Design of Diacritical Marks

Gurup Stüdyo
15 min readOct 3, 2020


1 and 2: First Cedilla examples from the Visigothic alphabet Ceda /Zeta (Source), 3: Cedilla, evolved from Ceda in the Visigothic alphabet. This letter is known to be acknowledged for the first time with the name “cedilla” in the Spanish-English dictionary in 1599.
4: An alternative design proposal for the Cedilla mark, Typeface: Kalender, 2020

Diacritical marks are often called “accent marks”. The etymological origin of the word “diacritic” is based on the word “diakritikós”, derived from the word “diakrinō” which means ‘distinguishing’ in Ancient Greek. Diacritical marks are marks that distinguish the phonetic and/or semantic values of words by being placed below, above letters or integrated to letters. They may be small marks in form of letters or other signs that have their own unique forms.

Various usages of diacritical marks. From left to right: Acute, Cedilla, Umlaut, Dot, Breve, Stroke, Ogonek (Typeface: Senkron)

Following the etymological introduction made for the benefit of the people who are unfamiliar with the subject, I would like to focus on the basic problem; The design of diacritical marks… I will not be discussing the designs of the diacritical marks which are the distance of marks to the main glyph, structural harmony, optical alignment and so forth. I will not be discussing clichés and common parameters like these. These are not enough to solve the basic problem, no matter how well designed. Because these are not solutions to the fundamental problem. These are the accepted parameters of dogmatic approaches.

I want to emphasize on the ignored functions of the diacritical marks and therefore the lack of attention to their designs.

How strange it is that the designs of the diacritical marks almost have not changed for 2,000 years while the ox head has evolved to the Carolingian minuscule and then to geometric sans serif! The marks which changed in structure, were often altered for calligraphic convenience rather than typographic or linguistic reasons.

The stages of evolution of the letters “A-a” (Source: Davies. L, A is for Ox, 2006)
A scripture written in the Ancient Hellenic alphabet dating to 1st century BC (Source)
1- Umlaut examples from German printer and illustrator Günther Zainer’s book called ‘Spiegel des menschlichen Lebens’ and published in 1476. 2- The stages of evolution of the Umlaut mark (Source)

In my introduction, I mentioned “the basic problem”. What I mean by the basic problem is that diacritical marks have not been standardized throughout centuries and as a result, typographical problems have emerged. It is of course impossible to expect any form of standardization for diacritical marks when letter anatomies are changing and will continue to change. As Neville Brody said, as long as our desire to discover the secret of letters continues as type designers, we will continue to design new typefaces and therefore types will continue its transformation. But the status of the diacritical marks is different from that of the basic glyphs. The standards I am discussing are not tiny, cute, ridiculous standards with details on the scale of one-tenth of a millimeter. What I am discussing are standards that will emphasize the phonetics and semantic values of diacritical marks, making the text color (typographical gray) more balanced and increasing the level of comfort while reading. I am talking about standards that remove diacritical marks from the status of letters’ accessories and make them feel like real letters.

Therefore, I want to discuss two ignored functions of diacritical marks in current design. The first ignored function is phonetic and semantic values and the second one is texture/readability.

1- Phonetic and Semantic Values

The diacritical marks are as important as the 26 letters of the basic Latin alphabet, phonetically and semantically. Let’s look at a few examples:

·HALA / HÂLÂ (Turkish); Hala (Noun): Sister of father, Hâlâ (Time Adverb): Yet.

·KRTINY /KŘTINY (Czech); Krtiny (Noun): Mollhill, Křtiny (Verb): Baptism.

·FORDERUNG /FÖRDERUNG (German); Forderung (‘fɔrdərʊŋ): Request, Förderung (‘fœrdərʊŋ): Support

In some cases, the diacritical mark changes the semantic value of the word, even though it does not change the word’s phonetic or suprasegmental value. For example, como-cómo in Spanish.

·COMO (ˈ; As, Like, CÓMO (ˈ; How

As seen in these examples, diacritical marks completely change the meaning of the word and in many cases its pronunciation.

Earlier, I mentioned that diacritical means “distinguishing.” Diacritical marks have two main distinguishing purposes: to distinguish between two anatomically identical letters visually and to distinguish between letters that have different pronunciations. For example; when we put the dot on the “i” when writing the word “minimum” we distinguish this letter from the other letters’ vertical forms so that it can be seen clearly and read comfortably, making it a more legible. That is precisely why the dot on the letter “i” exists.

