Akira Says ... Linotype’s Monthly Typographic Tip

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Akira says ...

Typographic Tip of the Month from Linotype’s Type Director Akira Kobayashi!

February 2007: Learn to love ligatures

A ligature is a glyph combining two or more characters. It is often believed that the use of ligatures is essential to good typography, and like all traditions, there is an element of truth in this statement. But the proper use of ligatures requires a bit of thought. When used properly, and in the right instances, ligatures help bring a text alive!

Ligatures come to us from the scribal tradition. Some letterforms naturally connect with each other in
certain writing styles. Their designs help avoid specific letterform collisions. Ligatures also function on an aesthetic level, as they can improve spacing along the line of text and help make the overall color more even.

Today’s OpenType fonts allow for easy access to ligatures. Older PostScript Type 1 and TrueType fonts tend just to have two ligatures (fi and fl) in the basic western character sets. Extra ligatures were often packaged in separate, ‘Expert’ fonts. Using these to replace your un-ligated letters was not unlike working the metal typesetting days. OpenType fonts on the other hand may contain thousands of glyphs, as well as coded substitution tables – ligatures can now be set automatically, as long as the necessary features are switched on, and you are working with an OpenType-savvy application.

The most common ligatures are the fi and fl-ligatures. Their use is so common that it is almost seen as a requirement in English-language typesetting. Some typefaces include even more f-ligatures in their character sets, e.g., ff, ffi, ffl, fj, ffj, etc. However, not every typeface design’s forms actually foresee a need for these; it always depends on the letterforms themselves and how the designer drew and spaced them.

Caution: Although the use of ligatures is perfectly acceptable in the English language for almost every circumstance, this is not the case in all languages. For example, in German, the word “auflegen” should not include an fl-ligature. “Auflegen” is a conjunction of two syllables (“auf” and “legen”), whose break comes between f and l. However, the German word “fliegen” can be set with an fl ligature, as the fl combination appears in the same syllable, “flieg.”

Palatino® Sans and Palatino Sans Informal are two new Linotype typeface families that contain a hearty helping of ligatures in their character sets, the Ultra Light weight especially. Most of these ligatures are decorative, and should only be used in display sizes. The cap ligatures above are beautiful. They can really add a special note to a headline, but remember to use them sparingly!

The test above contains a Th-ligature, as well as ligatures for the tt, ct, sp, et, and st combinations. These letter combinations are referred to as “discretionary ligatures.” Their use in not required, but they can add a subtle ornamental quality to a text. Historical fine printing tended to use these sorts of ligatures more often than one sees in books today. Use discretionary ligatures consistently. In the sample above, the st combination appears twice; in both occurrences, the available ligature has been employed.

Caution: For the first time, it is possible for all sorts of ligatures to be set in your text automatically. Quality typography still requires a careful eye, however. Make sure you are aware of what ligatures your fonts or applications are activating, and whether or not they are really suitable for the text at hand.

Fonts used in these examples:
Palatino Sans Regular
Palatino Sans Ultra Light
Palatino Sans Informal Ultra Light

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