Swash and flourish

Ligatures, the flourish connecting two characters which once served a serious typographic purpose, have now become a style. Michael Johnson looks at the phenomenon

Designers are magpie-like creatures. If we see a style or approach that we enjoy, we’ll absorb some of it, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. It might affect our next project, or the next project-but-one. Very strong, visual styles, like David Carson’s typographic blitzkrieg that swept though graphics in the 1990s, are easily appropriated and, within three years, can become mainstream.

But some approaches take a little longer. Standing in front of a mountain of Polyboard, judging a recent competition, it slowly dawned that another sub-style had crept up on us – but this time with stealth.

The typographic flourish, called a ligature, has become a style. How did that happen? When did that happen? It may be linked to the revival of decoration, illustration and the return to the fray of serif fonts, but it seems that typographers are sticking adjacent letters together with almost unseemly haste.

Originally, ligatures were developed by typographers coping with some tricky spacing issues working in metal type. Juxtaposing an ‘f’ and ‘i’ with a ‘fi’ ligature was deemed much nicer to look at than ‘fi’. Some designers used them to solve their design problems, such as John McConnell’s elegant solution for Faber and Faber (neatly followed by Faber and Faber music publishing).

But computer-based setting nearly killed off the ligature and the swash, until the recent rise of Opentype fonts. The availability of more type designs with inbuilt flourishes put our frilly friends back on the map.

Emigré’s Zuzanna Licko put her pixels aside and created the typeface Mrs Eaves in 1996, stuffed with virtually every typographic twiddle you could ever want (and perhaps some you wouldn’t). Perhaps we were initially taken aback by such a switch of typographic styles, but now Mrs Eaves is everywhere. Even cuts of old favourites like Caslon have been reissued, suitably embroidered, so you can swash away to your heart’s content and create that ‘crafted, original, heritage’ look.

In ligature-ville you can read your swashed copy of Wallpaper over breakfast, visit a production company in the morning (Evolutions), buy a house at lunchtime (Chestertons), commission some copy in the afternoon (The Writer) sharpen up your political thinking on the train home (Prospect magazine) and apply for a postgraduate course at night (University of Birmingham).

Is this just another style or will there be any long-term effects? Better typesetting can only be good, surely, although it’s not entirely clear how ligature-friendly HTML is and spell-checkers often can’t ‘read’ words with in-built ligatures.

Interestingly, there are more ligatures or letter symbols on your keyboard than you might think. Ampersands originate from the Latin for ‘and’ (‘et’), that’s why some ampersands look profoundly weird (unless you were forced to do Latin at school). The merchant symbol for ‘at the rate of’ (@) lay under-used in Qwerty until its new lease of life when chosen to help locate a.person@a.particular.computer in the mid 1970s.

The marvellous blog typophile.com recently ran a hypothetical exercise imagining what ligatures and letter-symbols we would have created had current phrases been prevalent before keyboards were truly established. It’s remarkable what distracted typographers can produce to symbolise LOL (lots of love or laughs out loud) or WTF (what the f**k) or, my favourite, RTFM (Read the f*****g manual). Of course, what we really need is a ligature for www (w3?) or even http://.

Maybe the practically forgotten ‘interrobang’ might make a return (where an exclamation mark and question mark are combined), or the ‘wink’ emoticon 😉 might become embedded into fonts in the near future.

But whether linking letters does any more than just fuel a fad, well, we shall just have to wait and see.

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