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Ligature Schmigature

Ligatures (special combined characters, "fi" "fl" "ff" and "ffi" being the most common) were originally created for two reasons. First, when working with metal type you couldn't kern these characters close enough together, so they were combined and placed on a single piece of metal. They were also used to imitate calligraphy, where these letters could be merged by hand.

The "fi" and "fl" ligatures are found in most typefaces and are a standard part of the Mac character set-and can even be included automatically for those using GX. While not in the Windows character set, they are in Windows fonts and easily moved into a usable position (see FontMixer sidebar).

While ligatures do add a subtle finishing touch for some classic typefaces, and specially designed ligatures (like those shown here from Matthew Carter's Mantinia) are beautiful, they are not essential in most cases.

Mantinia

In some cases they actually make type more difficult to read. While I point out some specific faces here, the real point is for you to look at the faces you're using and see if they really need ligatures, or if, in fact, they are actually getting in the way of readability for the sake of "aesthetic" (which is in the eye of the beholder) fineness.

"fi" fine in some cases

An example of when they do make text look a bit more elegant is Adobe Garamond.

adobe

Because the "f" and "i" do overlap slightly, setting without ligatures makes a small bulge at the end of the "f". The "fi" ligature creates a cleaner line. But remember, you're looking at these examples at large size-and large sizes are really the only place anyone would even see them. With the tiniest bit of over-inking, Adobe Garamond's "fi" and the ligature of the same look virtually identical at body text sizes.

Another face where the "fi" looks a little better with a ligature is Bodoni--it's simply more streamlined--especially in display sizes.

ITC

However--the ligature is really not necessary or important because the "f" and the "i" don't collide in either the Roman or the Italic.

In reality, the difference between "fi" and an "fi" ligature is so minimal as to be invisible to 99.9% of your readers. That doesn't mean you can't expend the energy if you think it's important or it just looks better, just that you can't expect your readers to notice or care.

"fi" unnecessary in many

There are many popular, classic faces where ligatures are totally unnecessary. The wonderful Garamond3, for example, absolutely does not require them, even for the italics.

Garamond3

The letters still remain clear and distinct and there's no collision. Most sans serif faces don't require ligatures either, and they've been included mostly for compatibility.

In Gill Sans, the "fi" ligature is actually somewhat amusing, with the top of the f curving down to the "i".

Gill

But it's also somewhat odd, and while readable, it actually looks like the characters are colliding.

Stone Sans, though, has the most amusing ligatures--they look exactly like the individual characters do. Sumner Stone, the designer, obviously saw they were unnecessary so he didn't bother to create any kind of silly connected characters.

So in many cases a new question arises--if many "fi" ligatures are unnecessary, should they even be used? While it varies from face to face, it's something that needs to be considered, rather than just using ligatures because you always have. A few cases in point:

Weiss: the "fi" ligature here is just plain silly.

Weiss

The f and i are in no danger of collision, and the "fi" ligature not only merges the two for no good reason, it pulls the top of the "f" over the right (where it wasn't before) and keeps the dot on the "i" which just ends up making the thing look crowded. This is just plain useless.

FontBureau's wonderful version of Goudy's Californian is another great example of a face that really doesn't need ligatures.

Californian

Again the "f" and "i" don't collide and all the ligatures do is connect them while still retaining the dot on the "i" (in the Roman).

Goudy

Goudy's perennial favorite, "Goudy Old Style," does not require ligatures in either the roman or italic, so using them is not only unnecessary, it's intrusive.

Centaur

Even Centaur's "fi" ligature is dispensable-and in the lovely Arrighi, italics should be dispensed with, as the type has a more calligraphic quality without the ligatures!

Caflish

How about some script typefaces: Adobe's Caflish Script looks virtually identical, except that the dot on the "i" disappears.

Humana

ITC's new Humana Script has less of a collision, but the collision is actually in character with the face.

"fl" or flaw?

But the truly questionable ligature is "fl". In many cases the "fl" ligature takes on the appearance of a totally new letter, such as an uppercase "A" with a rounded top. In the "fi" the bar of the "i" often neatly intersects the top of a dotless "i," but there's really no reason why the center bar in the "f" should connect to the "l"-yet in many ligatures it does.

