Designing Greek typefaces
This is a guide for typeface designers who want to extend their skills to cover the Greek script. It is not comprehensive, but it is sufficient to get you on the right track. It is based on research conducted at Reading, and material developed for the MATD. A version of this text was published in Bi-Scriptual: Typography and Graphic Design with Multiple Script Systems, where the authors have added numerous contemporary examples. This text is in many way a summary, and perpetually in draft form.
Greek is used not only within Greece, or by a considerable international diaspora. It is also read, written, and studied by substantial numbers of students and researchers, and those who study religion in a scholarly manner. In a range of forms, the Greek language has been spoken without interruption for over four millennia, making it one of the oldest living languages on record. This longevity, and the layered history of the Eastern Mediterranean region, have impacted on the evolution of both the language and its written representation. Greek combines aspects of a dominant literary language, a widespread second language of exchange and trade, a revered language of sacred or banned texts, a language in exile and under occupation, an instrument of nation-building and political identity, and a vehicle for the ideas of modernity and traditionalism. This nuanced trajectory is reflected in the written and typographic forms of the language, which demands respect by typographers and typeface designers.
1. History and background
The earliest examples of written Greek date to tablets from the 15th century BCE, but from a type design perspective a useful historical account starts with the inscriptions of Archaic and Classical periods, and especially in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. By that time the forms of the Greek alphabet are fairly stable, its direction of writing has settled into a left-to-right pattern, and there is a range of examples across document genres and materials. In these aspects, as well as its later development, Greek precedes and reflects the development of Latin: an alphabetic script with one case with no diacritics, with forms that are largely determined by the tools of mark-making. However, unlike Roman inscriptions, Greek inscriptions are modest in size, and often with very dense texts with small lettering (for example, lists of names for military service). These factors reinforced the separation of strokes, and encouraged letterforms without complex curves.
The last few centuries BCE saw Greek spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East. It persisted as a lingua franca during the years of the Roman Empire and early Christian centuries, well into the era of the Byzantine Empire. Greek mutated into a widely-spoken second language of trade, and as a first language for literate and scholarly communities. The script developed in parallel, through being written with pens or reeds on softer materials, in documents spanning the full range of secular and religious uses. Informal use and faster tool movements resulted in a highly flowing script, with intense variations for each letter. Over several centuries Greek continued to evolve dynamic, mostly connected hands for running texts and secular documents, while initials and short formal texts (e.g. headings, names of notable persons) mutated into capital shapes. These not only absorbed influences from Roman styles, but demonstrated a richness of form and inventiveness that is usually associated with the Romanesque styles of continental Europe.
This dichotomy persisted for centuries, and was amplified by the unique history of scholarship in Greek texts during the Renaissance and subsequent centuries. Its echoes informed the founding of Modern Greece in 1830, and reached well into the 20th century. The printed representation of Greek was likewise influenced by the typography of scholarship in Europe, the cultural tensions surrounding nation-building in the 19th century, and the fluctuations of the 20th century onwards: successive regional and world wars, the Cold War polarisation, dictatorship, and the recent periods of European accession and cultural retrenchment.
Discussion of Greek typography is impossible without reference to the editions of the Renaissance, just as any discussion of early typography is inconceivable without reference to Greek. Greek printed characters appear within a decade of the invention of printing, and the number of books in Greek — exclusively or paired with Latin — are central to any consideration of Renaissance culture, and any scholarship leading to the Enlightenment. Greek is the first typographic script that captured in printed form a connected, fluid script, where complex problems of type-making and typesetting were addressed successfully. The quality of capturing the calligraphic nature of handwritten Greek set a standard that predates by decades any example from other complex scripts (not least Arabic, a usual reference point for connected typesetting).
It is important to note that typographic Greek developed entirely within host cultures. Overwhelmingly readers had little in common with the communities sharing Greek as a native language, and were active outside what we recognise today as geographical Greece. This trajectory set the stage for a deep confrontation between tradition and modernity, and raises issues of multiple, shared cultural identities. In pragmatic terms, it influences how typography evolves to reflect changing document genres, and user needs. Lastly, the fact that international scholarly communities can claim some ownership in Greek has had (and still has) far-ranging consequences for the implementation of Greek in typemaking and typesetting technologies.
A global review of current practice reveals the different focus of typeface designers within and outside Greece. International publishers tend to focus more on OEM and scholarly projects, with a growing demand for branding typefaces with Greek support. Although within Greece there is some demand for typographic branding, the bulk of the market focuses on editorial design, and typefaces for advertising, packaging, and related retail operations.
