Typeface Anatomy Simplified

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“ I love learning but I hate studying.” – my former boss

I echo his sentiment. Especially where typefaces are concerned.

I love learning—learning by doing. Drawing letters. Experimenting with font software.

But I, ashamedly, I don’t know the parts of the letters by heart. I didn’t study that part hard enough. I didn’t memorise them like a good student of type would.

So instead, I thought I’d learn them best the way I learn most things—by doodling.

Drawing or doodling helps me get to know something better and cement the learning in my mind. Drawing something makes you more familiar with it.

When I study typefaces, reading books are not as helpful as me drawing Helvetica, Baskerville, Rockwell on paper. Staring, observing, analysing, doodling type.  

So here are my educational doodles. Hopefully they will help you too.

Level 1: Easy/common words

  • Ascender (the part of a letter that goes above the x-height)
  • Descender (the part of the letter that goes below the baseline)
  • Crossbar
  • Stem
  • Diagonals

1

Level 2: Body part-sounding words

  • Spine
  • Tail
  • Shoulder
  • Arm
  • Leg
  • Throat
  • Ear
  • Hairline
  • Waist
  • Throat
  • Upper lobe
  • Lower lobe
  • Eye

2

Level 3: Advanced super hyper typophile words

  • Aperture
  • Counter
  • Spur
  • Link
  • Loop
  • Hook
  • Sheared terminal

3

*Most of the above terms are from Karen Cheng’s book “Designing Type,” in which she clarifies that “there is no official nomenclature for the unique structural features of type.” But “type designers, do in general use the specialized terms” she shared in the book.

Why learn names of the parts of letters?

 

They help you find the right words when discussing type

Instead of saying – “the thin thingie of the “o” is making this typeface hard to read in small sizes.” . You can say, “This typeface won’t work well in small formats because the hairline is almost invisible”

“We need to increase the leading because the descenders are hitting the ascenders on the next line.”

“Can you change it to a typeface with heavier stems?”

And when critiquing type / discussing type design

“Do you think the crossbar of the t is a little too wide?”

“The spine of the S is a little too thick.”

“The shoulder of the lowercase n could use a little more weight.”
And hopefully the more we use these words, the more they will be cemented into our vocabulary. And we won’t need the word thingie anymore.

a

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“I hate the two-storey “a” said my seatmate at the signage company where I worked as a designer.

He was upset that a two-storey lowercase “a” created complications as part of internally-lit dimensional signage. At a not-so-big size, the shape of the “a” made it difficult to install lighting inside it. He preferred typefaces with the single-storey “a”.

But I love the two-storey “a”. So much so that I even wrote a short story about it.

It’s one of the best-looking letters in the alphabet. Even if you doodle it casually, you can still get it to look pretty cool.

It’s just classy, and classic.

Now look at the one-story “a”. Looks simplistic and a bit boring against its more classical-rooted counterpart.

The two-storey “a” evolved from Roman letters, which started out as a uni-case alphabet (or all-uppercase, as we would recognize them today). The uncial scripts, which was the popular way of writing sometime between the 4th to 8th century AD, were evolving into a mix of letters we recognize today as a mix of lowercase and uppercase, and the “a”, by this time was evolving into half uppercase and half lowercase. Of course during that time it was just a normal “a”.

uncial letters (the “a” is like a hybrid uppercase and lowercase)

Unless one is a letter-obsessed type geek, one would hardly distinguish the two a’s, when reading anything from books to blogs, or signs, whether the a is uppercase or lowercase. As is the case in many functional designs, when you don’t notice anything — when nothing sticks out — that’s when you know it was done right.

And the double story a, despite its more classical appearance, is not confined to old-fashioned serif fonts. Even modern fonts use it. For example, Helvetica from the 50s uses a double-storey “a,” and the little teardrop of negative space has become an iconic shape.

Type geek trivia:

In serif fonts such as Georgia, Times New Roman, and Baskerville, the Regular version appears in double-story a. While the italics are in single storey a.

(That’s how you distinguish fake italics from real italics. Fake italics is a computerized slant applied on letters. Real italics were drawn that way by the type designer, not altered by the computer)

And check out the title of this piece (which I simply called “a”) — The title and subtitle have different a’s. Because the subtitle is the italic version.

Strangely, the double-storey a looks great in typography, but a little odd when handwritten:

Thankfully, both the single-storey “a” and the double-storey “a” have stood the test of time. They make the typographic world more interesting.

And I’m grateful for the two and a half years I spent as part of a signage agency where I dealt with type in large scale, learned how to use geometry as a language, and had interesting conversations about which typefaces perform best in the world of 3D. I got to daydream about type and call it work.