Posts Tagged ‘typesetting’

The Fuss about Ligatures

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

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 ilovetypography.com 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.

How to be "punctual" in your business communications

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

The correct use of punctuation may not seem to be all that important in your day-to-day communications, but let me ask you something: when do you ever notice punctuation in business correspondence? If you’re like me, it’s when there’s something wrong! Here are some quick tips for using punctuation correctly to create communications that send the right message:

  • ‘s and s’. These are to show possession. For a single person/place/thing, you add an apostrophe (‘) and then an S [example: Karen's dish, the tree's leaves, or Kentucky's mountains]. For multiple owners of an object, the apostrophe comes after the S [birds' nesting area, bike enthusiasts' favorite store]. PLEASE NOTE: the apostrophe should NEVER be used to indicate more than one of an object (the plural). I see this all the time. For example: Restroom’s are down the hall. Whose restrooms? Augh! Just don’t do that! Don’t!
  • Quotations. To indicate that someone is speaking, to note a person’s direct words, or to indicate sarcasm. Place quotation marks (“,”) on either side of a statement. For a partial quote within a sentence, punctuation should go OUTSIDE the quotation marks [Karen said, "this tastes like chicken".] For a quote that is fully contained within a sentence, the punctuation lies within the quotation marks ["Take two of these and call me in the morning."] Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit where the actors would make little quote marks in the air every time they didn’t really mean what they said? That’s another use of quotation marks: to denote sarcasm. Say it’s a lovely day outside, yet I tell someone it’s just “horrible”. That’s sarcasm. It’s not horrible. It’s lovely. The quotes give the word the opposite meaning. OK, why am I hounding on this so much? Because when people mistakenly use quotation marks for emphasis, they end up making it look like sarcasm! Here’s an example of a sign in my local shopping center for a store: Oselle’s “Bicycles”. Do you see the problem here? Are they bikes or not? Is the store really a front for a drug operation? If I get in there, am I going to find eggs instead? Or, am I to believe that Mr. Oselle wanted us to hear and imagine him saying the word bicycles? One last thing: make sure you select smart quotations in your Word or design program. These have a curly shape to them to indicate they are quote marks. Old typewriter “double prime” marks are used today only to show an abbreviation for inches (note that WordPress.com doesn’t support smart quotations, so pardon my misuse of them in this column!).
  • Dashes. Here’s a designer’s insider trick: within your computer keyboard are hidden versions of the hyphen that have completely different uses. In office typing (ie. typewriters—who uses those any more?), two hyphens–like these–were used to make a dash. These days, we have a long dash—called an em dash—to use instead. You can find it on a Mac by pressing Option+Shift+hyphen. Another dash, called an en, is half the length of an em but longer than a hyphen. Use this guy (Option+hyphen) to show ranges, like between two dates, times, etc. I can’t show it here, because WordPress doesn’t support this character. But it works great in Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, or any design program. So what’s a plain old hyphen for? Use it to tie two words together, like punctuation-obsessed graphic designer.
  • Double spaces. No longer necessary! In old office typing, two spaces were used after periods and colons. Today’s screen-based fonts include adequate spacing after periods, so this old-fashioned convention is no longer needed. Save your thumb and skip the extra space!

As technological advances provide us with faster, briefer communication on smaller and smaller screens, appropriate punctuation is all but kicked to the curb. And that’s OK! Why waste the effort hunting for the quote marks when you’re texting a friend? Just make sure you know how to make your business communications look professional, using appropriate punctuation and typesetting so your audience notices your message and not your punctuation.