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What decisions and factors should be considered to determine when to use ligatures? Only in headings? Only in body? Purely by eye?

I ask because about seven people looked over a poster design and liked it. One noticed, "hey Ryan, the f and i in identification are so close the dot is missing." Now, after being pointed out, others think its an error as well. I had to explain what a ligature was, and that it wasn't a mistake.

The font is Futura:

identification with and without ligature in Futura

When, if ever, should someone use ligatures?

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1  
When 'it makes sense to' :) Typically, though, you use them more often with tighter tracking rather than loose tracking. In this case, however, I think it works. –  DA01 Jun 16 at 14:11
    
The only thing bothering me here was how the first i, e, c and o have wider letter spacingg than all the other letters. –  Joonas Jun 16 at 14:16
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@Joonas this isn't a screen cap of the piece. I just had photoshop opened so typed in identification with and without the ligature –  Ryan Jun 16 at 14:18
    
You should've just told them that "it's deliberate, to make it look better." No need to go into details about ligatures -- just let them assume that you customized the text yourself. –  Ilmari Karonen Jun 16 at 16:36
    
@IlmariKaronen I greatly disagree with you. I'm a believer in educating those I work with about what I do and was hired for those qualities. Not to make a decision and then give little to no justification for it, perpetuating the idea that design is arbitrary. If you'd like to discuss further though let's do it in Chat. –  Ryan Jun 17 at 11:12

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

No One Rule Fits All Situations

This is all somewhat complicated, because it ties in with kerning support and font selection, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer that will serve for all situations. In my experience, ligatures are more apt to be needed in a tightly set serif roman or italic, not so much in a sans font.

For more discussion and examples, please also see:

  1. When should I not use a ligature in English typesetting?
  2. What animal is a “weefil”?

The first answer above discusses the current question at length; the second has contrasting specimina of certain ligatures in five very different faces.

If push comes to shove, a reasonable general rule is:

  • Use explicit lexical ligatures only for the things that make sense in the language you’re writing in, such as Æ, æ in Icelandic or Old English and Œ, œ in French.
  • Leave the selection of typographic ligatures to the software, which should happen automatically for those situations where it would not look right without them.

That’s as general as I dare put things, but unfortunately, it won’t always work.


Adding Nuance

All that said, there certainly are occasions when you want more or less ligaturing than the font by default provides if you just let it do so on autopilot.

For example, if you are attempting to faithfully reproduce a very old document typeset with historical ligatures like and such in them, then you will want to put those there even if the font doesn’t do that by default.

However, as Bringhurst observes, the font designer may not have done a historically accurate job when classifying ligatures as standard or historical. See my first referenced answer above for some discussion of this.

Here is a set of ligatures from Robert Slimbach’s Arno Pro at its Regular weight. (The first pair of glyphs on the first line don’t count, and only the last line’s first one does.)

arno pro ligatures

As you see, some of those, especially the first two, are actually there to take the place of explicit kerning rules about those pairs. So to some extent, it depends on how tightly you are setting your type, and at what size. You would not use them on letter-spaced capitals, for example, and perhaps not when hand-setting a larger header with custom kerning. This is a matter of taste, not rule-books, and the sensitive designer will need to exercise tasteful judgment for these, just as in so many other places.

One warning about a trend in modern OpenType fonts is in order here. Bringhurst complains that font designers are placing (for example) Th in the standard ligature set instead of the historical one like ct, so you may need to disable or enable these explicitly, or choose the appropriate glyph from the font set yourself.

The lesson is that letting these things chug along on full autopilot is seldom a good idea for achieving optimal results.


Fancy Ligatures

In contrast, especially when setting in a script face but sometimes also in a true italic face (meaning rather than an oblique face masquerading as an italic, and preferably one with swash caps instead of merely oblique romans), the conscientious font designer will provide a variety of possible ligatures for the typesetter to select from. Some of these will be automatic, while others require one’s own judgment in setting.

Because a script face is essentially a calligraphic type face, it will consequently have complex rules built into the font tables for joining up adjacent glyphs.

I won’t bother displaying Hermann Zapf’s masterful Zapfino, not only because its calligraphy is too obvious an example, but also because there are simply too many ligatures there not to overwhelm the casual reader. So here instead is a sample of some of the optional ligatures from Richard Lipton’s Bickham Script Pro:

Bickham Script Pro optional ligatures

Setting Greek is of course completely different. Particularly in a chancery Greek, you may want to make use of the many ligatures available in a good chancery Greek face. For example, here are some from George Douros’s Alexander:

Alexander Greek ligatures


Automatic Ligatures, Code Points, and the Unicode Standard

It looks like your electronic version of Paul Renner’s original Futura font’s default ligature rules are generating a ligature for fi no matter whether one is needed or not. Understand that this is only my opinion, but to me seems like a bit of an affectation at large display sizes, particularly given that the f in that face isn’t going to clobber an i immediately following.

