Designing Greek typefaces

1. History and background

Athenian marble inscription, 440–425 BCE (source Wikimedia Commons), and detail from the Florentine Homer, 1466 (source: British Library, where an excellent collection of Greek manuscripts are available to view online — especially the selection of multilingual ones.)
Early documents showing key strands in Greek typefaces, CW from top left: 1 Zacharias Kalliergis’ type for his Etymologicum Magnum (Venice, 1499): a reference for connected, low-contrast Greek. 2 Garamond’s grec-du-roi in Henri Estienne’s Oratorum Veterum Orationes (Paris, 1575). 3 A cursive type with no connected letters and medium contrast, probably by Miklós Kis, in Hendrik Wetstein’s Homeri Opera (Amsterdam, 1707). 4 Alexander Wilson’s Greek for the Foulis Press; here in Aristotle’s De Poetica (Glasgow, 1745): an original style with very few connected letters.
Documents from the 19th and early 20th centuries showing key styles in Greek typeface design. CW from top-left: 1 Firmin Didot’s high-contrast Greek in L’Iliade D’Homère (Paris, 1830): a persistent model for modulated typefaces in text sizes. 2 A low contrast upright Greek in the headwords, paired with Porson Greek for the regular, in the Greek Lexicon by Liddell & Scott (Oxford, 1845). 3 A typical unconnected cursive in a style favoured by printers in Leipzig, here in Ioannis Chrysostomi De Sacerdotio by Tauchnitz (Leipzig, 1825). 4 Victor Scholderer’s New Hellenic, in Greek Printing Types 1465–1927 (London, 1927).
Some notable typefaces, grouped by contrast models. The top group follows a traditional model; the second one has a more upright (Latin-like) contrast; the third group uses a contemporary interpretation of the original Greek contrast. From the top: Monotype Series 90 (2000 version), Garamond Premier Pro (2005), Brill (2012), Arno Pro (2007), Adobe Text Pro (2010), Microsoft Cambria (2003), Source Serif Pro(2016), Literata (2015), Skolar PE (2011), Colvert (2012), Microsoft Candara (2003).
Notable low-contrast typefaces: FF Tisa Sans Pro (2016), Source Sans Pro (2013), Bliss Pro (2006), Neue Haas Unica (2015), Helvetica Linotype (2002).

2. Designing letters and marks

Left: Greek ductus; right: Latin ductus
Typical patterns for written Greek. On the right, the open strokes may indicate a pen movement that lifts off the writing surface.
Typical writing direction for Greek letters, and two typefaces that acknowledge this: John Hudson’s SBL Greek, and Kostas Bartsokas’ Eqil.
Above: SBL Greek. Below: Source Serif Pro.

alternates and italics

Microsoft Candara alternates.
Alternates in use. Above: Microsoft Candara; below: Skolar PE.


The top two lines are in polytonic; the next three in monotonic. Note the convention of beginning a sentence with a lowercase letter in the classical text. (This and the next four images: Skolar PE.)
Note that the accent is removed from μαΐστρος, and that the accented initial alpha in Άννα (the last word) is removed. Both of these accents should return if the case conversion is implemented properly.
A special case of accents over small caps: a historical exception that has resurfaced in recent years in some display and branding uses.

question mark and ano teleia

This is what a correct ano teleia looks like.
Examples of contemporary Greek print typography, with particular features highlighted. Above, a page from mainstream fiction; note the abundance of dashes, the range of punctuation, the frequency of apostrophes, and the erroneous use of multiple periods instead of an ellipsis. Below: notes section from a typical scholarly text, combining Modern Greek, Latin, Italian, translated quotes, and a range of references to sources. Both documents use the same family (Monotype Series 90) which accommodates reasonably well the full range of Greek text typographic requirements. The punctuation and other non-alphabetic characters of many newer digital typefaces do not have the required spacing and design features to accommodate these texts. (They are designed with editorial design in mind, which favours wider type families, but a simple behaviours within each paragraph.)

3. Designing paragraphs

Starting pattern for spacing Greek.
Helvetica Linotype and Source Sans Pro, adjusted for x-height.

expanded families

From the top: Parmigiano, Satira, Alegreya Pro, Source Serif Pro, Eqil Ultra.

details that matter

Greek never uses single quotes. (This and the next four images: Skolar PE.)
Typical initial (single) and medial (double) use of the em dash. The initial indicates dialogue, whereas the medial pair indicate a parenthetical sentence.
This use of “reverse” guillemets can extend for several lines.
Greek apostrophes can occur both at the beginning and the end of a word.
Typical examples of Greek numbering for school classes (above) and a government agency (below).

4. Relationship with Latin: design across scripts

The examples show different approaches at balancing the Greek and Latin scripts. The top pair (Colvert and Brill) are ideal for texts where one script is dominant, with embedded words of phrases of the second script. The second pair (Cambria and Corbel) are too uniform for cases where the embedded words or phrases need to be identifiable. The third pair utilises the same typefaces (Cambria and Corbel) in their correct usage, balancing the scripts when none is superior to the other.





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Gerry Leonidas

Gerry Leonidas

opinionated typographer

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