The Letter “A” — The Architecture Behind
This article is for people who have already gone through some basic introduction in the world of typefaces and design. What you will need to be able to relate to this article is knowing the anatomy of type. In the future there will be an article exploring the overall anatomy of letters but for now if you are curious just Google it.
There is a lot written on the history of each of the letters in the latin alphabet. As many of you may know by now the ancestor of the latin script started with capital letters only and with time the lowercase letters appeared. This helped reading speed immensely. Here we will review both the upper and lowercase forms of the letter “A”.
Letters can be organized into groups with similar design characteristics. Round forms, Square forms, Double-story letters and so on. The letter “A” goes into the category of diagonal forms. Let’s start with the serifs.
Serif Capital “A”
The serif “A” is made of three main strokes — the thin and the thick stems along with the crossbar. A few more strokes and you get the serif character of the letter. Let’s start with the crossbar.
The letter “A” is essentially the same form as “V” but inverted — the only major difference being the crossbar and with it come the little tweaks needed for higher refinement of the letter. Because the crossbar adds density to the letter and reduces its inner white space the interior of the letter should be drawn slightly wider. The crossbar itself is usually positioned below the visual and mathematical center of the letter with it being thinner than the lighter diagonal of the letter(in normal cases the left stem) in some typefaces while thicker in other. Several cases of higher thickness of the crossbar that stand out are in Venetian and Transitional forms.
A good rule of thumb will be to remember that typefaces with a tilted axis have a thinner crossbar while typefaces with a vertical axis a thicker one — Slab Serifs especially.
The serifs in this letter are mainly drawn as two types — as an extension of the strokes with some form of a transition or as a horizontal “slab” in Slab Serifs. The upper serif is generally non-existent except in several typefaces. The statement that there are mainly two types for drawing the serifs applies here with full force. Another interesting detail is that because the letter itself is wide the serifs on the outside sometimes are lightly reduced so there are less visible gaps between this and other letters.
Serif Lowercase “a”
In the lowercase variation of the letter “a” it consists of a combination of a bowl and an arch. Usually it’s very narrow even compared to the letter “n”.
The stem and the arch of “a” have two serifs. The arch ends with a terminal or a cut while the stem ends in a curved tail or a flat foot. Having a tail is more common in older typefaces — Venetian, Geralde. A flat foot is common for Slab Serifs and some Transitional faces.
The bowl and the arch in a good typeface should always work together in great harmony.
The bowl itself takes a very large percentage of the lowercase “a” — around 60%.
It can lean towards being curved or being straighter which happens to denote the style or time period of the typeface — newer typefaces having straighter bowls.
Sans-Serif Capital “A”
Since the archetype of this letter comes from the serif faces one can’t be surprised that there are not a lot of differences in its non-serif form, although there are a few which are the golden keys and if we don’t talk about them the type experts may go crazy.
First — there are no serifs. This leads to other problems like the endings of the stems, the joint and the crossbar position and thickness. The crossbar for example is still not in the geometric center of the letter but in some cases it may be way lower than the place which would give the form the best balance. This can easily be seen when you compare Helvetica with Bell Gothic for example or many of the other pure Grotesque faces. Joints could be sharply pointed, flat(squared) or may even have hidden serifs.
If the joint is sharp the apex extends above the capline.
In the cases where the apex is squared it should be wider than the stems. As for the stems — in some cases they can extend below the baseline if they are angled and not flat.
Sans-Serif Lowercase “a”Two Designs
Here we get to an interesting part. In this case for the non-serif “a” we can have two designs. Either one-story like with Futura or two-story like in Helvetica. The one-story design is used more for display typefaces and not for normal text because of its lower legibility.
For the two-story design the arch ends flat or with a tail curve which could be strong or subtle. For the one-story it usually ends flat.
In both cases wherever the strokes connect there is a need to reduce the width of the line.
Are you interested in other letters?
Check out my next article on the letter “B” through the link below!
The letter “B” — The Architecture Behind
The letter “A” is moderately hard to design in Serif typefaces and a bit easier in Sans-Serif ones. With the variations in its design it’s possible to see the amount of work that has gone into its refinement. The timeline is long. Here we have reviewed only the basic construction of the letter. If you want to read up on its history I’ve found a few good articles here and a very good answer on Quora.
Thank you for reading! Comments and remarks are welcome.