It is likely included because most sets have at least fi, fl, ff ligatures to keep the hysterical porpoises at bay — by which I mean that the Unicode code points for these exist only for lossless round-tripping in converting between Unicode and legacy encodings:

‭ ff  FB00       LATIN SMALL LIGATURE FF
        # 0066 0066
‭ fi  FB01       LATIN SMALL LIGATURE FI
        # 0066 0069
‭ fl  FB02       LATIN SMALL LIGATURE FL
        # 0066 006C
‭ ffi  FB03       LATIN SMALL LIGATURE FFI
        # 0066 0066 0069
‭ ffl  FB04       LATIN SMALL LIGATURE FFL
        # 0066 0066 006C

Those code points shouldn’t be needed at all — ever.

The Unicode FAQ on Ligatures and Digraphs says this about ligatures:

  • Q: I have here a bunch of manuscripts which use the “hr” ligature (for example) extensively. I see you have encoded ligatures for “fi”, “fl”, and even “st”, but not “hr”. Can I get “hr” encoded as a ligature too?

    A: The existing ligatures exist basically for compatibility and round-tripping with non-Unicode character sets. Their use is discouraged. No more will be encoded in any circumstances.

    Ligaturing is a behavior encoded in fonts: if a modern font is asked to display “h” followed by “r”, and the font has an “hr” ligature in it, it can display the ligature. Some fonts have no ligatures, some (especially for non-Latin scripts) have hundreds. It does not make sense to assign Unicode code points to all these font-specific possibilities.

  • Q: What about the “ct” ligature? Is there a character for that in Unicode?

    A: No, the “ct” ligature is another example of a ligature of Latin letters commonly seen in older type styles. As for the case of the “hr” ligature, display of a ligature is a matter for font design, and does not require separate encoding of a character for the ligature. One simply represents the character sequence in Unicode and depends on font design and font attribute controls to determine whether the result is ligated in display (or in printing). The same situation applies for ligatures involving long s and many others found in Latin typefaces.

    Remember that the Unicode Standard is a character encoding standard, and is not intended to standardize ligatures or other presentation forms, or any other aspects of the details of font and glyph design. The ligatures which you can find in the Unicode Standard are compatibility encodings only—and are not meant to set a precedent requiring the encoding of all ligatures as characters.

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There are two types of ligatures.

Type 1: The reason ligatures exist is to prevent spaces between some letters which could disturb your reading flow. For example in some fonts "fi" overlap each other or especialy "fl". In order to find a solution for this problem, ligatures were invented, each becoming just one letter on the typeblock:

Normal letters vs ligatures:

enter image description here

You can see that the normal letters are too close so you'd have to extend the overall spacing.

Type 2: Over time type designers used ligatures to "fancy-up" their font by adding special ligatures to the font which enhance the character of the font but not always legibility.

Super extended Ligatures from the Sauna font by Underware which uses ligatures to create a more "Script feel".

enter image description here

To get back to your example. In Futura the "fi" isn't overlapping so you don't have to use the ligature (I guess this is a special Futura since the original don't have ligatures?).

But if you want to add a special taste to your font, use ligatures as you like. But be aware that if you use unusual ligatures people will notice and it will potentially distract them from the actual design statement.

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Futura PT from the Adobe Typekit - typekit.com/fonts/futura-pt –  Ryan Jun 16 at 14:16
    
Aren't ligatures language-dependent? That is, English text might use a different set of ligatures than, say, French? Another example would be the German eszet (long s - short s [or vice-versa?] ligature), which is unique to German). Also note that ligatures are not automatic, and sometimes need to be suppressed: shelfful (as in a shelf-full of books) should not have an "ff" ligature. –  Phil Perry Jun 16 at 16:28
    
@PhilPerry No, that’s not true. The software should be deciding this for the obligatory ones that will not typeset correctly otherwise. –  tchrist Jun 16 at 16:36
    
@Phil - The German eszet is historically a ligature, but todays it is part of the standard german ortography, so it is not up to the font to decide. Also, Germans do not use the voiced s in writing anymore (except in conjunction with the unvoiced one, always as a ligature), so the computer will never get an input where it has to choose between ligature or non-ligature. You type the eszet directly, or if you type double-s where an eszet is normally used, some spelling systems replace them by the eszet character. I don't know much about ligatures in other languages, though. –  chiccodoro Jun 17 at 7:30

In many fonts designed for readable body text, ligatures tend to be subtle tweaks that are barely noticeable, just fixing what would otherwise be an awkward placement of adjacent letter shapes.

The Futura fi ligature in your example, however, isn't really like that — it stands out quite prominently, and is arguably unnecessary, in that the un-ligated f and i letter shapes fit together quite comfortably without overlap.

It does, however, clearly echo the geometric design of the font, and would look very nice in a logo, even if it might appear jarring in body text.1 As such, it might be best treated more like a "custom flourish" — albeit one that just happens to be built into the font itself — than a more conventional "readability ligature".

As such, you could just explain that the "funny f" combining with the dot of the i is a deliberate design choice to make the text look nicer and more geometrically clean. You don't necessarily need to explain what a ligature is — if your clients happen to leave with the impression that you altered the letter shapes yourself, where's the harm in that?

1) IMO, for small type, Futura is a somewhat borderline font choice anyway; it can work, and I've used it like that myself, but it's best used carefully and with an eye towards possible readability issues. For long paragraphs of text, there are other geometric sans fonts that can sacrifice a bit of design purity for improved readability at small sizes.

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