Alternate characters can add zest to your type menu … but misused, they spoil the dish. Here’s how to apply them with taste.
by Allan Haley
Fancy and alternate characters have been around
since Gutenberg thought up the idea of typography.
In fact, while the Latin text only required 40 letters—
20 lowercase and 20 caps—Gutenberg used
over 240 alternate characters when he produced his
famous Bible. All the extra characters were used to
imitate the handwriting of scribes.
1. Alternate characters
The most common form of alternate character is an
optional design for a standard character. These can
be simple letter substitutions, like those in Magneto,
or creative tours de force, like the “decorated”
alternates in Epicure or the “little” caps in Kolo.
Alternate characters can be sophisticated and stately,
like those in Donatello, or as brash and spontaneous
as the graffiti-like designs in Little Louis. Alternate
characters are not necessarily flamboyant designs:
The alternate S in ITC Vintage, for example, is a
much tamer character than the standard design.
2. Optional designs
Good typography is about being consistent. For the
most part, if you choose to use an alternate character,
it should be applied consistently throughout a document.
Inconsistencies are sure to create distractions
to the reading process.
Like most typographic rules, this one has exceptions.
The Comrade typeface has alternate characters
of different widths that can be mixed within a single
line of copy to create drama and texture. And the
alternate characters in calligraphic faces like Jaft or
Zapfino are intended to mimic the spontaneity of
handwriting—which means they can be used sporadically
throughout a piece.
3. Custom ligatures
Ligatures are another form of alternate character.
These are two or more letters linked together as a
single glyph. The most common are the fi, fl, and
ff ligatures found in many text typefaces. Custom
ligatures, however, can take the idea one or two
steps beyond what you get in average character sets.
Custom ligatures can be the HE or GE combinations
found in Sophia, characters like the linked CK
and ET in Palazzo Caps, or the unusual We grouping
in Gill Facia. Ligatures are also common to script
and calligraphic typefaces. The Th and of combinations
found in Bible Script and the various L ligatures
in Frances Uncial help to create the impression
of hand-drawn lettering.
The key to using ligatures is to pay attention to
inter-character spacing—and to not overuse them.
The “built-in” spacing of ligatures should match the
character spacing of the copy that surrounds them. If
your copy has a lot of kerning or you have the “track-
ing knob” cranked up to create tight letterspacing,
the relatively open spacing between most ligatured
characters will make the character stand out from the
rest of the copy. This looks ungainly and can disrupt
the reading process. Used correctly, simple f ligatures
used throughout a block of copy will blend in with
the surrounding text, improving copy “color” and
aiding readability. Copy peppered with fancy ct, sp,
st, or similar ligatures, however, looks fussy and selfimportant—
and neither of these characteristics are
welcome typographic attributes.
4. Biform characters
Other forms of alternate characters are biform letters.
These are either capital letters with lowercase
letter shapes or lowercase letters with capital letter
shapes, intended to create distinction within display
copy. Some typefaces, like Peignot, don’t give you
a choice when it comes to biform characters; many
of the lowercase letters are only available as capital
designs. Others, like the recently re-released Avant
Garde Gothic, provide a pack of biform characters
that can be used to replace standard designs.
Consistency is also the key with using biform
characters. Switching from a biform cap e that looks
like the lowercase variety back to the standard model
can be distracting and even confusing to the reader.
If you use a biform letters, stick with them throughout
Even complete logotypes can be included in a font.
These are short words that have been designed as a
complete unit. The most common are the, of, and
and. They usually share the same basic character
design as the rest of the alphabet. The three logotypes
in Cancione are perfect examples. Some typefaces,
however, have contrasting logotype designs.
The stylish script logotypes in Motel Gothic serve
as counterpoints to the retro sans serif letters of the
alphabet, and the typeface Comic Strip has a complete
set of “exclamatory” logotypes.
Logotypes should be limited to headlines and
only one should be used per headline. They make a
strong statement and always call attention to themselves.
One can add visual interest to a headline. Two
will create a distraction.
6. Stylistic swash letters
Swash letters are also available in many fonts. These
characters are born out of calligraphy and have
fancy flourishes replacing a terminal or serif. Swash
letters are generally available in three flavors:
Stylistic swash letters can be somewhat
restrained, like those in Longfellow, or
downright extravagant as in Zapfino.
Some swash letters can be added almost
anywhere in a word, dancing to their own
tune, showing no regard for surroundings.
Others, however, display an open regard
toward neighboring characters by gently
curving over or under them. You can find
stylistic swash letters in typefaces as diverse
as Cruz Swinger, ITC Bookman, and
Fineprint. Habitat even has its own set of
7. Beginning and ending swash
Beginning and ending swash letters are
usually relegated to cursive or calligraphic
type designs like Avalon and Civilite;
although a few, less script-like designs,
such as Outpost and Adobe’s newest version
of Garamond also have a variety. The
key to using beginning and ending swash
letters is that they should be confined to,
well, the beginning and ending of words
or phrases. Using them in the middle of a
word ruins character spacing and disrupts
readability, and an ending swash letter followed
by a comma or a period also looks
There are two rules when it comes to
using swash letters: Be aware of their combination
with characters around them—and
don’t use too many. Some very fancy swash
letters do just fine wherever they are put in
a word. Their flourishes may be above or
below surrounding characters or happily
intertwine with them. In some instances,
however, they may cause odd overlaps or
even create confusing character shapes. This
is especially true with the more “demonstrative”
swashes that are meant to gently curve
over or under a surrounding character.
Too many swash characters is a more
likely problem. One or two words in
Poetica can take all the swash characters
you want to dish out. If your copy has a
number of words or runs into more than
one line, however, discretion is a better goal
8. Fancy caps
Fancy caps are alternative uppercase letters
with one or more swash characteristics.
Some, like those in Buccaneer or
Highlander, are enclosed in boxes. Others,
like those in Loire and Buccardi, are standalone
letters. Fancy caps are best limited to
one per page or as markers to a new section
in a document. Beginning every sentence
or paragraph with a fancy cap will be more
distracting than attractive.
Like cooking spices, alternate characters
have been around for a very long time.
And like the culinary variety, these typographic
spices can add zest to your documents. The key is to add flavor—and not
overpower the recipe. A little typographic
spice goes a long way.
SIDEBAR:Controlling Ligatures in InDesign
The Character palette
in InDesign controls
a number of glyph
through the dropdown
menu (at right),
For OpenType fonts,
ligatures are checked
by default but can
be unchecked to
fonts, InDesign will
substitute all standard
f-ligatures with the
option checked. For
both OpenType and
nonstandard or discretionary
to be selected manually
via the Glyphs
function in the Typemenu.
For example, in Adobe Garamond
certain ligatures can
only be accessed by
switching to Adobe
Garamond Expert and
manually selecting in
the Glyphs palette.
About the author
Allan Haley is the director of Words
& Letters at Monotype Imaging. He is
chairperson of AIGA Typography and
a past president of the New York Type