In recent years, the combination of increased access to better resources, the establishment of formal education in typeface design, and good leadership by font publishers, have resulted in an overall improvement in the quality of support for Greek typography. Notably, improvements can be seen not only at the level of the design of individual letterforms, but also in the more complex matters of supporting typographically correct solutions.
2. Designing letters and marks
To understand the structure of Greek lowercase letters, visualise a series of connected open loops (in contrast with the Latin script, which is based on parallel (vertical or uniformly inclined) strokes with closed, overlapping connections:
In the written Greek script changes in direction employ open or closed loops, with the tool often not lifting off the surface. Vertical loops tend to form open counters, whereas near-horizontal and horizontal closed loops usually mark a slower direction-reversal of the writing tool.
The origins of the script are based on tools with low contrast strokes, so a nearly-monoline stroke is a good starting point. If you want to explore modulation, use an Eastern cut that gives a horizontal stress, and rotate the arm while writing (traditional Greek scribal hands allow for the rotation of the arm).
Then start designing with letters that will give structure to the main counters, and some form to instrokes and outstrokes: the alpha / epsilon / eta / iota / mu / rho (α, ε, η, ι, μ, ρ). This sequence will also allow many typical test words, such as είμαι, αίμα, ηρεμία, άρμη, ρήμα, ημέρα, ερημιά. Note that Greek counters are by nature not round and symmetrical, but dynamic and relatively narrow (this also makes the typeface easier to space well — see the next section).
Continue following groupings letters by their features. Here’s one grouping, written out to show the direction of the stroke and two typographic interpretations, John Hudson’s SBL Greek and Kostas Bartsokas’ Eqil. Starting points marked with a red arrow (in letters with more than one stroke, only the first is indicated).
Lastly, capitals: ABEZHIKMNOTX are identical to the Latin. So is P, although it represents a “r” sound. The Υ can be identical to a Y, or take a two-stroke form, more commonly in modulated styles. The rest are either quite easy to do (Γ Λ Θ Π)or are infuriatingly un-typographic, and do not adjust well to italics: Δ Ξ Σ Φ Ψ Ω.
Greek has its own ampersand, which is an abbreviation for the word “and”. It is often used with a koronis (a hanging acute):
alternates and italics
Four letters have alternate shapes that are commonly in use:
These alternates do not sound different, but give the designer the opportunity to enhance the difference between upright and inclined variants — a useful feature in a script with a single writing model in both “main” and “emphasis” styles. Here this is applied to Candara and Skolar:
Most Greek texts fall into two categories with regard to their use of diacritics: the first is monotonic Greek, which is used for most of the texts authored since 1981. It uses a tonos (an acute-like mark) over stressed vowels, and a dieresis (two dots, like an umlaut) to disambiguate double vowels that are not diphthongs. The second category is polytonic Greek, and is used for all Classical texts, most texts written up to the early 1980s, and a considerable amount of literary forms, such as poetry. It employs three accents and two breathings to indicate the tonality of vowels, and a subscript mark for a silent vowel. Although authoring of new texts in polytonic is diminishing, its support is a requirement for a vast range of classical texts, scholarly articles and books, religious texts, as well as literary forms; in these cases many authors prefer the polytonic for reasons connected to the spelling reforms that accompanied the introduction of the simplified system, rather than just the diacritics.
Greek accents normally appear only in lowercase settings, with the exception of the dieresis, which is carried over into the capitals:
There are some trickier cases in Standard Modern Greek where a diphthong is disambiguated with an accent in the lowercase, not requiring a dieresis in the second vowel. In these cases a dieresis should appear in the all-capital string (this is a challenge for OpenType features):
Normal behaviour for small caps is identical to all capitals setting: no accents other than the dieresis. There are, however, some cases where all-capital strings may carry accents, in which case the accents go above the letters:
Accents are positioned to the left of a capital only for initial capitals in twin-case setting. All cap or small cap settings should never have accents to the side of the letter, only above. When this is visible, it indicates a wrongly engineered OpenType feature, or lacking support for the right features in the rendering environment.
question mark and ano teleia
Greek punctuation shares several glyphs with the Latin; exceptions are the Greek question mark, which is identical to the Latin semi-colon (;), and the Greek semi-colon, which takes the form of a period at the x-height. This is called “ano teleia” and should not be confused with the mid-dot, an error many non-Greek designers make.
3. Designing paragraphs
A good texture in a paragraph of Greek text relies on even spacing, which can be challenging because of the preponderance of counters and the variety of curved shapes. There are two possible traps: spacing the round letters too tightly (which increases inconsistency along each line) and designing letterforms without the instrokes and outstrokes that originate in the written forms of the script (these in- and outstrokes help space the letters, and give a better rhythm to the paragraph).