From Bartholomew Sanvito’s manuscript, an example of humanist scripture (1460s)
The stages of evolution of the letter “i”. (Source: Lyn Davies. A is for Ox. 2006)

However, when we add an umlaut to the letter “o” in the word “koy” in Turkish, which means “bay”, it becomes “köy”, which means “village”, which emphasizes the phonetic and semantic differences between the words. You might think that, while the main glyph has its own meaning, by adding a diacritical mark to a letter, we can have a new word with a whole different meaning in our hands, so what is wrong with that? Let us consider the following example to clearly understand the problem.

When we go to buy a wine glass, the seller does not show us a tumbler which has a wine glass sticker on it. When we go to buy a sports car, the dealer does not show us a sedan car with a sports car icon affixed to it, or when we go to buy a wristwatch, the dealer does not show us a wall clock with a wristwatch icon affixed to it.

The design of the wine glass is different from the tumbler, the design and engine of the sports car is different from the sedan car, or the design of the wristwatch is different from the wall clock. Some things have different problems because of their different functions therefore the design of these things must be different from each other. Therefore, industrial design comes up with different design solutions to things that have different functions. Does the concept of design not owe its existence to its power of finding solutions to problems? — I will move on without discussing this cliché question…

However, as type designers, we just put a marking on things, that should have been designed differently and according to their different functionalities, and then say, “this is different than the other.” This is exactly what I think is wrong about the interpretation of diacritical marks’ phonetic and semantic functions in design.

The first problem discussed on the current design of diacritical marks was phonetic and semantic values of diacritical signs.

2- The Texture of Typography

The readability of a text depends on many different factors. Depending on the environment and surface in which the text is consumed, these parameters can vary within itself. The typographic requirements of book texts are different, the requirements for large titles such as banners/headers are different, as well as shop signs, indoor-outdoor signages, children’s books, packaging and many other environments and surfaces that have different typographic requirements.

According to all these requirements, the anatomy of the letters and the relationship between the letters may vary. Counters, negative spaces, x-height, ascenders/descenders, serif types, contrast, ink trap, axis, aperture, spacing of words and letters, line length, leading and so forth, everything that is the subject of “micro and macro typography” changes, and it is divided into dozens of different branches. I think to examine all these individually and to determine the design of diacritical marks for each environment and for the orthographic structure of each language is more than enough to occupy a human life.

But in order to summarize, it can be said that; One of the main goals of micro and macro typography is to ensure that the horizontal and vertical movements of the eye (saccades) on the text goes smoothly and with uninterrupted continuance. One of the ways to achieve that, to ensure balanced texture and equal text color.

The saccadic movement of the eye on a text (Detail in Typography, Hochuli.J)

Typographic color does not have anything to do with the light spectrum. It does not deal with the colors yellow, red, or blue. The color of the text is determined by the texture of the black and white space created by the letters, words, sentences, and lines. This is called “typographic grey.” The design of the letterforms of a font, point size, letterspacing and leading can influence color. If the typographic color of the text is balanced, the eyes’ saccadic movement will be that much smoother.

One of the factors affecting the texture and readability is the vertical lines of the letters. These vertical lines can be caused by ascenders, descenders and diacritical marks. These vertical elements slow down the horizontal movement of the eye over the text. In addition, when the ascenders, descenders, and diacritical marks overflow onto the white line of leadings, the blanks spaces will get darker, which will negatively affect the relationship between lines. Therefore, we may have trouble following through the lines. To avoid this situation, when we increase the leading space, the lines will move further away from each other and they will seem like individual and independent sentences. The readability will be affected negatively once again. In his book “Typographie” Emil Ruder says:

“The legibility of the type matter can be impaired when excessive leading produces a white ribbon effect and this counter form dominates the attention to the disadvantage of the form itself, i.e. the grey line of type which is important for legibility. In a well composed type area, the balance between the print and the blank spaces is assured, so that both elements, the flat effect of the type area and the ribbon effect of the lines, show to equal advantage.”

The texture of a typography depends not only on how the type designed and set, but also on the language, which determines the frequency of different letters, frequency of ascending and descending letters etc. For example; The average total usage of accented letters are %6.92 in Turkish. As you can see, diacritics can play a more important role in texture of typography than some basic Latin letters in different languages.

