Using Alternate Characters
Alternate characters are variations of the standard, default characters in a typeface. They are designed as options for customizing the look and personality of both text and display settings. More and more typefaces are designed with alternate characters, thanks to the expanded character capacity of OpenType® technology.
A typeface can offer a single alternate for a character, or a dozen or more to choose from. Alternates can exist for caps, lowercase, and figures, as well as for other characters such as ampersands and even punctuation. They may be dramatically different from the standard character, or just a slight variation. Alternates are offered in typefaces in every category – from traditional text designs to decorative display faces, as well as script, calligraphic and handwriting designs. They can be a major aspect of a typeface's distinctiveness.
Alternate characters are not only fun to use, but also powerful. They can be applied for different purposes or effects. Here are some uses and considerations regarding alternates:
- Alternate characters tend to establish, or change, the look and feel of a setting.
- Alternates can enhance legibility as well as add visual interest.
- For logos, packaging, and other branding applications, alternates can help create a distinctive, one-of-a-kind look.
- Alternates in script typefaces include beginning and ending characters as well as special connectors that make words appear more “script-like.” These alternates can either make the setting more dramatic and showy, or more casual.
- In handwriting or calligraphic settings, interspersing alternates can provide a more natural – hand-written or hand-drawn – appearance.
- When multiple alternates are available, using just one alternate per character throughout a setting or project tends to produce a more formal feel, whereas selecting several options and applying them randomly (especially with lowercase) creates a more organic look.
When doing a typeface exploration, consider the availability of alternate characters, which might have a major bearing on your final selection. Even if a typeface will be used to set only a few words, see if the available alternates for that setting will meet your objective. While an indiscriminate sprinkling of alternate characters can send a visually jumbled and inappropriate message, their thoughtful use can also turn a “plain vanilla” setting turn into an effective and even exciting typographic statement.
- 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, 4th edition, published by Wiley & Sons, Inc. This article was commissioned and approved by Monotype Imaging Inc.