Saturday, November 15, 2014

Italics, part two: the a branch

If you haven’t, please read the introduction to italics: part one and part two. The tutorial on the preceding ‘n’ branch also helps.

Like the n’ branch, the ‘a’ branch is a family of italic letters which all derive from a certain root (‘a’). The ‘a’ branch sprouts off of the side of the ‘n’ branch, and the ‘u’ and the ‘a’ form the junction between the two. In this way, the ‘a’ branch can be thought of as the second stage of italic design, though the design process is quite similar to that of the previous branch.

The letter a

Unlike the roman ‘a’, the italic ‘a’ has only a single bowl and stem, much like a ‘d’ without its ascender.
In terms of its architecture, ‘a’ is most directly descended from the italic ‘u’. The two letters share a bowl stroke; in the ‘a’, a second, horizontal stroke closes off the aperture, forming an eye-shaped counter. It is important to note that in italics, the stress is somewhat more diagonal, so the ‘a’s hairline is actually found near its upper-left corner.

Stem variations ( d q g )

From the ‘a’, the ‘d’ and ‘q’ can be made by extending their stems upward and downward, respectively. Owing to their increased size, the width of their bowls is sometimes increased slightly.
The ‘g’ can made similarly to the ‘q’, by adding a curved arc of stem to its descender. However, there is also an alternate form of the italic ‘g’ that is in many ways an oblique version of the roman ‘g’.
The Minion Pro ‘g’ and its italic version
This form is uncommon, generally found in more old style italics.

Mirror letters ( b p )

For some designers, the mirrored bowl letters—‘b’ and ‘p’, should be treated independently from their reflected counterparts, ‘q’ and ‘d’. In this case they will be highly informed by the shoulder of the ‘n’, just as in the roman. However, in italics, you can also simply rotate the ‘q’ and ‘d’ to create these letters, with some minor corrections. At any rate, you may find the discrepancy between these two avenues of design to be quite small in the end result.
Although some typefaces place a bilateral serif on the descender of the ‘p’ (and sometimes the ‘q’ also), it is also common for the stem of the ‘p’ to have no serif, sharing a shape with the vertex of the ‘n’.

Just like the ‘g’, the ‘p’ also possesses an alternate form, also popular among very old style typefaces. Here, it is not treated as a true bowl letter, but rather as a vertical stem slashed by an arc (much like how ‘p’ is often handwritten). However this form is rather rare, and the normal “rotated ‘d’ form” is never wrong.

Round letters ( c e o )

Perhaps a major discrepancy between roman and italic design, is that in roman type, the letter ‘o’ is designed first, and from it comes the ‘c’, ‘e’, and other bowled letters like ‘b’. In italic design, it makes more sense to design the bowled letters first, and create the ‘c’ and ‘e’ from them. The ‘o’ is built last, from the letter ‘c’. This is because the italic ‘o’ is not really a circle, rather it is made up of other, more basic italic strokes that come together to simulate a circle. Thus, in roman type, the circle is the basis of all the rounded or bowled letters, while in italic type, it is the basic strokes that form the basis for all the other letters.

The ‘c’ and ‘e’ are some of the most difficult italic letters to design (aside from the ‘n’ of course). The basic form of the ‘c’ is taken from the bowl of the ‘a’, or course, but the ‘c’ is significantly rounder, and slightly more eccentric in its slant (the ‘c’ even had slant in the roman). Thought must also be given to the letter’s upper terminal.
Equally challenging is the ‘e’, a modified ‘c’ that loops back into itself. Special care must be taken to balance the stress and size of the letter’s eye, and the letter may go through dozens of revisions before you’re finally happy with it. It should be noted that the italic ‘e’ almost never has a corner in its eye.

The ‘o’, for its part, is simply two ‘c’s put together to enclose a roughly oval counter.
That concludes the ‘a’ branch. In the next installment of this post, we’ll finish off the rest of the italic lowercase, including the smaller ‘f’ branch and some miscellaneous outlying letters.