Source: Aykan, A. O. “Research of the Unique Linguistic Pattern and Frequencies of the Turkish Language and Designing a Typeface Based on This Research.” (PhD diss., Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, 2014)

For the reasons I mentioned above (1-Phonetic and Semantic Values, 2-Texture) I think it is appropriate to discuss the current designs of diacritical marks.

For this purpose, in 2017, I have authored my master thesis with the title “Research Of The Diacritical Marks In the Turkish Alphabet In the Typographic Context”. In the following years, I designed two typefaces and applied my diacritical design approaches on these typefaces. I would like to discuss my approaches on the diacritical marks in these two fonts.

In both fonts, experimental diacritical marks were applied only to the majuscule letters. Because typographic problems caused by diacritical marks are more tangible and frequently observed in majuscule letters. This is because the negative spaces of majuscule letters are less than miniscule letters. In order not to perceive two lines of a single title in majuscule letters as two different, independent lines, leading must be compatible to the negative space of the majuscule letters. This situation means that there is not enough space for diacritical marks in the space between the lines. For this reason, I wanted to start my design research on typographic problems of diacritical marks with majuscule letters. I would like to emphasize with the image below that these problems in diacritical marks have not been overcome for years. Since there is a vast amount of data on the topic of usage of diacritical marks, the examples have been limited to examples from Turkish newspaper, Cumhuriyet.

As seen in the examples above, typographic problems in diacritical marks have been going on since adopting the Latin alphabet for Turkish, and the solutions provided for these problems have not changed for almost a century. Even though the anatomies of diacritical marks are being designed more clearly and consistently due to technological developments, typographically no improvements have been made. In fact, even the minuscule method used in majuscule headings in 1930’s can be seen frequently today.

Examples of diacritical marks taken from the CNN Turk website headline on May 31st, 2020. As can be seen, it is identical to the method used for diacritical marks in the 1930’s.


Senkron is composed of a “normal” and a “blok” style. Senkron (“normal”) was designed as a pure and modern neo grotesque font. In the design process, the following aspects were considered, letters’ pure design, their equal and strong relation to the baseline and the equal texture of the glyphs’ counterparts and negative spaces. It consists of six weights where each of them has 817 glyphs (Thin, Light, Regular, Medium, Bold, Black). These uprights are matched by their obliques. The anatomy of the letters is designed to achieve an equal text color. For this purpose, the legs of the letters “R” and “K” are designed with a vertical angle to prevent the white space that would occur in the middle of these letters. In the minuscule, the characteristic features of letters such as ‘a’, ‘l’, ‘t’ are concretized, and legibility is supported in the text. Considerable attention has been paid to the harmony between the anatomical structures of the letters and the diacritical mark’s structure. After this short introduction, I would like to move on to the main topic at hand, Senkron Blok.

See full specimen

Throughout the article I have explained why I designed the Senkron Blok. But I would like to repeat briefly: Diacritical marks’ overflow to leadings of the headline, negatively affects the typographical color. For this purpose, majuscule diacritical letters are dissolved within the letter height. However, when this is done, new forms are obtained by integrating diacritical marks to letters instead of directly merging them. The idea behind this approach is to preserve the typographic value of diacritical marks and emphasize the semantic value of diacritical letters. 82 letters have been redesigned in this way.


Kalender was designed to have modern serifs and to be used as a headline font with high contrast. One of the main reasons for designing this font was that I wanted to try my experimental diacritical marks in the serif typeface. Kalender provided me with a good basis for my experimental diacritical marks. After designing 335 glyphs for Kalender, I redesigned 70 letters for the “Blok” version.

See full specimen

The high contrast attribute of Kalender provided me with a more flexible space for expressing myself in terms of diacritical marks, that is why Kalender Blok’s experimental diacritical marks are different from Senkron’s.

While designing both fonts, I did not want to push the limits of familiarity in diacritical marks. I aimed to make the designs as simple as possible, considering the reader’s reading habits. Of course, many different designs could also be applied, but font designers design words and phrases, not letters. What we present to the reader in almost every font we design is not new shapes for letters but a fresh text texture and rhythm. If I had not taken reading habits into consideration in my diacritical mark designs, that would have caused my typefaces to evolve into a more “experimental” format. However, my aim in these designs was for them to be used in formal mediums like newspapers, therefore I aimed for a neutral texture that would not look unfamiliar. To further improve the designs of diacritical marks typographically, I believe that the reader should be eased into these new approaches.

