A Guide to Ligatures and When to Use Them.

A ligature is a feature of typography where two separate letters are merged into a single shape. Some are the result of abbreviations or cursive scripts, while other ligatures play an important role in readability in fonts and writing. 

 

Here, we’re going to explore ligatures in detail, along with showcasing some common ligature types, providing guidance on when to use them & more.

A collection of letter blocks used in printing presses scattered on a wooden floor

What is a ligature in typography?  

 

You may be familiar with ligatures in contexts other than typography, such as medicine or on instruments. That’s because the definition of ligature is a connection or connected set of objects. 

 

Here, though, we’re looking at ligatures that are used in orthography and typography, specifically the merging of two characters to form one. Ligatures are more common than you might first think - in fact, we’ve already used one on this page. 

 

Reread the introduction and you’ll spot an ampersand (&). In Latin ‘and’ translates as ‘et’ and over the course of a thousand years, Latin writers merged the ‘e’ and ‘t’ into a single shape, without losing the meaning. 

 

You may have seen other popular examples of ligatures in history books with figures like King Æthelred the Unready in Old English or in Berlin’s Friedrichstraße in German

 

Outside of special cases such as these, you’re likely to see ligatures when specific letters are used in conjunction with each other. Lowercase ‘f’ frequently sees ligatures because its overhanging hood means that other letters, like ‘i’, can merge. Other popular letter combinations include fl, ff, ffi and ft. 

 

A brief history of ligatures and their decline. 

Go back six hundred years or so and ligatures appeared in literature a lot more frequently. Before printing presses made it quicker and easier to reproduce the written word, everything was done by hand. 

 

Lengthy, repetitive and painstaking, the task was usually reserved for monks living in monasteries. One way to speed up writing - both for professional writers and the average person - was to conjoin letters. In many ways, ligatures are a natural part of handwriting. 

 

Printing was mechanised in Europe in the mid-15th century and ligatures were kept as a way of saving time and space on a page, but they also continued as an aesthetic choice. However, aside from a few ingrained pieces, the popularity of ligatures declined in the mid-20th century for several reasons. These include:

 

  • The introduction and widespread use of sans serif fonts (fonts that have little to no overlap between letters.
  • The introduction of typewriters.
  • Computerised word processors and modern printing techniques.

 

 

The different ligature font types.   

 

There are many types of ligature fonts and we’ve explored some examples already, but did you know all ligatures can be divided into two categories? 

 

Ligatures in fonts are either linguistic or aesthetic ligatures

 

Linguistic ligatures are features of language - symbols that can’t be split and can be found in languages such as Bengali or Sinhala. 

 

Aesthetic ligatures, on the other hand, are purely optional and serve to create a smoother reading experience. 

 

Aesthetic ligatures are far more common in English and are often determined by font. They can be broken down further into separate types:

 

Standard ligatures.

These are there to ensure fonts can be displayed without issues. With some fonts, characters might overlap or collide. Without standard ligatures, certain words or passages could become difficult or cumbersome to read. 

 

Both ‘f’ and ‘t’ are prime examples of letters that can easily overlap with others in typography.

 

Contextual ligatures.

Some ligatures are only present in specific fonts, which is why they’re considered contextual. The reason for their use depends on the font and its creators. Contextual ligatures most likely exist to make reading easier, but they might also be for mimicking a periodical style. 

 

Historical ligatures.

Historical ligatures could fall under the umbrella of contextual ligatures, but they’re typically found in fonts that are intended to replicate historical writing styles. 

 

These can be designed to look like handwriting, medieval script work or even early forms of typography. Regardless, if it’s recreating an era when ligatures were more common, you might expect to see them in your font.

 

Discretionary ligatures.

These forms of ligature don’t add anything to the legibility of the text and are there for decorative reasons. Discretionary ligatures are fairly rare but can be found in experimental or extravagant fonts. 

 

 

When to use ligatures in typography.  

 

There can be a right or wrong time to use ligatures in typography. If you’re creating your own font, consider the following:

 

  • The languages your font will be used in. For example, æ isn’t used much in modern-day English, but when it is, it’s a ligature. In some Nordic languages, such as Norwegian or Danish, the same symbol is a letter. The two are interchangeable typographically but serve two different functions.
  • The readability of your text. If your text uses a serif font or is in cursive, you may want to include ligatures to prevent text from being spaced too far apart or close together.
  • The aesthetics of your font. Similar to readability, ligatures can help your font look more pleasing, especially when shown as a header. Large text can make spacing stand out - something you might not want in your font.
  • Historical accuracy. You may want to consider introducing ligatures if you want to create period-accurate text with your font. 
     

 

How to type out fonts with ligatures.   

 

If you want to include ligatures in your work, it’s possible to turn them on or off in page layout software including Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator

 

You should note that not every font will have ligatures (standard or discretionary) because it relies on the decision of the font designer. If your font does have ligatures, you can turn them on and type them out with the following steps:

 

Adobe Photoshop.

 

  1. Start by creating a new document.
  2. Go to Window > Glyphs.
  3. Choose the Text tool (or press T) and type your text.
  4. In the Glyph panel, you can select the ligatures you’d like to include by selecting the character pair and double-clicking the ligature of your choice.

 

Adobe InDesign.

 

  1. Start by creating a new document.
  2. Go to Window > Type > Character.
  3. Select the menu in the top-right corner and tick or untick Ligatures.
  4. Choose the Text tool (or press T) and type your text.
  5. Open the Glyphs panel by going to Type > Glyphs.
  6. Select the characters you’d like to swap for a ligature and double-click the character in the Glyph menu.

 

Adobe Illustrator.

 

  1. Begin by creating a new document.
  2. Select Window > Glyphs.
  3. Select the Text tool (or press T) and type your text.
  4. In the Glyph panel, you can choose the ligatures you’d like to include by selecting the character pair and double-clicking the ligature of your choice.

 

 

Ligatures FAQS.

 

Why were ligatures used?

Ligatures were used in typography for a number of reasons. Some were historically connected and had been for centuries, but most were done for practical or aesthetic purposes. Some fonts had a spacing that meant certain character pairings would clash or collide. Ligatures were included to navigate this problem and standardise a smoother reading process.

 

Should you use font ligatures?

If you’re creating a new font, you can include ligatures if you think they’ll improve the readability of text. If there’s a chance that characters could become bunched up or oddly spaced apart, ligatures can be a useful way of ensuring a better experience for readers. 

 

What is a glyph in typography?

A glyph in typography is the representation of a character. Whether it’s the curl of an ‘s’ or the simple line of an ‘l’, the physical mark is known as a glyph. Glyphs can be as simple or as complicated as they need to be, but each is a specific sign that symbolises a character.

Use typography effectively in your Photoshop designs.

 

If you’re interested in using ligatures and incorporating text into your design work, Adobe Photoshop offers a wide range of tools to bring your work to life.