The Fuss about Ligatures

I recently started working with an editor on a project. Scanning my document, I noticed she caught many of the typical errors: an extra space here, change curly quotes to hash marks for inches, change this word for that word. . . but what was this? She was circling all my ligatures!

“Turn ligatures off,” the comment said.

What? It must be a mistake! But then, further on in the document, I saw it again!

“What’s going on here?,” I wondered. I had been taught as a graphic designer that the use of ligatures was a mark of good typography. I decided to get to the bottom the issue.

First, let’s look at what ligatures are, and why they exist. Ligatures are combinations of letters, created as part of a typeface’s character set, to avoid collision of elements of letterforms and create more elegant transitions from one letter to the next. Some common ligatures are ff, fi, and fl:

Common Ligatures

Ligatures were popular for setting type in the 15th century, when metal blocks of letters were placed into tracks to compose a printable document. At this time, ligatures were a great time saver, allowing the typesetter to place a single “fi” block into the track instead of separate “f” and “i” blocks—a seemingly small act that made a difference in a book of say 50,000 words.

Later, with the invention of Sans Serif type (with letterforms that have less overlap), modern-era printing (which uses print plates vs. individual blocks of text), the typewriter (with forced equal spaces—monospacing—between letterforms and no ligature keys), and desktop publishing (a decendent of the typewriter, where ligatures are hidden as glyphs that require unusual keystrokes) use of ligatures began to decline. An article about ligatures on states that:

Richard Wendorf, in a 2005 lecture The Secret Life of Type, even suggests that the death of the ligature was brought about by a desire to reduce the number of type pieces, and was also influenced by the popular publisher John Bell (1745-1831), who abandoned ligatures.

So ligatures declined. But when did they become despised by editors?

A partial answer to this came when I was reading a follow-up comment to a blog entry about ligatures. The person had written:

A question that I have is what does the ligature actually do for usability. Is it to help the flow of reading, or is it just to make the text look better?

Another reader responded:

I know of no studies that have broached the topic of ligatures and readability. The ligature was used by ancient scribes to speed their writing; I don’t think the ligature is the product of a desire for improved readability; however, as Stephen Tiano writes below, perhaps they do perhaps inadvertently perform this function.

When I asked my editor about her ligature bias, she suggested that the ligature was a stylistic dinosaur that confused the reader, decreasing readability due to people’s relative unfamiliarity with these typesetting specialties.

When it comes right down to it, a well-designed paragraph of type should not call attention to individual letters or letterforms. Rather, it should be read effortlessly. In this vein, I considered that it is the task of the designer to determine if a font’s ligature detracts or adds to readability. Some fonts, like Adobe Garamond Pro, were created with readability in mind and have thoughtfully-designed ligatures that enhance the flow of text. Others, such as some sans serif fonts (to be honest, I couldn’t find a bad example—but I’m sure they’re out there), may be better suited to have ligatures turned off. Whichever route you select, take care that you use (or don’t use) ligatures consistently within a single document to avoid confusion.

As for the highly stylized, fanciful ligatures that exist in many faces: I would suggest that they are entirely appropriate in headlines or logotype, where we want readers to notice the beauty and style of the letterforms. Bookman, Mrs. Eaves, and Zapfino are examples of fonts that have exceptionally beautiful ligatures that the world deserves to see!

Are you a fan or foe of ligatures? Let us know! Leave a comment below.

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6 Responses to “The Fuss about Ligatures”

  1. johno says:

    “…the ligature was a stylistic dinosaur that confused the reader.”
    What absolute nonsense! Pick up just about any piece of printed matter that contains extended text and you’ll see, at the very least, the standard ligatures like f+i and f+l, etc. As you demonstrated in your illustration, ligatures often prevent unsightly collisions, especially in f+i or f + another letter with an ascender.

    It might be that some find the now rarer “historical” ligatures (e.g. c+t) a little distracting; personally, I don’t find them to be at all distracting; but then that depends on the face. And, you’re right, in display settings and logotypes, ligatures can work well (depends of course on the context and the face).

  2. I myself don’t quite understand the negative feelings associated with ligatures. I rather like them… especially in materials for print and sometimes on the web. Sometimes I will use a drop cap on purpose though, in the case of a font that doesn’t emphasize them…don’t know if that is a different ball of wax altogether.

  3. textwrapper says:

    Ligatures are that most elegant form of bondage.

  4. aaron kiersky says:

    I agree with Bobbi, ligatures are very elegant when used, they look great, plus the purpose of them still holds true in our digital world. As stated in the article, for hand typesetters, having to grab only one cast letter is better than two, hence the ligature.
    However a point missed is the use of ligatures to kern text, allowing two letters that would usually have an akward spaceing between them, come a little closer, and even touch. The touching that happens by kerning properly is usually un-desirable, so a new ligature character is needed to allow for the proper spacing, but fixing the problems of letters running into each other.

  5. Raffy says:

    It is implied that the late Evert Bloemsma had a problem with ligatures. If one reads the interview with him in Daidala, you can read his answers.

    According to him, ligatures are based on a certain limitation. For instance, like this blog mentioned, during the letterpress days, the letters that have to be kerned but not in an unstable look or with awkward spacing, plus, they have to save time. Another one is that the scribes have those ligatures since they need to write quickly.
    Since desktop publishing came, gone is the need for ligatures.

    The reason I’m not a fan of ligatures is that I consider that the typeface user will track type positively or negatively. If a ligature is there, the spacing would be awkward. It just takes a reader to judge that such results look ugly.

    For the type designer’s part, they must do some kerning fixes on problematic ligatures to fix their typeface in case the user tracks their typeface.

  6. Will Hill says:

    Wendorf’s lecture seems to be the only source I can find for the idea that Bell abandoned the use of ligatures (and though he certainly rejected the use of the long s he was not the first to do so) Do you have a working link to the Wendorf lecture, or know of any other sources that support this claim? The idea that printers wanted to reduce the number of sorts is actually a very credible one; locating an additional sort in a different part of the type-case is not the same labour-saving efficiency as linking two letters in writing.

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