Thursday, November 6, 2014

Italics, part one: the n branch

If you haven’t, please read the introduction to italics: part one and part two

The lowercase italic alphabet can actually be divided into three stages, represented by ‘n’, ‘a’, and ‘f’, plus a couple outliers. The ‘n’ branch, which this post will teach you how to design, is a vast swath of ten italic letters which all come quite naturally from each other. This is part of what makes italics so fun to design—the letters share so many characteristics that you can knock out large portions of the alphabet by nailing down just a few letterforms.

Typographical italics are descended from italic calligraphy, which contains only a few fundamental pen motions. That means that there is incredible congruence among different italic letters. The ‘h’, ‘m’, ‘n’, and ‘r’ are all letters with the “shoulder” or “hump” stroke, and the linear letters—‘i’, ‘j’, and ‘l’—are all degenerate forms of them. The ‘u’ is merely a rotated ‘n’, and the ‘v’ and ‘w’, are, at least sometimes, copies of ‘u’ strokes lacking the vertical stems.

At the center of this italic family is the letter ‘n’, from which all the other letters can be derived. Accordingly, it makes sense to spend more time on this letter and make sure that you get it right, since the shapes you draw in this letter will be reused at least nine more times.

Characteristics and parameters of the italic n

If you read my first post on italics, you should already be familiar with the form of the calligraphic ‘n’. This form actually resembles quite greatly the ‘n’s many people render in their handwriting, especially if they have cursive tendencies.
Many italic typefaces mix in traits of this form with those of the roman ‘n’, which is written with two strokes. The most obvious example of this is in the heights of the joins. Because the calligraphic ‘n’ is made up of a single stroke (at least visually; calligraphers are known for breaking up simple strokes into three or more components, especially when lettering at large sizes), the stem and shoulder meet at a vertex at the lower left corner of the letter.

It naturally follows that in italic type, the join of the ‘n’ is often dragged down the stem, much closer to the baseline. How far down the join is found varies. With numerous exceptions, older style typefaces generally have lower italic joins, while more modern (especially computer-claredon) typefaces have higher italic joins. This should make sense—computer-claredon type is, frankly, more closely related to sans serif type than “true” serif type, and following the sans tradition for oblique rather than italic type, these modern serifs tend to be close to visually slanted roman typefaces. Indeed, in many modern computer serifs, the joins hardly moves at all between the roman and italic styles.

In- and outstroke serifs are also an important component of italic type. Some typefaces have curved serifs, others have sharp serifs, and some combine the two. The upper serif is more likely to be sharp than the lower serif. Unlike join height however, in/outstroke serif form doesn’t correlate with type era that much. Many old style typefaces have curved italic serifs, but at the same time, curved serifs are also very common in very modern typefaces such as Didot and Computer Modern.

Drawing the italic n

As I’ve mentioned, fontforge contains a rudimentary tool that will “italicize” a typeface for you. While it can make a crude oblique, in no universe does this generate an actual italic. But it can be very useful in establishing the slant as well as the width and metrics of the italic ‘n’. Recall that italic letters are usually about a tenth narrower than their roman counterparts, and that their stems are slightly thinner, if anything as an optical correction for their newly diagonal orientations. Then from this blank, a truly italic ‘n’ can be drawn. The head serif of the ‘n’ can serve as a template for the instroke and outstrokes of the italic form. You can also add in subtle design idiosyncrasies like a bent right stem and an angled vertex at the bottom left.

Deriving the u, h, m, and r

The italic ‘u’ is simply a rotated copy of the ‘n’, with few modifications. You may find that the ‘u’ does not look as good as the ‘n’, which is actually a sign of a flawed curve in the ‘n’ that needs revising. In a way, the ‘n’ and the ‘u’ are designed together—in fact, inversion is a common technique for drawing attractive outlines, so many type designers design such pairs of glyphs jointly.

Once the ‘n’ and the ‘u’ are reconciled, the real party begins. The ‘h’ is simply an ‘n’ with a raised stem; the ‘m’ can be made from two ‘n’s fused together.
As in the roman, the typical subtle optical corrections should be performed (a slightly wider ‘h’ and a slightly narrower ‘m’). In addition, attention should be paid to the central stem of the italic ‘m’, which is slightly more complex than the corresponding part of the roman ‘m’.

The ‘r’ is a truncated ‘n’, compressed somewhat. The ‘r’ also contains a terminal, which should be reminiscent of the terminal on the roman ‘r’, though this is far from mandatory.

Low hanging fruit: the i, l, and j

The linear letters—‘i’, ‘l’, and ‘j’ are particularly low hanging fruit. The ‘i’ is a combination of the upper left and lower right portions of the ‘n’. The tittle should be identical to the one on the roman ‘i’ (please do not shear it into an ellipse), but it is shifted right, in line with the stem of the ‘i’. The ‘l’ is an ‘i’ without the tittle, and extended upwards to the ascender line. The ‘j’ is, of course, an ‘i’ with a tail. The tail can be informed by the terminal on the ‘r’, though it is perfectly fine to leave it indeterminate until we get to the f’-group of italics and resolve such strokes.

Vertex letters—v and w

In roman type, vertex letters—that is to say, ‘v’, ‘w’, and company, are considered a class of their own, separate from shouldered letters like ‘n’ or bowled letters like ‘o’. In some italics, they can be considered a subtype of the shouldered letters. The ‘v’ below was made from a ‘u’ glyph. The left stem was made slightly more vertical, and a blob was added to the right side of the glyph, now missing its downstroke. The ‘w’ is a ligature of two ‘v’s, and like the ‘m’, care must be taken with the complex joint between the two ‘v’ glyphs.
This is not, by far, the only way to design an italic ‘v’. In fact, there are many varying interpretations of this letter. There are countless combinations of bowled, sharp, serifed, blobbled, and so forth ‘v’s. In some typefaces, the ‘v’ approaches a bowled character like ‘o’, while in others it retains its roman vertex. Some blob, chisel, ball, or serif the right arm of the ‘v’. Like the join of the ‘n’, ‘v’ shape correlates somewhat with type era, with round ‘v’s being more common in old style type, and sharp ‘v’s being more common in modern type. But of course, there are numerous exceptions to the pattern—New Caledonia and Minion Pro for example.

This takes care of approximately two-fifths of the italic lowercase alphabet, though the ‘n’ we’ve drawn still isn’t quite done parenting offspring. In the next part of this post, we’ll look at how to derive the ‘a’ from the ‘u’, and consequently design another huge swath of letters known as the “a-branch”.