Wedding Typography: Working with Scripts

This is a basic overview of working with script faces. To the experienced typographer reading this, I may not cover anything you don’t already know. To the young designer or non-designer, listen up. This is for you.

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Script faces, particularly the highly stylized engraving- and calligraphy-inspired faces common to wedding typography generally flow in a connected fashion. In order for each character to appropriately connect to its neighbor, script faces make use of a number of contrivances, often involving the use of ligatures (two or more characters combined) and alternate characters (the same character, drawn differently to fit different contexts). Below, the top line shows alternate characters for both f and o.

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Above, the bottom line shows how fl fits together too tightly, but instead of solving the problem with alternate characters, a ligature is automatically put in place of the two letters.

Make it so contextual alternates and ligatures work by default

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In InDesign or Illustrator, which I’d say are the current top two design programs for doing professional typesetting, it’s pretty easy to turn these features on by default. Here’s how in InDesign: Open InDesign, without any documents open. From the top right corner menu of the Character panel, make sure there’s a check mark next to Ligatures, and also OpenType > Contextual Alternates, just like in the image above. These are now your defaults.

In Illustrator, follow a similar method except in the OpenType panel. If you can’t find the OpenType panel, select Window > Type > OpenType from the top menu. If contextual alternates and ligatures are checked, you’re all done. Otherwise, make sure some document is open, change the settings, and they should stick. The screenshot below shows Illustrator’s OpenType panel with the proper settings in place.

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Keep in mind that not all script typefaces have contextual alternates or ligatures, but just about all the good ones do. I keep a list of these kinds of scripts on hand to help designers find the ones they’re looking for. The one in the examples is Cyrus Highsmith’s Novia, a face designed originally for Martha Stewart.

In addition to contextual alternates and ligatures, a number of other OpenType options to try may exist in the font you’re using. Discretionary ligatures offer additional ways of connecting two or more characters into one. If the font contains many of these, sometimes their strokes collide and should therefore be used sparingly and with restraint. Stylistic alternates (in InDesign arranged into Stylistic Sets) and Swash alternates are designed to give more options controlling the look of certain characters, sometimes functional, sometimes more as a matter of taste. You’ll find these OpenType settings next to the ones just touched on above. By the way, if you’re wondering what OpenType is, it’s a set of features specific to certain kinds of fonts (OpenType fonts) that allow them to do the things described in this article, and others, such as include small caps, and multiple sets of figures (like oldstyle and superscript numerals) into a single font file.

Back to working with scripts now; just a few pointers.

Give the script adequate linespacing and margins.

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Don’t be afraid of all the space. Embrace the spacial requirements of the script face you’re working in, and tailor your message to the medium. Linespacing or leading should be set loosely. Don’t hit return multiple times between lines. A single return and uniform linespacing will ensure a consistent vertical increment down the page.

Work in a single size

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Make test prints with a range of sizes and pick the best one. Depending on the final method of printing, the type’s hairlines should be no finer than .25 pt or so for engraving, or .33 pt for offset lithography. For letterpress printing, depending on how carefully the plates are made, you’ll likely be fine anywhere inside that range. Put reference strokes on your test print, and use a monochromatic laser printer or something of similar quality for testing. If you’re printing the final pieces at home on an inkjet printer, make sure to run the tests on the same paper as the final piece, and let your eyes be the judge.

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After finding the best size to use, just set everything in that size, unless the typeface comes with graded optical sizes with finer lines for larger settings, which for example Novia does. In that case, take the lighter of the two up in size until the weights of the hairlines more or less match.

Don’t adjust the tracking

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Unless you’ve set the type on a curve or something, adjustments made to its tracking (or letterspacing) will break its connections or disrupt its rhythm. Just don’t do it. Depending on the face however, kerning (setting the space between a specific pair of letters) may be necessary.

Don’t set words or phrases in all caps

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Spell out completely or use alternate abbreviations for states, other than their all-capital two-letter postal codes. Put periods in between and if necessary kern apart caps in acronyms, if not avoid them completely. Scripts are simply not flattering in all caps settings. I can think of one particularly good solution to this.

That’s it. Following these guidelines and trusting your eyes should help you make your announcements, invitations, dance cards, etc. function beautifully, using only lovely, understated typography. This article is part of a weekly series written by me, David Sudweeks, on using type. For June, all editions of Using Type will focus on wedding typography – some higher level concepts, but mostly practical hands-on advice around designing traditional and non-traditional invitations, working in design programs (and non-design programs), and getting the proper files to the printer. The series continues here Thursday.

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