What are Ligatures? (And How to Use Them in Your Typography)

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In the world of typography, ligatures elevate your design by seamlessly combining shapes of certain character sequences for a more harmonious reading experience. As a graphic designer, understanding and utilizing these unique glyphs can make an incredible difference in your work’s legibility and aesthetic appeal.

In this article, we’ll explore ligatures – what they are, their different types, and how to use them effectively in your typographic creations.

Key Takeaways

  • Ligatures combine two or more letters into a single glyph, creating a harmonious connection between characters that may otherwise collide or overlap.
  • There are three types of ligatures: standard, discretionary, and historical. Standard ligatures improve legibility and harmony in typography. Discretionary ligatures add an aesthetic touch to the design without necessarily affecting readability. Historical ligatures give the text an authentic vintage feel.
  • Not all fonts or typefaces include ligatures.
  • To access OpenType ligatures, use an OpenType font that includes them and design software (like Illustrator or Photoshop) that supports OpenType features. Experiment with different combinations of characters to create custom ligatures that add a unique touch to your design.

What Are Ligatures In Typography?

Ligatures in typography refer to the combination of two or more letters into a single character, also known as a glyph. This fusion of letterforms creates a harmonious connection between characters that may otherwise collide or overlap when set next to each other in words or sentences.

For example, you might notice the “fi” ligature in which the dot on the lowercase ‘i’ is omitted, and its stem seamlessly joins with the top curve of the ‘f.’

Example of ligatures. Image via Bronger and Wikipedia.
Example of ligatures. Image via Bronger and Wikipedia.

While some ligatures are purely functional, others add an artistic touch to letterform designs. In serif typefaces, for instance, you might see stylistic flourishes where curved strokes meet straight stems.

Standard Ligatures

Standard ligatures serve an essential purpose in the world of typography. These combinations of characters are created to address common collision issues when certain letters awkwardly collide or overlap when placed next to one another.

Some widespread examples of standard ligatures include fi, fl, ff, ffi, ffl, and ft. In these cases, the colliding of letters can potentially compromise legibility. Ligatures may help to avoid these issues.

Example of standard ligatures
Image of standard ligatures via Wereon and Wikimedia Commons

Discretionary Ligatures

Discretionary ligatures, as the name suggests, are more decorative in nature and used at the designer’s discretion. These types of ligatures can add a unique visual element to your typography without necessarily affecting its readability or functionality.

Example ligatures from the Gingko typeface
Notice how the letters “i,” “n,” and “g” connect in the Gingko typeface

Along with stylistic alternates, discretionary ligatures allow you to create text that has a custom-designed look or feel. This is especially useful for logos/branding, apparel design, posters, album covers, product packaging, and other projects where you want something that stands out.

To access discretionary ligatures within Adobe software such as Illustrator or Photoshop, open up the respective character panel within each program. 

The ligatures included in the Roseritta typeface
The ligatures included in the Roseritta typeface

Historical Ligatures

In addition to their visual appeal, ligatures can provide historical context by maintaining old-fashioned letter combinations from earlier periods in typography’s evolution – such as æ (a combination of ‘a’ and ‘e’) often seen in medieval manuscripts.

Ligatures have been used throughout history to add a unique and authentic touch to text. For example, the fi-ligature was commonly used during medieval times when typographers merged these two letters together to create an old-fashioned design.

Today, designers may use historical ligatures to achieve different effects, such as creating a more authentic historical look or simply adding visual interest.

Overall, using historical ligatures can be an effective tool for graphic designers looking to add flair and personality to their typography, but they will not be used frequently.

Not All Fonts or Typefaces Include Ligatures

It’s important to note that not all fonts or typefaces include ligatures. While they may have been common in traditional printing and calligraphy, some digital versions of fonts don’t include these special characters.

OpenType fonts often feature extended character sets, but not all fonts include ligatures. It ultimately depends on what the designer intended when creating the font and how many variations they chose to include.

Related relating: OTF vs. TTF: Which Font Format is Better?

How To Access OpenType Ligatures

To access OpenType ligatures in Illustrator or Photoshop, follow these steps:

  • Make sure you’re using an OpenType font that includes ligatures.
  • Go to Window > Glyphs to open the Glyphs Panel.
  • Use the Type Tool to highlight the characters that you want to change.
  • Double-click on the ligature in the glyphs panel to replace the characters.

By following these simple steps, you can add professional-grade typography to any project and take advantage of the full capabilities of OpenType fonts. With contextual and stylistic alternates available in addition to ligatures, designers have more control over the typography in their designs. 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, ligatures are an essential part of typography that can improve your text’s overall look and legibility. Designers can use ligatures to create a more harmonious reading experience for their audience.

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