Used in situations where two adjacent characters would bump into each other, there are two types of ligatures, standard ligatures and discretionary ligatures.
Most people are acquainted with the ampersand, the celebrity of the ligature world, but that is comparable to the ability to identify Jim Morrison–it doesn’t mean you know the entire Doors discography nor the history of Classic Rock. Knowledge of design holds a certain amount of cultural capital in our society, and although some seem to have a certain proclivity for it, for most it takes effort, training and practice to speak it fluently.
We had a recent situation where a client wasn’t versed in design language and we failed to interpret. In this particular situation, the kerning (space between letters) came into question. Actually, the design had been kerned, but it was re-kerned and resubmitted only to have it returned with the same comment. As a designer being able to take criticism is a required skill, but there is no guarantee that a client has the vocabulary to communicate the issue. Resolution finally came when we switched to the telephone and were able to ask the client to point out the problem, it turned out that the “letter spacing issue” was that the “f” and “i” were touching.
It was a ligature.
To us, it was design love and attentiveness; to them, it looked like an error. We were speaking different languages. The fact that the client did not know what a ligature was flew under our radar, but had we stepped back from their initial comment and considered its context we may have saved time and irritation for us all.
So why hasn’t the ligature passed into the realm of common visual vernacular? Why don’t they feel as natural to clients as layouts designed with the golden ratio? One reason ligatures have not saturated the designscape is that in recent history many typefaces did not included them, so the designer had to choose to change faces, or create them by hand. However, with the dominance of OpenType, this seems to be a problem of the past as many typefaces are equipped with a large variety ligatures. Another force working against the pervasiveness of the ligature is the designer’s nightmare–the dreaded word processing program. Fortunately, fixes have been created for Pages and you can now choose to “use ligatures” and Microsoft Word 2010 has added support for OpenType ligatures, (for help enabling them you can find a tutorial here).
Technical functionality is not the only hinge when it comes to ligature use; personal taste is also a factor. To some, the use of ligatures is on par with the choice of serif or sans. With roots in early writing, some see ligatures as carrying a certain rare elegance, adding class and refinement to text. On the opposing side, some view them as antiquated, traditional and superfluous. Lovers of the ligature will argue that they are not merely ornamental, but efficient, replacing two letters with one and simultaneously increasing legibility–exuding the modern ideals of form following function.
Ligatures are a decision that every designer must make for themselves. To me, they are something special; so efficient, so thoughtful, so graceful, so salacious–and when I come upon them in life, I can’t help but smile, as I imagine two letters making love.
So we pose the question to you, are ligatures an element of typographic style you cannot live without? Should we as designers come together and create guidelines for their use? Or, are they archaic and a tradition that needs updating or better yet, to just go away?