Type Design: Related Parts, Shapes, and Family Resemblances
Related parts and shapes: Family resemblances
In this movie, we are going to focus in on letterforms by getting out our magnifying glasses. We are going to look at important details that make a typeface what it is. These are the characteristics that type designers use to shape their designs. Even if you aren't planning to design a typeface, you can still be a good type detective and find out more about letters by looking at the ways in which their parts are related. The shapes of letters within a particular typeface are far from random. In fact, you can actually look at just a few letters and imagine pretty much what the rest will look like.
That's because all of the letters have underlying design characteristics which come from a common set of proportions and styling details. Within the 26 capital letters, you can see that there are little groupings based on similar letter shapes. The curve letter parts are based on the curve of the O. Straight sided letters are based on the N. The diagonal sided letters are based on the A. All of the letters with upper and lower parts also have a relationship to the S.
There are other interrelationships. The E and the F are closely related. The crossbar of the F is slightly lower because it doesn't have a bottom leg and its middle crossbar is shorter. There are visual links between these other pairs of letters as well as slight differences. The two widest are M and W, which are both doubles based on a double V. You might not think of the S and Z as being related, but they have similar proportions. Now let's look at the S, Z, and B.
While they appear to have upper and lower parts that are equal, if you turn them upside down, you can see that in fact the lower parts have more space in them. They are optically equal, not mechanically equal. In letter design as in all design, what's important is what the eye perceives and not what is real. Within the grouping of R, B, and P, you can see that the sizes of the bowl are not the same. They are based on optical balance because the B and R are double-decker letters with an upper and lower part. Their bowls are smaller.
The bowl of the P is the largest because it does not have a leg or lower bowl, so optically that space needs to be more filled in. Within the 26 small letters, you can also see different groupings based on similarities. The round letters are still based on the O, straight sided letters on the N, width based on the N and the diagonal letters are grouped together because of their related shapes. Again, the S is based on the S and the proportions of the double-decker letters are based on the S.
Here are some other related pairs. Again, M and W are the widest. The W is also related to the V because it is essentially a double V. The R is a truncated N and the E is essentially an o with a crossbar. In the stems of the letters, you can see that every vertical stroke has the same thickness, also called stroke-width, and you can see that the cap height of every letter is the same. The exceptions are the curved letters.
Curves need to extend very slightly top and bottom so that they appear the same height as the other letters. If they were exactly the same height, they would actually appear to be shorter and the X-height of all the lowercase letters is the same and the heights of all the ascenders is the same and the descenders are also the same. Here are other kinds of relationships. The apex of the N, A, and M will be the same, ditto for the bottoms of the V and W.
And then there are the terminal strokes or N strokes of the letters. The ending strokes follow the same angle in related letters. Within a serif typeface, one of the most significant similarities will be the shapes of the serifs. Whether they're sharp or rounded, thick or thin, wide or narrow, they will all match. The art of type design rests on these principles of commonality, of similar shapes and groupings of characters with shared design details. As you can see, there's a lot that goes into designing a typeface.
In next movie, we'll take a look at how a type designer gets started and follow through the basic steps 'til the final typeface is ready to be used.
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