The Loveliest Living Fossil

The ocean of ideas, teeming with words and numbers, is underpinned by a vast tectonic plate that’s powerfully transforming the language. It’s the force that gives rise to new continents of meaning, while it inters the remains of countless extinct species. We know its name, but we rarely think about it, and we certainly never visit. It’s just there, helping to clarify our words and numbers in an invisibly supportive way. But it’s one of the culture’s most unstoppable forces. It’s called Punctuation.

At its leading edge, punctuation is volcanically active, giving shape to concepts that move far faster than words. Anyone communicating today has seen #topics and #themes and #categories identified this way, using a symbol that was intuitively understood and replicated even before it was first called a hashtag in 2007. The symbol and its meaning are now universally recognized, transcending even the locality of language, but their use is scarcely a decade old — an astounding accomplishment for a bit of lexical fluff, when you consider that the newfangled OMG was first recorded in 1917 (and in a letter to Winston Churchill, no less.) Similarly meteoric is the rise of @, not only in its initial evolution from grubby commercial symbol to digital thingum, but in its latest metamorphosis, which has left it poised to become a bonafide verb. Formulations like “write in or @ us on Twitter”¹¹ I owe this cheeky example to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You should read her blog. may seem casual, or may be arch, but since they’re easily understood by the initiated, they’re grammatical fair game. Punctuation FTW!

As it advances, punctuation leaves behind a sepulchral physical record, an ocean floor littered with the remains of creatures that didn’t make it. English-speakers who live with Imperial measurements can probably guess the meaning of ℔ from lb., but most have never encountered that symbol, and fewer still have run into a wild ℥, long since replaced by oz. (There may be pharmacists among us who know this one, but they are the same mysterous guild that traffics in ℞s and c̄s and other things that aren’t on the keyboard.) The ellipsis (…) drove out the asterism (⁂) to signal breaks in text, and the decimalized percent (%) eliminated the need for a permille (‰) — not to mention something called the “basis point,” also known as the per-ten-thousand, which naturally, and horribly, looks like this: ‱. As a typeface designer, I am not sorry to see these go. Drawing a character is one thing, but adding a character to a family that requires twenty-four variations, including an Extra Bold Compressed Italic, is another story. Especially if there are nearby lining figures and old-style figures and tabular figures to consider. So R.I.P., basis point. Or as a typographer would say, “.”

Between the symbols we live with and the symbols of yore is a third category, characters that are no longer considered ‘standard’ (by someone’s arbitrary standard), but are nonetheless still meaningful, and immediately understood. If you’ve ever addressed correspondence to someone in the care of someone else, you might have used ℅, a pretty hanger-on that I think has a place in the right kinds of typefaces, but one that should by no means be considered a typographic requirement. But the best and most active of these living fossils is a personal favorite: it’s the Numero, known to us by the monogram Nº.

Nº was the number sign before # became a number sign, and it refreshingly serves this one and only purpose. Compare the #, which when preceding a number is read as “number” (“#1 in my class”), but when following a number means “pound” or “pounds”²² If you’re curious what the # symbol has to do with the abbreviation lbs., here’s one possible missing link. (“70# uncoated paper”), leading to printshop pile-ups like “#10 envelope, 24# bond.” To programmers, a # can mean either “ignore what follows” (as in a Python comment) or “use what follows” (when referencing a page fragment, or a Unicode value in html.) To a proofreader, a # means “insert space,” so in the middle of a numbered list, the notation “line #” does not mean “line number,” but rather “add a line space.” Because of #’s resemblance to the musical symbol for “sharp” (♯), it’s a frequent stand-in for the word “sharp,” and often the correct way of rendering a trademarked term such as The C# Programming Language. The # is rapidly assuming musical duties as well, especially in online databases, leading to catalog collisions like “Prelude & Fugue #13 in F#.” How fortunate a designer would be to have a numero symbol, with which to write “Prelude & Fugue Nº 13 in F#,” or “Nº 10 Envelope, 24# bond.”

The Chicago Manual of Style unequivocally favors ‘no’ over ‘#’ when listing the issue number of a periodical: “When the issue number is given, it follows the volume number, separated by a comma and preceded by no.”³³ The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, §17.163. And this introduces an interesting complication for Russian language periodicals, or those published in any language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, because Cyrillic does not contain the letter N. It’s for this reason that typefaces that include Cyrillic alphabets always include the numero symbol, which is why you’ll find them in both Whitney and Gotham.

