uses this form in their roman style. In fact it’s a very bad idea to use the first form in place of the second, since to some phoneticians, ‘ɑ’ and ‘a’ are actually different letters.

Parts of an 'a'

This is the annoying part with all the technical terms. There are dozens of names (maybe hundreds—I didn't count them all) to let typographers describe every part of every letter. There are a lot to learn, but the terms can actually be really useful. The basic components of the letter ‘a’ are labelled in this diagram:
Components of a lowercase letter 'a'
Components of a lowercase letter ‘a’

Arc of stem

     The overhang on top of the ‘a’. It's the main thing that distinguishes ‘a’ from ‘ɑ’.


     The thing found at the end of the terminal. It can be shaped like a wedge, blob, ball, or simply taper out in some typefaces. It can also have a serif, though then it’s not technically a terminal anymore.


     The backbone of the ‘a’, highlighted in pink. Stem always refers to a straight vertical part of a letter.


     An extension of the stem unique to ‘a’. Sometimes it's called a swash or a tail. In some fonts like Libertine or Minion, it takes on its own unique shape, while in others, it might just look like an ordinary half-serif. The tail usually bends away from the letter, even in some sans serif typefaces.


     The loop that makes up the bottom-left part of the ‘a’.


     The hole in the ‘a’ enclosed by the bowl.

Constructing the body of the ‘a’

A big thing that a lot of serif ‘a’s have that you probably never noticed is that their diagonals are largely parallel. Not all serif ‘a’s have this—either because the designer had something else in mind, or, as I suspect in the case of the Droid and DejaVu serif fonts, because the designer just stuck serifs onto a sans typeface. But most old styles and many others have this.
Left to right: Minion Pro, Linux Libertine, Charter
Left to right: Minion Pro, Linux Libertine, Charter

The bounds for the bowl and the shoulder of the terminal are somewhat perpendicular to the other lines. Even though the lines aren’t exactly parallel—the diagonal vectors converge at a vanishing point somewhere to the upper right (the way a right-handed person draws near-parallel lines)—it’s still useful for constructing the ‘a’.
The letter 'a' can be roughed out with some lines and boxes.
The letter ‘a’ can be roughed out with some lines and boxes.
This is good for drawing the body of the ‘a’—the stem, bowl, and terminal, but two parts of the ‘a’ remain undefined: the terminal serif and the spur.

The terminal

The terminal is a small part of the ‘a’, but it's very influential over the character of the letter. An ‘a’ can have a serif, ball terminal, drop terminal, or have no blobbing at all.

This is the terminal I chose for my ‘a’ :

The spur

Almost every serif ‘a’ has a spur, but the shape varies. Sometimes it’s just a half-serif, other times it has its own unique shape. Sometimes it’s angled parallel to the bowl and arc of stem, and sometimes it’s flat to the baseline. Even if it’s not exactly a perfect serif, the spur is often derived from a serif, so it’s best to wait until you design a letter like ‘i’ and come up with the serifs before tackling the spur of the ‘a’. Until then, feel free to just put a placeholder there—As you might have noticed, I did something like the spur on the Minion ‘a’.