Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Typographic Ligatures - two cool pics and a link to an easy to understand article that sent me on an after the jump rant on the subject.

I found this great ffi ligature picture on this flickr where the user went to a Type Museum, which appears to be located all the way over in the UK, but there also seems to be a wood type and printing museum in Wisconsin, so maybe I'll have to find an excuse to go to that one weekend, since it's a closer and cheaper trip to take than going to London!

I also found this guy called Daniel Will-Harris who has an amazing site and online magazine on type and read this great article on typographic ligatures (that actually seems to be a sub article of this introductory article called The Changing Vocabulary of Type, also good) with plenty of easy to understand examples or typographic 'illustrations' that convey complex ideas and rules of use in very clear, easy to relate to style of writing. The examples use words with character combos like fi, ffi, and fl to convey proper usage of ligatures, and whether they're necessary or superfluous in certain fonts that offer ligatures, so that when it's an option, that you approach each project having considered the reasons and arguments for deciding when it's acceptable to use or refrain from using them.

Unlike grammar rules, these particular typographic standards (or 'rules' as I'll refer to them several times throughout) are more subjective, it seems in his article that Will-Harris offers proper usage of ligatures as more of a skill to assess whether your chosen typeface or treatment (ie: header/body copy size) and it's application (displayed on screen--even going so far as to account for how to locate your ligature options within various software and operating systems! How considerate!--or if you're printing using more traditional methods, on paper) requires your expert distinction of whether or not to apply traditional style guides or to let it be just because it's standard or offered. It sent me on an analytical flurry of words, which I'll so kindly insert a "read more if you choose to click" page break link, for the sake of the length of this entry among the rest...

You might learn subjective skills such as Will-Harris' ligature offerings in order to know how to think for yourself, how to make more well-informed decisions in your designs. Or at least that's how my brain makes sense of following any standard: Why was this invented in the first place if it's not going to work in every instance, and How are we even supposed to determine what it is and how it works if we don't first know why someone felt compelled to develop a standard under which any particular typographic function traditionally operates under?

It's probably the most detailed and direct example I've seen in any of the books on typography I've browsed or read, because it's nice to see visual examples interspersed at pretty much every other paragraph when they're trying to get you to understand the purpose of tools and guidelines of a language that's visual by nature to begin with. Will-Harris' articles seem to be actually more of a critical nature than they are 'how to', but I found it more helpful to learning about what exactly how ligatures are supposed to function as and how true that holds to their original/intended purpose in different type families than in other ways I've read about what ligatures 'do' than I've previously encountered in the likes of Typography Manuals or style reference guides. It calls into question why we keep them around in any other application than their originally intended purpose.

It's also nice to see the "learn the rules before you break them" philosophy applied to typography that isn't just of the grunge variety, which I find often times to be a genre born of an excuse to break rules and dismiss the formal qualities and history of ways to use type, like everyone got too excited that you could use a computer. If you know why a certain way of doing things was innovated in the first place, and possibly also some contextual history surrounding said innovation, only then you can truly judge if you're making a functional decision to break that 'rule', or if you are fully aware that it might be a purely aesthetic choice and go ahead with it anyways. At least then you're aware of it, and subsequently are able to adequately back up future design choices to rebel with the knowledge of the tradition you're rebelling against, just in case a critical eye comes along and questions your design decisions.

It's keeping in mind Louis Sullivan's famous "form follows function" design theory to make thoughtful and informed decisions to deliberately make something appear to function with intention before you think about how the form will divert from the traditionally intended function of any given form. In other words--for designers that might not be privy to that particular reference to architecture theory--You gotta set up your grids and systems before you break 'em! Or, for the rest of you, think of Tim Gunn's commanding but cautionary advice "Make it work" of TV's Project Runway fame.

The majority of people reading this might feel like I'm over-thinking it, but I feel like Will-Harris and these great web type resources just might be my great discovery of the day, so I felt I had a lot to initially digest. It's the first time I've come across a reading that's so thoroughly and thoughtfully critical over the proper use of a type of glyph, regardless of how it's commonly integrated into or offered as an option within typefaces. He's writing in a way that I'd like to read about anything, to first learn about why something was made an industry standard option (sidenote: I wish this is what the abbreviation ISO stood for) and then teach you to integrate that with all your other training in that skill set (typography and design in this case)--then you are absolutely considerate of whether applying that standard makes sense in any given instance in your design endeavors thereafter; taking this new knowledge/perspective into account, using it to think before you act, and to design with purpose. Always design with purpose: Form follows function.

It seems like Will-Harris' site has a lot of hidden ways to get to other great articles, which means that the knowledge gained from these articles might take a little more effort to obtain than one might think. I'll post an update if I find a site map where everything is in one place, but mostly it all reads like an esoteric zine, and after all, it calls itself a magazine, so I'm definitely going to have fun reading and exploring this!


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