Ligature Talk

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Are ligatures really necessary? The answer: Yes. Ligatures help to enhance the reading flow of texts; they also reduce the awkwardness of certain letter combinations. Today, I’ll take you through a tour of the two types of ligatures — their definition, usage and examples. But first, to see if we are on the same page, let’s first get straight to the meaning of a ligature; an orthographic ligature, if you like.

What are ligatures?

Ligatures are the visual combination of two (or more) letters, to form a single character, which is different from just a normal combo of the letters. Often it can be accessed using OpenType features in software. However, Unicode also provides their own special characters for ligatures. I find this extremely useful when using older software, like MS Paint (am I the only one using it). Let me introduce to you the three types of ligatures now.

Default Ligatures

These are the most common, most widely-accepted branch of ligatures. Take the letter-pairing of ‘fi’. When they aren’t merged into a ligature, the top part of the ‘f’ and ‘i’ can look jarring and unpleasant, and in tragic cases, could provoke nightmares when placed side-by-side. When merged into a single character or a ligature however, reading becomes easier and more comfortable. And this, is the essence of so-called ‘normal’ ligatures. Other such ligatures include:

  • fk
  • fb
  • fl
  • ffi
  • ffl
  • fj
  • and much more! As a rule of thumb, there has to be a ligature for everything. Of course, default ligatures are solely to improve readability, so even if limitless options exist, it is best to stick to the above ones.
Example of default ligatures. The pink-coloured text on the left has default ligatures enabled, while the right doesn’t.
The Noteworthy typeface does not have any ligatures whatsoever.

Default ligatures are, in my opinion, rudimentary. If a typeface doesn’t contain a ligature, it shows that the designer didn’t bother to get some small details right. When there is a heavy chunk of text, the sentences can get annoying to read if there aren’t any ligatures; for example, fonts with an “f” leaning to the left are most affected. So, if you’re planning to choose a good typeface for body-type, be sure to check if it supports various default ligatures.

Discretionary Ligatures

Discretionary ligatures are quite the opposite of defualt ligatures. They are decorative, non-essential features to a typeface, and are fun to play around with. These ligatures are used to give some visual interest to the letters. I would not recommend them for lengthy pieces of text, however, as readibility will be severely affected as dligs are attract a lot of attention.

This font from Nouvelle Noire is a nightmare when set in body text. Don’t even try reading it!

The only discretionary ligatures common in most typefaces are ‘ct’, ‘st’, and sometimes ‘sp’. These mainly stem from calligraphic traditions. But when it comes to the specific typeface itself, dozens of other options pop up — be it curious curlicues, space-age letterforms, or dizzying distortions, spasms, and glitches. These ligatures often can be found on large display type. But be warned: do not go overboard as you’ll just find readers scratching their heads in frustration (see that blue-coloured image near this text).

At least, that’s what I think. So may I ask you to do a favour? Please, use them sparingly. Now I can move on. I shall give you five visual examples to compensate for the large chunk of text above:

The Baskerville typeface includes discretionary ligatures (look at letters in red-colour). Taken from Apple Pages, a word-processing software.
“Heeelllllpp!!! The Avant Garde typeface is gonna’ kill me!” I would really wish to own this typeface, because it looks really striking and modern. But I guess the reason for the astounding number of ligatures here are due to the many diacritic marks. That’s how some designers trick you — They’ll say, 2000 glyphs in this 16-style typeface, when in fact every single font has 125.

Font: Elsie Swash Caps. It is available on Google Fonts over here. Screenshot taken on Google Docs.
The cover page for the 2018 issue of the Asian Geographic. Take note of the ligature “st” at the bottom part of the page.
Yet another real-life example of the ligature.

I would like to add that a great typeface supports good ligatures — otherwise it is akin to an award-winning app made available only in Google Play, but not the App Store. In other words, it would be a pity to see nice fonts without ligatures.

Of course, there are also other things to consider, like the total number of glyphs offered, or perhaps, the number of weights, but ligatures are the basic building blocks of a typeface.

Ligatures for Chinese Characters

Since we’re on the fascinating topic of ligatures, I thought I would foray a bit into the whimsical, but often grave world of Chinese type design. If you’ve analysed the complexity of Chinese typefaces, then creating ligatures will seem like a far-fetched dream — for now maybe (scripting could speed the process up, but much manual adjustments would have to be considered) . Now, there are some 10,000 characters in modern-day Chinese language— and those are only the most commonly used ones. This also applies to other pictographic languages (like Cuneiform), but because I am clueless about Cuneiform, I’ll zoom into why ligatures might be impossible to reproduce in the Chinese language only (or other Chinese-character based languages like Japanese, for that matter). Here are three points, arrange in no order of importance:

  • Well, many Chinese typefaces, if not all, take up a grid (a bit like a monospace font). So, ligatures are very hard to render properly.
  • Secondly, it is rare for people to join characters together in daily writing; rather, this is much more common in traditional calligraphy, which is different from typography (i.e., both formats [handwriting and font files] cannot be swapped).
  • Lastly, due to the sheer number of Chinese characters, the number of ligatures needed will be astronomical. Unless you have a huge team of developers, diving into this world would be out of the question. So just dipping your toes into the water might be better, both finacially and wellbeing, rather than take a full dive into the deep sea.

That being said, chinese ligatures also seem very intruiging.

…this is a dangerous idea because ligatures have their origins in handwriting, and going too deeply into this area would turn a [Chinese] typeface into a script.

— Hong Kong typographer Caspar Lam

Other types of Ligatures

These can’t really be considered as real ligatures, because they do not really combine two (or more) letters. These so-called ligatures are used on special occasions. Perhaps you want an icon to be easily typed out; you customise the font, such that when you type in a specific string of letters, that icon will suddenly replace all letters into one. Take type foundry Dalton Maag’s custom work for Stadt Wien (The City of Vienna), whereby typing in “StadtWienWappen” would show the shield icon for branding purposes (click here to see the animated GIF, from Dalton Maag’s website — does not work on iPads and iPhones, however).

The summary

Miller Text. Extracted from Type Sample.

So, while we currently only have ligatures for Latin-derived languages (perhaps a smattering of other scripts too), let’s rejoice that ligatures. exist. Hopefully, I have shed some light on default and discretionary ligatures, as well as on Chinese type.

Published by Thomas Rettig


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