Start the spacing from the round shapes, then move to the letters with diagonals (which will always need kerning with adjacent letters) and then space letters with vertical profiles. Kerning is essential for many profile combinations.
The shape of the counters, and especially of the two most common vowels, alpha and omicron, has a disproportionate effect on the texture of a paragraph. Start with making the counter of the alpha narrow enough to allow for a clearly defined right stroke, which will balance the form and give some space to the right of the letter. If the alpha is too wide (for example if it is modelled on the Latin o) then the texture will be too inconsistent and light. Once the alpha is determined, the width of the omicron can be adjusted to match.
The iota and epsilon are the third and fourth most common letters. The outstroke of the iota is essential to help space the typeface and control the overall darkness of the paragraph. The epsilon works better is if it is wide enough to allow generous counters between its strokes.
Immediately below: a comparison of Helvetica Linotype and Source Sans Pro, adjusted for identical x-height. The texts occupy almost the same length, but Helvetica has an uneven texture, with alternating spots from the round counters, and dense regions from the tightly-packing verticals; Source Sans distributes the white space more evenly within and around letters. (Note that this is the redesigned Helvetica with better spacing than most legacy digital versions.)
There are many historical examples in lettering and type of extreme weights for Greek capitals, which accommodate the addition of weight easily. On the other hand, until recent years there have been few examples of extreme variants for lowercase letters, and especially so for text styles. The dominant presence of counters in the Greek script means that as the weight increases, so must the contrast, regardless of the style of the text variants. Below are some examples of extreme weights in recent modulated typefaces:
details that matter
Greek quoted text is placed within guillemots, and double quotes for quotes-within-quotes. Single quote marks are never used, because they create confusion with accented initial or final letters, the frequently used apostrophe, and the number sign. They should also be used with quoted texts in another language:
Greek also employs em dashes heavily. They are used at the beginning of a sentence to indicate speech, as well as within: a single one indicates a pause stronger than a semi-colon (ano teleia), and a pair enclose a secondary sentence:
Hanging right guillemots can be used to mark the continuation of a quoted passage with multiple paragraphs:
The apostrophe is very common in Greek texts, and occurs both at the beginning and the end of a word, to indicate an elided vowel. It needs to be designed differently from the accents, and the quote marks.
Traditional Greek numbering uses letters with a keraia (similar to a foot mark) on the top right of the sequence (or bottom left for thousands). In practice this system is very common for numbers up to 20, and much less so above that. It is used frequently in educational institutions, public sector offices, and so on.
4. Relationship with Latin: design across scripts
Greek typefaces both benefit and suffer from their apparent proximity to the Latin. The fact that many are designed to match an existing Latin exacerbates the risks; at the same time, this makes it easier to separate higher quality work from hasty or uninformed designs. In other words, reviewing Greek typefaces next to their intended Latin pairing can help identify designers who work with respect for each script’s integrity, and take advantage of the script’s richness and potential. This is a short list of key issues to look for:
The first point to note is the relationship of round counters across the two scripts: the Greek ones will tend to be slightly narrower, so that white space is more evenly distributed within and between letters. Greek counters will also employ slight variations in shape to control the spot effect of excessive round counters along a line. This issue can be especially helpful for typefaces intended for typical multilingual graphic design (e.g. packaging) where designers tend to favour an even texture across the two scripts: this is best accomplished by controlling the white space on the line.
The second point is to make sure that Greek letters are constructed with correspondence to the written strokes underlying them, regardless of the modulation of the strokes or the overall style: components should not be borrowed from the Latin, but developed from Greek strokes. This does not mean that the style cannot be “constructed” or modular, but that individual elements that make up letters should be derived from skeleton strokes of the Greek script, not imported from the Latin. The easiest error to make in this area is the over-reliance on vertical strokes, which are common in the Latin, but near-absent in the Greek; and the borrowing of serif-like shapes, instead of instrokes. There are much better ways to introduce stroke transition and modulation in Greek than Latin-inspired serifs, which are alien to the historical development of the script, and a rather unimaginative solution that designers should be able to work around.
The preponderance of round shapes in the Greek and the variation of their shapes makes overshoots on the baseline and x-height quite important. Depending on the modulation of the stroke, slight adjustments might be needed to make the Greek appear as large “on the body” as the Latin. This requirement becomes more pronounced as the weight of the style increases, since the vertical strokes of the Latin can create a very dark texture for a given stroke thickness.
This text is not comprehensive: 25 years have been brutally abbreviated into a few thousand words. It is also certainly incomplete, partial, and probably misleading: my research focuses on the areas I am interested in, which may differ from yours. And I reserve the right to change my mind over time, as I learn more, and accept how insufficient that is. ἕν οἶδα, ὅτι οὐδέν οἶδα, and all that.