But the place you’ll find the greatest concentration of numero symbols in our library is in the Numbers collection, where I insisted upon them simply because they’re delightful. The typefaces in this collection interpret many different traditions in lettermaking, including rubber stamps, cash register receipts, railway car numbering and street signs, and in each of these environments you’ll find the numero. Many of these styles trace their origins to the nineteenth century, when numbers were more commonly introduced by Nº than #; others in the collection never used this symbol, but their styles seemed ripe for decoration. We recently had this same impluse with the Inkwell collection, which includes pen-drawn numeros in all forty-eight of its styles.

It’s this desire to decorate that shapes expectations about what should be in a typeface. On your keyboard next to the return key are the brackets [ ], and atop these are the braces { } that are sometimes — tellingly — called curly brackets. In theory, braces exist to present things on an equal footing: in music they connect staves that are played simultaneously, in genealogy they relate siblings, and in drama they group characters that move or speak as a unit (such as a nobleman’s Attendants in Shakespeare.) But braces are graphic rather than typographic forms, seldom meant to be used at the same size as the type they enclose, making them a questionable member of the character set. Frankly, they endure because they’re fetching, a spicy alternative to the humdrum geometry of square brackets, and these days they’re almost always used decoratively. Designers love to use braces, and type designers love to draw them, and it’s this unspoken bond that keeps them in the character set. Like the braces, the Nº is a reminder that typography exists to serve readers, and that readers do not live by semantic punctuation alone. There’s a place for variety and richness in typography, for colorful and engaging creatures that live at abyssal depths. Bring them up for a closer look: they’re splendid to behold. —JH

Italics Examined

Italics can be the most colorful part of a type family, diverging dramatically from their roman cousins. Here’s a look at twelve kinds of italic typeface, with some notes on their cultural contexts, historical backgrounds, and practical applications.

For as many kinds of typefaces as there will ever be, there’ll be even more kinds of italics. Nothing in the design of a roman typeface dictates what its italic will look like, and since the role of an italic is to be not only sympathetic with its roman but visibly different from it, italics are often free to explore unexpected constructions, or divergent visual traditions.

More so than romans, italics have a close connection with handwriting. Like handwriting, which can be as casual as a shopping list or as formal as a calligraphic invitation, different italics can express profoundly different moods. Understanding what goes into these many kinds of italics can make them even more valuable tools for designers.

Some calligraphers believe that cursive letters reached their finest form in the sixteenth century, in a style known as the chancery italic. These are calligraphic letters, their thick and thin strokes and sharp upward angles a product of the broad-edged pen. Chancery italics have long signaled magnificence, expressing the joy of a wedding invitation or the pathos of a book of verse. We explored this lovely style in Requiem Italic, and outfitted the design with an extended set of decorative ligatures to attractively resolve collisions such as the “s–t–f–l” above.

TIP: Because chancery italics have elegant, long-limbed ascenders and descenders, they need ample leading. Consider a font like Requiem when the format has lots of space — or for projects in which the text needs to be inflated to fit the format.

Many boisterous italics are made in a postmodernist style, freely borrowing from different genres. This design riffs on the various fixed-width letters found on typewriters, taking cues from both upright and script alphabets, and emerging with a welcoming and informal tone. This type family extends to nine different weights, with the extreme Thin and Ultra styles having especially distinctive personalities.

TIP: The eclecticism of Operator’s italic letters is echoed by the family’s many different and varied styles. Shifting between its small caps and lowercase, or its lighter and bolder weights, can be as striking as switching between romans and italics. And don’t be afraid to set whole paragraphs — or even whole texts! — in the italic.

These sinewy letters in the english vernacular style come not from the history of typefounding, but from map engraving, where they were traditionally used to label bodies of water. In place of serifs, they have long and fluid “exit trails” at the bottom, which help them follow curved baselines like the meandering paths of streams and coastlines. For designers, this makes them a great choice when wrapping type on a curve, especially in logos and seals that need to reproduce at small sizes.

TIP: Control the delicacy of Surveyor’s lines by matching its optical size to the circumstances. Surveyor Text was designed for small sizes, Surveyor Display for headlines, and Surveyor Fine for sizes larger still. Using the Text font in display sizes can be useful whenever you need heavier hairlines, such as when dropping type out of a photograph, and even the Display font can be helpful at smaller sizes, in situations where the hairlines will naturally gain weight, like when printing letterpress.

