Designing Greek typefaces

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.

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

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:

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

Four letters have alternate shapes that are commonly in use:

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

diacritics

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.

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

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.

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

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).

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

expanded families

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:

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

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 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

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 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.

Disclaimer

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.

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