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Glyphs and ligatures: The Basics

What are glyphs and ligatures? They are both are essential to creating unique and realistic handwriting typefaces. Let's take a look.

Published on 29th Jan, 2023
Author Laura Eddy

What is a glyph?

Glyphs are the individual characters or symbols that make up a typeface. They can include letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, as well as special characters like emojis and symbols. In certain fonts, you may have the option to select a glyph variant from a set of alternate glyphs. This allows you to customise and make your designs more unique.

Glyph variants for the letter e (Manic font)

What is a ligature?

A ligature occurs when two or more characters or 'elements' are combined as a single glyph, e.g. ‘ee’, ‘st’ or even ‘:)’. Ligatures allow for more varied type, particularly in scripts or handwriting (such as doubled letters or linked letters in cursive). They can also be created to prevent letters from overlapping or colliding.

Ligature example for double letters (Infamous font)

How to use glyphs and ligatures

Using glyphs in your designs: If a font has alternate glyphs included, you can select a character and replace it with an alternate version. Accessing these options will depend on the program you are using. For example, this is the glyphs menu in Photoshop.

Accessing alternate glyphs in Photoshop (Manic font)

Using ligatures in your designs: Ligatures can be defined as either 'standard' or 'discretionary'. Standard ligatures are used in the font by default and are often created to either:

  • replace a combination of letters that need visual tweaking (e.g. they collide or overlap), or

  • improve the font visually (e.g. offer a more realistic representation of letters, especially in handwriting fonts).

Discretionary ligatures are not enabled in the font by default, and can be used (you guessed it) at your discretion. If your design program offers it, you can enable discretionary ligatures by default. They are often created to improve the visuals of the font and may include elements such as flourishes or embellishments.

Sample text with ligatures on and off (Ugly Dave font)

See more: how to use your fonts

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