When the letter Ö does not remind the reader of the letter O or the letter Á does not remind of the letter A, we will have made progress with diacritical marks. But if studies on diacritical marks continue at this rate, I do not know how many millennia are required to reach this level.

These explorations for diacritical marks are searches that will not fit in a lifetime. It is not possible to solve the problem of diacritical marks design with several typefaces, considering the hundreds of orthographic differences between languages. Even when glancing over an object or a screen, we start from the upper left corner and move towards the lower right corner. Considering how our reading habits have shaped even our observation reflexes to this extent and how the approach of ‘the best redable font is the most read font’ in the typography literature persists, I am aware that it is very difficult to save diacritical marks from some patterns . I am also aware that it is much simpler to design several diacritical marks like grave, acute, umlaut, tilde, etc. and to copy them onto letters, rather than designing dozens of new letters. However, it is not possible for both reader behaviors and chronic typographic problems to change unless type designers overcome such typographic problems for various reasons. As Willen B., Straals N. said in Lettering & Type:

“As a letterform becomes more radical or unorthodox, it begins to lose its legibility and usefulness, requiring designers to balance the new with the familiar. This has not prevented letterers, artist, and designers from creating an endless variety of novel and experimental alphabets. New forms and experiments slowly widen the spectrum of legibility, shifting and expanding the vocabulary of letters.”


Writing used to be a symbol that was developed by the patronage of states and states used to regard their scripture as important as their flags, until recently. For example, Alcuin of York developed the Carolingian minuscule by order of the Roman Emperor Charlemagne. In the same way, Sultan II. Bayezid ordered Şeyh Hamdullah to develop a unique script for the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman style script was born in Arabic alphabet. Philippe Grandjean, the French punchcutter, created for the Imprimerie Royale the famous Romain du Roi, which a revolutionary design. Nowadays this point of view has changed. But recently, in Nigeria, hundreds of different languages are spoken. In the 1980’s the Nigerian National Language Center (NLC) decided to collaborate with linguist Kay Williamson to develop one single alphabet in which all of these languages could be written. Williamson completed the Pan-Nigerian alphabet consisting of 33 letters, in 1981. The designs of the letters in the new Nigerian alphabet were finalized by Hermann Zapf in 1985. Zapf integrated the vertical caron diacritics in the new alphabet to the basic glyphs to overcome the fragmented texture of the Nigerian alphabet and to make it easier to write this language on a keyboard.

Examples of some letters designed for the project led by the Nigerian National Language Center, where Herman Zapf collaborated with linguist Kay Williamson to design the Pan-Nigerian alphabet in 1982.

Based on these examples, it is possible to say the following; If font imports and exports were prohibited by all countries from past to present, undoubtedly every country would have developed specific letter forms to the orthographic requirements of their language and the alphabets would have looked very different from each other. Think of English and Turkish in the sense of how different their tones are; their alphabets would have been as different as that. However, even though there are no patronage of the states, I think that font designers should attach importance to the orthography of their language while designing fonts. As Robert Bringhurst said in his book “The Elements of Typographic Style” in the chapter on ‘ 5.5 Diacritics & The Keyboards:

“The study of typography and typographers must honor the variety and complexity of human language, thought and identity, instead of homogenizing or hiding it.”

In the paragraphs following this statement, Bringhurst talks about typographic ethnocentrism and racism, saying that current fonts and keyboards are defiantly incapable of setting anything beyond the most rudimentary Anglo-American alphabet. Another example of hiding the variety would be the Arabic words integrated in the Turkish language. Even though these words are pronounced as they are in Arabic, the necessary letters to distinguish them, such as “î, â, û”, are not considered appropriate to be included in the Turkish alphabet or keyboards. In the last part of my article, I would have liked to discuss some of these discourses and examine them and mention the problems that Adrian Frutiger had with companies related to diacritics. However, the article has been rather long, and I think I have sufficiently expressed my concern about the design of diacritical marks within the boundaries of the article format. I hope I managed to be clear and understandable.

Example of umlauts from the Cumhuriyet Newspaper museum, Photo Credit: Murat Çil