by Ilene Strizver
Given their potential for greatly-expanded character sets, OpenType fonts often contain a multitude of typographic options, many of which are overlooked or misunderstood. Here is an explanation of some of the most frequently-seen options:
A ligature is created when two or more letters are joined together to create one glyph. Whereas standard ligatures such as fi and fl are created to improve the appearance of letters that crash, discretionary ligatures are decorative in nature, and should be used sparingly. They are designed to add elegance and refinement to your work. Common discretionary ligatures are ck, sp, st and rt.
In common (rather than mathematical) usage, ordinals are superscripted letters following a number, such as in 1st, 2nd and 3rd. They are used in other languages as well, for example, the Spanish and Portuguese "a" and "o" ordinals, as in 1o / 1a.
These are decorative characters that have a flourish or extended stroke, usually at the beginning or end of the character. Often available in addition to regular characters, swashes can add elegance, emphasis and flair to your type.
These are specially-designed capitals that are intended for display usage. Titling characters differ from their text counterparts in that their scale, proportion and design details have been altered to look best at larger sizes.
These are alternate characters that are intended for use in special situations; for example, next to specific characters to improve spacing or connections. They are often found in script typefaces to provide a more natural link between two characters to better imitate handwriting. Contextual alternates are also used in some non-Latin scripts, such as Arabic.
Some OpenType fonts with numerous alternate characters organize these alternates into stylistic sets, which can then be easily accessed from the OpenType menu, palette or style sheet. This eliminates the time-consuming task of selecting each alternate character individually to find which ones look best with which others. While current design applications can accommodate up to 20 stylistic sets, very few fonts use more than three or four, if any at all.
Although all of the above features can be easily accessed and applied globally in most design software from the OpenType palette, you can always override and replace individual characters using the Glyph Palette.
- Editor’s Note: Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer and writer specializing in all aspects of typographic communication. She conducts Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Read more about typography in her latest literary effort, Type Rules! The designer's guide to professional typography, 3rd edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.