The Rise and Fall of Ligatures

imcurious blog — history 2

Design in the West is a contest of minimalism. Design is at its best when information is laid out and communicated well without any unnecessary elements tacked on. This seems to have always been the case. One of the earliest ancestors of graphic design — type design — is no different. However, when cuts are made, there are consequences. One of the biggest consequences of a pared down European alphabet is the absence of special characters like the ligature.

Ligatures are two characters that are brought together into one form. Imaging an f next to an i. See how the nose of the f hangs down into where the dot of the eye is? It makes for a form that is clunky and distracting to read. This was also in 1440 at the advent of metal typesetting and any effort to reduce the number of elements that had to be set was in the best interest of printers. So the solution was a ligature, a binding of two characters. Suddenly and f and an i became a singular form, without losing its initial communication value. The word “et” is combined into a single ligature that actually went on to become the most famous ligature of our time, the ampersand.

An ampersand from the typeface Georgia.

Although ligatures played a large role in the early days of type design, as time went on, ligatures grew less and less common. The conjoined letterforms still show up, however they’re often just not noticed by viewers. The computer had a role to play in that, because once word processors started to automatically convert type to ligature, the invisibility of ligatures was extended. Even the ampersand is no longer considered a ligature, it has just become a character itself. The knowledge of the existence of ligatures requires a typographic education of some kind, but this doesn’t diminish the importance of them in the history of typography and graphic design. Some might even argue that ligatures have followed the ultimate principle of design: they are like a crystal goblet, a beautiful presentation of content, powerful and effective, yet invisible all the same.


Paterson, Jim. “A Short History of Musical Notation.” A Short History of Musical Notation. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.

Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983. Print.

Herrmann, Ralf. “Typographic Myth Busting: What’s a Ligature, Anyway?” Typography.Guru. Typography.Guru, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.

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