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Briem’s notes on type design: Bad shapes

I count three kinds of difficult shapes for spacing: the impossible, the redeemable and the civilizing. Here’s an example of the impossible.

The gap between the letters C and T is a real troublespot. Nothing much can be done about it.

Most spacing problems have a solution, sometimes more than one. I’ve got a few here. Spacing the letter J gives you two choices. The first is a squeeze.

Problem: The gap on the left side of the letter J is bigger than the gap on its right. You can squeeze the space on the left.

Solution: Here the gap on the left is smaller. But the ball is very close to the letter H on the left. Some people really hate this.

That’s one solution, if you don’t mind overlaps. The second is a stretch.

Same problem: Again, the gap on the left side of the letter J is bigger than the gap on its right. You can make it smaller by stretching.

Different solution: You can pull down the bottom of the letter J. This allows you to space the left side as tight as you like.

You can reduce gaps around a few letters by shortening long serifs.

The letter on the left has full-length serifs on the outside. They get shorter on each letter to the right. How short you make them depends on the look of your design. This approach usually works with the letters w x y A V W X Y as well.

Shortening serifs isn’t absolutely necessary. You have two choices. One is an overlap, the other a gap. Which to you prefer?

Overlap: You can often move letters closer together by overlapping them. This method is not well liked.

Gap: Many typographers don’t want letters to touch. There’s a small break between these two.

These are your options. One is not always better than the other.

Overlaps have their uses. Descenders sometimes need room. When I shaped the letter g in this example, I made the loop wide enough to create a small counter where two of them cross each other.

The gap between the letters L and A is another real troublespot. You can either overlap the two or shave some width off everything you can.

The letter L on the left is wide. It is followed by a letter A with long serifs. They have a big gap between them.

You can use kerning to overlap the two. The result is not nice, but is often used for display settings that are in trouble already. (Some people don’t care what the letters look like as long as they can be crammed tightly together. Remember that they, too, buy type.)

You can also shorten the bar of letter L and shorten the serifs of the letter A. Within reason, this will work.

The hook of the letter f shouldn’t get tangled up in accents and punctuation.

Above is are three characters from Trump Mediäval. English typographers, who seldom gave much thought to accents, used to call this kind of letter f “buttonhook.” The solution worked very well in hot-metal typesetting.

Above is a letter f from Zapf International. It has a long hook. It blends well with a question mark and coexists peacefully with a dieresis. It’s a good solution, but not nearly as easy as it looks.

Proper ligatures

In hot-metal typesetting, the letter f caused a lot of bother. The shape tended to create a gap on the right-hand side. The f-ligatures were created to close those gaps.

Technology has moved on. We don’t really need the ligatures anymore. But the fi and the fl have become a part of civilized life. If you have no room from them in the character set, stick them in your pi font, which is often called an expert set.

You should have a pi font. Old-style numerals belong there. So do small capitals. Both are necessary elements of proper typography. You’ll have room there for three more ligatures, the ff ffi and the ffl.

These are samples from the Monotype Bembo typeface family. The letter R on the left is impressive, but practical it isn’t. With the gap it creates, it can hardly have been meant for this world. All the same, it’s nice to have around.

On the right is another version, with a shorter tail. It solves the problem. Wisely, Monotype offers it as an alternative character.

Notes on type design. Copyright © 1998, 2001, 2022 Gunnlaugur SE Briem. All rights reserved. Republished with permission in 2022 by Fontlab Ltd.