Since proficient readers read as much by the familiar shape of a word as by individual letters, they simply skip over this connected mass. But less proficient readers (and there are many of them), are slowed or sometimes stopped by these unfamiliar characters.

Some "fl" ligatures are harmless enough, because they basically look just like the characters without a ligature. ITC's Bodoni is a good case-the differences between the "fl" and the ligature "fl" are tiny-they just look more tightly kerned.

But Adobe Garamond ligatures are too tight so that they look like the mythical new letter "fla" (pronounced "flaw").

Adobe

Centaur's roman "fl" really looks like a "fla," and the Arrighi italics merely kern the characters too tightly, giving them an uncomfortable closeness.

Centaur

Weiss's "fl" is not quite so pernicious because the bar on the "f" doesn't touch the "l," but it's still not nearly as easy to read as the basic "fl" which doesn't even touch!

Gill

All Gill Sans Italic's "fl" ligature does is to increase the space between the "f" and the "l" so they don't meet at the top-thereby making them look more like two distinctly separate characters!

While the aesthetics of ligatures can be debated, the fact that some of them are less readable than the individual letters is indisputable.

What's wrong with ligatures in general

The most basic problem with ligatures is that they were a technological solution which is no longer needed. Yet typofiles are often such traditionalists that they're afraid to let go of them. But there are other problems, as well, which you should keep in mind:

  • The English language is complicated enough with exceptions for this or that. Why add to that with new characters just for the sake of aesthetics? Since English is becoming the "universal" language of business, many people are reading English as a second (or third) language. Ligatures just add yet another idiosyncrasy to the language (and goodness knows we have enough of those).
  • Connected letters are not a standard part of English. While some languages do require special letters (such as "æ" or the German "double s" ß)--no letters in the English language physically connect, so why, for sheer aesthetics, should "fi" and "fl"? Foreign readers are used to special characters meaning special things or having special pronunciations. Ligatures do neither, they're just for looks.
  • Ligatures are also not case consistent--there are no uppercase Fi and Fl ligatures.
  • Connected letters are simply not as legible as separate letters--when someone reads "find" they can read it, letter by letter, sometimes phonetically. When they read [use ligature here] "find" they are reading three letters. Also, the "fl" combination can look like an uppercase "A."
  • Technically ligatures can create spacing problems--because they're connected and cannot be kerned or tracked along with the rest of the text, they can stick out-especially in justified text that uses letterspacing.
  • As more and more type is read on-screen, ligatures should be avoided entirely. Letters that touch on-screen can create "lumps" that are impossible to read, so you want the letters to be as separate and distinct as possible, even to the point of adding a bit of extra tracking (and word spacing to go along with it).

If you look at Adobe Press' Stop Stealing Sheep you can see how ligatures are much tighter than the rest of the text which is set unnecessarily loose. This causes some words with ligatures, [page 29, "fifteenth-century" line 12 "D"] to look almost like two separate words--here the "fi" ligature makes the text read like "fi fteenth."

[Page 77, line 5] Look for "di fference" [page 85, line 6] and "refl ect."

"fi" and "fl" for Windows

If after all this you still want to use them, but you use Windows where they aren't part of the standard character set (perhaps for the best), there's a fairly simple way to do it: Monotype's FontMixer does one thing, but it does it well-it lets you rearrange and mix the characters from Type 1 fonts.

While the Windows character set does not include "fi" and "ff" ligatures, few people realize that these characters are still included in the font file itself. That's right, they're all sitting there waiting to be used, if only you could access them.

The only way to access them, however, is by using Monotype's FontMixer program. It takes less than 30 seconds to add them to your character set. Select the ligature, select the character position where you want it to appear, and replace the existing character with the ligature. You can decide which characters are least important to you. I replaced the baseline single and double quote marks (which I've never ever used (or even thought about using) which are character 0130 and 0132.

FontMixer also lets you mix several fonts into one. You could, for example, take your favorite Dingbats and place them on keys you might not otherwise use (such as { or }), or simply move typographic quote characters from their upper-ASCII positions (which normally require ALT-keystrokes to access) to the keys on your keyboard. FontMixer only works with Type 1 fonts, and it does not alter the fonts original hinting. Monotype, 150 South Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL 60606; 800/666-6897, 312/939-0378.

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Copyright © 1996 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com