Letterforms are composed of a variety of different shapes and forms. It can get confusing when you begin trying to indentify and classify them. This section will help you learn a few basic visual characteristics of letterforms, show you optical relationship that should be addressed when designing a unified typeface. And, naturally, offer up some basic typeface classifications.
As time has passed, the technology and methods for creating letterforms has changed. This has resulted in a variety of different visual characteristics that have an effect upon the optical perception of letterforms. The visual characteristics that will be discussed here are: weight, width, stroke contrast, and the proportional relationship to the x-height. While all of these characteristics inform how letterforms appear, some also contribute to the building of a fairly comprehensive range of typeface families. Typeface families won't be discussed here because it is the letterform that is of primary concern.
WeightThe ratio between the letterform height and the stroke weight can dramatically influence the visual appearance and weight of a letterform. As the stroke weight is increased, and the stroke height remains the same, the letterform appears heavier and most substantial. The reverse is true for when the stroke weight decreases and the stroke height remains the same.
WidthAlso referred to as expanded and condensed, the width of letterforms is measured by the relationship of the vertical strokes and the distance, or white space, between them. An average ratio for a normal width letterform is 80%, with 60% and less being condensed and 100% or more being expanded. Notice too, that the stroke weight may also change when the width does.
Stroke ContrastThe thicks and thins of a stroke create contrast in a letterform. This contrast can be very noticeable, or minimal. It all depends upon the objectives of the typeface designer. Historically, the Renaissance typographers were interested in the visual properties of pen writing and, as a result, gave the typefaces they designed a diagonal stress, or axis, that echoed the thicks and thins of handwritten letterforms. Over time, the interest in handwritten characters dwindled and the axis became completely vertical. At times there is no contrast at all in a stroke, it is the same weight throughout the stroke. This is a modern development and is used mostly in sans serif typefaces.
Proportion to x-heightThe proportional relationship between the capital, ascender and descender heights and the x-height has a significant influence on the optical quality and visual appearance of letterforms. It greatly impacts the legibility of the typefaces. The greater the ratio, to a certain degree, between the capital, ascender and descender height and the x-height, the more legible the typeface.
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