This article is about how to design Cyrillic characters Њ, Љ, Ђ, and Ћ (upright caps and lowercase; italics are not covered here).
They are often problematic since they are Cyrillic, but not found in the Russian alphabet, so there is no much reference and guides how they actually should look. Њ and Љ are used in Serbian and Macedonian, while Ђ and Ћ only in Serbian. Here is my research and opinion as a native Serbian speaker/reader.
Please take this as an opinion rather than a hard rule. The article tries to find out what is the default. These characters could be a subject of creative experimentation, like any other character in the typeface. The idea is to establish a solid starting point, not to limit creative freedom.
Њ — Nje — (Capital U+040A, Lowercase U+045A)
The first, and probably most often wrongly designed is Њ. It’s the soft variant of classic N, and sounds like the N in “New”, compared to classic N in “Now”. Latin counterpart would be Spanish Ñ. The look of the glyph was invented by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, turning Cyrillic N (looks like Latin H) and Russian soft sign Ь into one ligature glyph. But during the time the perception of the grapheme evolved, so it is considered as a separate glyph, not as a ligature. Writing movement using three strokes also suggests it’s a glyph per se. This fact influences the design of Њ.
The first step is to make H and Ь part a bit narrower, to avoid Њ look too wide. Second — and the most important thing here — is to ensure that the horizontal bar of the H part and upper part of Ь bowl look like a continuous line. Often — even in high-quality professional typefaces — this is not the case. A simple morph of H and Ь, in the vast majority of cases, will not do the job, since the bowl of Ь is usually significantly higher than H bar.
To remedy this, H bar goes a little bit up, and the upper part of Ь bowl goes a little bit down. The goal here is to make them “appear” as a continuous line, but in fact, they will probably still be slightly misaligned in order to soften the change and keep them look as similar as possible to the original H and Ь. Also, the H bar is usually a bit thicker than the top horizontal of Ь bowl, and you can keep this small difference.
Speaking of bar/bowl stroke thickness, maybe it is a good idea to make Њ bar slightly thinner than H bar, and top bowl horizontal of Њ slightly thinner than in Ь, especially in heavier font weights, to avoid the congestion of black at this “4-ray” crossing.
A good thing while designing Cyrillic is that lowercase (for upright) is basically a small caps most of the time, so the lowercase њ follows the logic.
Љ — Lje — (Capital U+0409, Lowercase U+0459)
Љ is softened L. It’s a bit hard to find the example of the sound in English, but there is a lot of it in Spanish in form of double L (for example the word “caballero”). Following the logic of Њ, the origin of the grapheme is composite, adding soft sign Ь to the Cyrillic letter Л (L), but again it’s rather considered as a character by itself than a ligature.
Both L and Ь parts are a bit narrower. As for the bowl, here we don’t have the constraint of the horizontal bar as for Њ, but still want to keep these two consistent. That said, it’s usually the same as on Њ, but it’s ok to go a bit higher (sometimes also a bit wider) than that. Anyway, it’s most often closer to the Њ than Ь bowl.
The lowercase is small-cap again.
Ћ — Tshe — (Capital U+040B, Lowercase U+045B)
The last letter of many Serbian last names, like “Djoković”, i.e. Sounds like “ch” in the Spanish word “muchacho”.
The glyph is based on Cyrillic Ч rotated for 180 degrees. Because we have a horizontal bar (at the top), the arch tends to go a bit lower — especially in heavier font weights. Often, the counter is also a bit narrower, but the change in this direction is smaller than that in a vertical direction.
The top bar is most often a bit narrower than that on T, and it’s moved to the right. As a starting point in regular font weight, you can place the right bar terminal at about 90% of the counter width (it can go a bit left and right from that). In heavier weights — as the counter shrinks — right bar terminal falls more toward the right stem, but not beyond the middle line of the stem width (approximately). The placement of the bar left terminal also varies, but it’s placed so the bar is narrower than T bar, and not too much to the left to avoid spacing problems. The bar could be a bit thinner if needed, to keep enough amount of white space between the bar and arch.
There is a variant of the Ћ without part of the bar on the left side. It can be often seen in informal handwriting, but it’s rare in type design. The advantage of this variant is a better spacing on the left side, while the disadvantage is more problematic bar-arch relation (because bar now has to go further to the right to balance the absence of the left part portion, which closes this tight space additionally). But if there is enough space, I would personally like to see it more often. I would say it’s more convenient for modern/geometry/eclectic typefaces.
Lowercase ћ, is actually h with the crossing bar. Most often in the regular weight, it has the arch identical to the h, but I think that slight lowering is ok if needed, because usually we have even less space between the bar and arch than for caps. However, the amount of lowering should be inside the range of optical correction, and should not compromise x-height alignment too much. This lowering is usually needed as the font weight increases, anyway.
The bar is very similar to that found on crossed d (đ, U+0111), which means it’s probably a bit thinner than t bar (more obvious at low contrast typefaces). On the right side, it’s aligned somewhere near the top node of the arch. On the left side, it extends similar to t. Its vertical position is centered slightly below the middle of the “ascender-top of the arch” distance (again having enough bar-arch distance is very important, and it’s often too tight in the existing typefaces).
Ђ — Dje — (Capital U+0402, Lowercase U+0452)
The first sound of the surname “Djoković” i.e. Sounds somewhat like the first sound in the word “Jaw”.
You can start from Ћ editing the right stem. There are two main variants of capital Ђ: “descending” and “not descending”. Both are accepted and used, but I am really not the fan of the “not descending” since it curls into the bowl at the baseline, being too close to capital Б and not different enough from Ћ. Especially in the case where we already have a wide accepted descending variant.
This second form I prefer has a descending tail growing from the arch. Depending on the font style it can hit descender line or can be a bit above it. Sometimes it is in the form of simply added the “j” part to the right stem. This gives the glyph “DIN-ish” look which works well for rational/geometry fonts, but not so well for humanist or typefaces which tend to have a warmer voice.
The more “organic” variant requires the right stem to morph into the bowl (probably removing straight vertical part at all), building a single curved stroke with the top arch. The angle of the curve usually stops somewhere at 5 o’clock (this relates to the stroke curvature only, not the shape of the terminal which can be cut as in the rest of the typeface). This change sometimes keeps the shoulder of the top arch the same, but sometimes it is “softened” to relax the tension of the curved stroke. Also, if needed this bowl can be a bit wider than Ћ counter, to accommodate the curve (if the tail descends fully). The top of this bowl could go a bit lower than the top of the Ћ arch if needed.
If Ћ is designed without the left portion of the horizontal bar on the top, Ђ should follow the same principle. Just in that case — when there is no “left ear” — you would like to make sure that the aperture (which descending part forms with the left stem) is open enough to avoid looking too close to Б (Latin B) which also has no “left ear”.
Lowercase ђ follows the same logic, starting from lowercase ћ.
Thanks for reading!