Typefaces in the dutch old style manage to be dark and bright at the same time, like a rousing symphony in a minor key. An invention of the seventeenth century, when the airy types of the Garamond style gave way to a darker, northern European fashion, these faces are useful when typography needs both a dense color and a classical air. Their dark color can be especially useful if display type will appear against a non-contrasting background, like the white-on-grey above.

TIP: Bold strokes and ample curves make a typeface like Quarto a good candidate for thoughtful tracking, either tight or loose. Loose all caps settings like this one are stately and monumental, while a tightly tracked upper- and lowercase setting can be warm and accessible.

The arrival of the mass-produced poster, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, gave rise to typography’s first expressly eye-catching italics. These typefaces, unsurprisingly called fat faces, can be equally effective at sizes both large and small, provided the design has been correctly drawn. This family features three optical masters for Text, Display, and Fine typography, sturdy enough to withstand small sizes, and delicate enough to thrive at large ones.

TIP: This typeface, Surveyor Fine Black Italic, has a decorative counterpart in the Obsidian family. Obsidian Italic features the same deep character set as Surveyor, full of small caps, alternates and swashes, all drawn with vibrant shading that comes alive at large sizes.

An italic’s angle shapes its personality. A font with a gentle slope of just six degrees can be lovely and lyrical; fifteen degrees and it’s positively brisk. This powerhouse superitalic achieves its speed and urgency with a 28° slope, making it our most italic typeface ever. Useful in everything from political campaigns to motorsports, it’s a typeface that designers call upon whenever typography needs to communicate raw power. And it’s supplemented by a backslant with contrary motion, offering an intriguing alternative to simply “roman or italic?”

TIP: Although it’s tightly fitted by default, the Nitro typeface responds beautifully to letterspacing. Its insistent lean provides more than enough momentum to carry the eye forward on the line, ensuring that even dramatically tracked type remains coherent and legible.

Swash capitals, which have been part of typography since the very earliest italics, came to full flower in the french old style types of Garamond and Granjon. This family of typefaces, designed for display sizes, celebrates this tradition with a frolicsome set of swash caps that introduce each word with grandeur. Though swashes are customarily used only at the start of a word, many typefaces include swashes that work mid-word as well, when setting italics in all caps. Look for letters without elaborate curlicues on the left side, to ensure that they don’t interfere with their neighbors.

TIP: In Hoefler Titling Italic, the swash C, E, J, K, Q, S, T, X, Y, and Z are designed to avoid neighboring letters. Other typefaces with medial swashes are Hoefler Text Italic, which also features a few swash italic small caps, and Surveyor Italic, whose swash caps and small caps are managed by an automated collision avoidance system.

Some italics are cursive, following the natural motion of the hand; others are oblique, designed to look like slanted romans. Typefaces in the modern style often have elements of both, pairing a fluid lowercase with highly rational caps. This balance of mechanical precision and artistic brio has made them a popular choice in the applied arts, often providing the signature typography for cultural institutions, architectural practices, and most famously, fashion.

TIP: Fashion typography, both editorial and commercial, has long relied on the precision and delicacy of this typeface, HTF Didot. In addition to its famous romans, try the family’s rarer italics: they provide the same keenness with an extra dash of grace, and some welcome moments of wit in the lowercase, figures, and punctuation.

Typefaces in the antique style have blocky, unbracketed serifs — or at least their romans do. Equally distinctive is the far rarer Antique Italic, whose swelling curves and staccato ball terminals deliver a contrasting texture to the roman, but with the same dependability and courage. The most versatile Antiques are not only sober and trustworthy, but warm and lively, with extreme weights that are bright and alert.

TIP: Though they’re often thought of as display faces, typefaces like Sentinel are tremendously useful in text. Across their entire range of weights, the fonts’ clear gestures and careful fit recommend them to even very small sizes. Depending on your taste, the family’s Light, Book, or Medium might all serve as the “normal” weight for text.

Many sans serifs, in their rationality, have dispassionate italics that simply look like slanted romans. But typefaces with a humanist inflection can take a different approach, using the kinds of cursive forms more commonly found in seriffed designs. A sans serif whose roman has organic qualities, like these flaring strokes and gently bowing lines, invites an italic with a similarly handmade feel.

TIP: A sans serif with a flowing italic can be an asset at text sizes, where it produces a texture that’s distinctly different from its roman. Ideal Sans Italic has not only cursive gestures and an elliptical motif, but a narrower gait than its roman, giving it a recognizably contrasting rhythm in text.

One way to bridge the gap between the formality of print and the informality of writing is to create hybrid letterforms, in which typographic and calligraphic elements are fused together. Archer Italic, a cursive slab, uses this approach to satisfy a set of oppositions that were part of the design’s brief: the typeface was created to be instructive but not priggish, pretty but not overindulgent, and sweet but not saccharine, a balance it strikes by featuring both rigid serifs and flowing exit trails on the same letters. Many of the cheerful details in the design’s lowercase, such as the ball terminal on its lowercase C, have been imported into the caps, an unusual move that further softens the tone of an otherwise tough slab serif.

TIP: Slab serifs with ball terminals can be tricky in their extreme weights, often losing their balance at the light end of the spectrum, and becoming gawky in their heaviest weights. Look for a design in which the lightest weights are both crisp and measured, and the heaviest ones are both steady and exuberant. A typeface that performs at small sizes can be useful as well, since it sidesteps the need to look for a coordinating serif text face.

Some of the most interesting italics have no historical precedents. This one, exploring the idea that cursive typefaces don’t need to be curvy, was invented to accompany a grecian roman, a nineteenth century style of wood type with angular corners. Taking a more interpretive approach to type design can yield fonts whose styles aren’t readily identifiable, making them useful in projects that need to avoid specific historical associations or visual clichés.

TIP: Italics with unexpected design motifs can be most dramatic when used in small doses. Some of the most arresting applications of this typeface are those where it’s used most sparingly, from logos and monograms to solitary drop caps. —JH

House of Flying Reference Marks

Last spring, when answering a reader’s question about our favorite characters to draw, I got to spend some time with some of our beloveds: the and ß that rarely see the light of day, as well as H&Co’s middle name, &. It took great self-control not to spill the beans about another pair of favorites, the dagger and double dagger, for already waiting in the wings were my favorite daggers to ever come out of H&Co. They’re the ones in our just-released Sentinel family, seen here.

Daggers come from that archipelago of typographic symbols known as reference marks, which refer readers elsewhere for explanatory or exegetic notes. The traditional first-order reference mark is the asterisk¹¹ The New Oxford English Dictionary advises: “Avoid pronouncing this word ‘astericks’ or ‘asterik,’ as many regard such pronunciations as uneducated.” Frighteningly, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003) cites some printed examples of the spellings “astericks” and “asterick,” in The Washington Times (1998) and Florida Today (1999), respectively., a longtime favorite: in The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst observes that asterisks have been in continuous use for five thousand years. Asterisks can take countless forms, though custom favors ones shaped like stars, flowers, or bathtub faucets; any number of petals is permissible as well, with five-, six-, and eight-lobed asterisks being most common. [Clock starts now in anticipation of the world’s first seven-lobed asterisk. —Ed.] The approach that a designer follows in the asterisk is usually echoed in the typeface’s second-order reference mark, the dagger (also known as the obelus, obelisk, or long cross), and its third-order mark, the double dagger (a.k.a. diesis or double obelisk.) Both characters have functions in genealogy and other life sciences, where the asterisk indicates the year of birth (*1499), and the dagger the year of death (†1561). There are standard fourth-, fifth- and sixth-order reference marks, too: they are the section mark (§), parallels (||), and number sign (#), after which the cycle repeats with doubles, triples, and so on: *, †, ‡, §, ||, #, **, ††, ‡‡, §§, ||||, ###, ***, †††, ‡‡‡, etc. Beyond three, numbered footnotes are always preferable, even if you are David Foster Wallace.

Daggers afford the type designer a rare opportunity to quote from more widely recognized visual languages, such as architecture and other applied arts. The daggers in our H&Co Didot family echo the kinds of details common in period decoration, and those in Whitney evoke the simplified asterisk of the typewriter, its center removed to prevent the buildup of ink. In Sentinel, we wanted the design’s industrial brawn to be mellowed by some lyrical flourishes, which in the daggers produced a ‘twisted quillon²² Dagger anatomy, for the quiz: the quillon is the guard that separates the hilt of a knife from its blade, and the choil is the notch where the blade meets the quillon.’ that you’ll find in another place slab serifs traditionally reside: find a pack of playing cards, and look closely at the dagger of the “suicide king.” —JH

Our Middle Name

Last month’s posts about the and the ß prompted a flurry of e-mail inquiring about other special favorites in the character set. Matt McInerney guessed correctly that the ampersand is one for which we have special affection, and asked if there was anything else we could say about it. How could we not? Ampersand, after all, is H&Co’s middle name.

Though it feels like a modern appendix to our ancient alphabet, the ampersand is considerably older than many of the letters that we use today. By the time the letter W entered the Latin alphabet in the seventh century, ampersands had enjoyed six hundred years of continuous use; one appears in Pompeiian graffiti, establishing the symbol at least as far back as A.D. 79. One tidy historical account credits Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, with the invention of the ampersand, and while this is likely a simplified retelling, it’s certainly true that Tiro was a tireless user of scribal abbreviations. One surviving construction of the ampersand bears his name, and keen typophiles can occasionally find the “Tironian and” out in the world today.

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it: below, a tour of some ampersands and the thinking behind them, along with an explanation of the storied history of the word “ampersand” itself.


Pilcrow & Capitulum

My last post made passing mention of the pleasures of designing the paragraph mark, prompting one reader to rightly ask, “how much fun can it really be to draw a backwards P?” [No more fun than it is to draw the rest of that font you’re using, matey. —Ed.] It may not seem obvious, but the lowly paragraph mark really does offer ample opportunity for invention.

Like most punctuation, the paragraph mark (or pilcrow) has an exotic history. It’s tempting to recognize the symbol as a “P for paragraph,” though the resemblance is incidental: in its original form, the mark was an open C crossed by a vertical line or two, a scribal abbreviation for capitulum, the Latin word for “chapter.” Because written forms evolve through haste, the strokes through the C gradually came to descend further and further, its overall shape ultimately coming to resemble the modern “reverse P” by the beginning of the Renaissance. Early liturgical works, in imitation of written manuscripts, favored the traditional C-shaped capitulum; many modern bibles still do. A capitulum is by no means out of place in a modern font, either: top row center is H&Co Didot, whose neoclassical origins suggested the inclusion of a shape from antiquity.

Above, a pageant of pilcrows from some of our fonts, suggesting that the possibilities are indeed endless. There seem to be eight fundamental questions that inform the shape of the pilcrow: (1) Should the form be P-like or C-like? (2) Should there be one stroke or two? (3) Should the bowl be solid or open? (4) Should the bottom of the strokes be plain, seriffed, or flourished? (5) Should the top right corner finish with a serif or not? (6) Should the bowl exhibit contrast to match the alphabet, or be monolinear like the mathematical operators? (7) Should the bowl connect with the first stroke, the second stroke, both, or neither? (8) Should the character align with the capitals, or descend to match the lowercase? Together these simple decisions offer 768 possible outcomes, none of which even begins to anticipate the stylized can-opener of Whitney or the bent paperclip of Cyclone. [Or the post-mounted mailbox of Idlewild, or the ski rope handle of Landmark Dimensional, now included above.]

In any case, Pilcrow & Capitulum would make a fine name for a pub, and a grand place to host a typographers’ wayzgoose. Or perhaps it’s a buddy movie about crime-fighting bibliographers: Capitulum wears cable knit sweaters and drinks single malt, and Pilcrow is a ladies’ man who drives an Austin Healey. Catch their zany antics and madcap adventures, etc, etc. —JH

The Sulzbacher Eszett

Our designers are often asked if there are particular letters that we especially enjoy drawing. Office doodles testify to the popularity of the letter R, perhaps because it synopsizes the rest of the alphabet in one convenient package (it’s got a stem, a bowl, serifs both internal and external, and of course that marvelous signature gesture, the tail.) A quick straw poll names a, r, f and e as popular letters too, as well as the figures 2 and 5, and our resident Cyrillist admits a soft spot for the swash capital dje (Ђ.) The back end of the character set definitely invites invention as well: steely designers always appreciate a well-made paragraph mark or double dagger, and we certainly have our fun drawing them.

One character that’s especially gratifying to get right is the eszett, if only because it so stubbornly resists being figured out. Eszetts can follow any number of constructions, from the romanized long-s-short-s of Archer to the more Teutonic long-s-meets-z of Verlag. Most fonts strike some balance between these extremes, introducing internal shapes that echo other parts of the character set (as in Mercury) or using simplified geometries that reinforce the philosophy behind the overall design (as in Gotham.)

Historian James Mosley has posted an essay about the eszett to his indispensable Typefoundry blog, which sheds some light on the character’s checkered past. (The eszett lives in contemporary German as a ligatured form of the double s, but its very name means s-z; Mosley explains why.) An especially welcome gift from the essay is the correct technical name for the romanized ß: it is the “Sulzbacher form,” after Abraham Lichtenthaler, the seventeenth century printer denizened in the Bavarian town of Sulzbach, who is credited with introducing the character to roman printing type. —JH

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