Designing the Uppercase A

orso2932's picture

Hi. I understand some of yall could be puzzled but i was wanting to know everybodys tips,opinions, and advice on designing the uppercase A. This is for my thesis and i just wanted to see what everyone had to say before i write the chapter. Future characters will follow thanks.

dan_reynolds's picture

An uppercase A has three strokes. Unless it is a bit abstracted, and then it has two. Or, it might only have one if you count a quick cursive triangle as just a single stroke. Some blackletter variants might have given it four, five, or more strokes!

The uppercase A used to be written upside down, or on its side, until the Greeks rotated it. It probably symbolized an Ox head for the Phoenicians, who probably got the Glyph from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some people think it is based on Mesopotamian Cuneiform, though.

It is the first letter of the alphabet, and certainly one of the oldest. The Romans could carve it into stone really nicely.

I put my crossbar underneath the mathematical center (i.e., I optically center it, or sometime make it deliberately too deep, depending on the typeface's style), otherwise, it looks too high. Too high looks like a woman in a mini skirt, though, and that is ok sometimes, too ;-)

dezcom's picture

Design the uppercase A so that it makes sense with and sits well next to all the other glyphs in a typeface. "No man is an island" and no glyph lives in a sea of uninterrupted white space. What I am trying to say is, consider the "A" as just one of the bricks that holds up the wall.

Amen,

ChrisL

orso2932's picture

Are there any problems you encounter. Suggestions on how to attack it. Things you should pay attention to.

dezcom's picture

The crossbar of the A has to make peace with the other crossbars (E,F,H) while not making the triangular counter shrink and plug. The stroke width of diagonals can be deceptive but not as tough to deal with as the W and M. You need to consider all the diagonal glyphs together so that what you do for one, makes sense with the others. There are no silver bullets, just work then rest, then more work after a bit of distance. Type design is the art of tinkering mixed with periods of frustration so that you can get a brief moment of satisfaction when all goes well.

ChrisL

orso2932's picture

thank you. that is the stuff i am looking for.

dezcom's picture

Jason.
Where are you going to school and whom are you studying typography with?

ChrisL

orso2932's picture

I go to Pratt Institute. This is my graduate thesis. All i have is to finish this thing and i am done. The most well know type teacher i have had and is my advisor is Tony Dispigna.

John Hudson's picture

While the uppercase A is normally pointed at the top, and the crossbar is somewhere in the vicinity of halfway up the interior space, there is lots of leeway for display typefaces in which A may be very unusual before becoming unrecognisable. I reckon what is essential for A is that it it closed at the top, open at the bottom, and there should be some kind of stroke connecting the sides. There are display types that do without the crossbar, Λ, but in this case one only knows it is an A from the context: as an isolated letterform I don't believe this is sufficient.

.
The one with a concave top, fourth from left in the top row, is an interesting one: I think making the top concave is generally pushing the recognisability of the letter too much, but if you mirror this feature in the crossbar it is less problematic.

[My first Typophile post of 2006, 00h15, which is not so sad as it sounds, since I have a glass of hypocras before me and the ships in the strait are sounding their horns loudly enough for all of us.]

dezcom's picture

Cheers John! Mine is Columbian coffee but the sentiment is the same :-)

ChrisL

orso2932's picture

Thanks for the comments Dezcom, John Hudson, and dan_reynolds. They have been helpful

thierry blancpain's picture

dan, are you sure about the following statement?
«It probably symbolized an Ox head for the Phoenicians, who probably got the Glyph from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some people think it is based on Mesopotamian Cuneiform, though.»

i had an egyptian history teacher for two years in college and he taught us mesopotamian history for half a year .. (crazy guy :)) but if i recall correct, the A symbolised a hut/house in mesopotamian "cuneiform writing" (as dict.leo.org translates "keilschrift" to english).

or is this only one possible origin of the A and the teacher just told us what he thought is right?

dezcom's picture

Kesh,
Read the book "Alpha Beta" by John Man. Another fairly good one is "Writing--the story of Alphabets and Scripts" by Georges Jean.

The Phoenician term for Ox was I believe "Alep" or "Alph" hence Alpha in Greek and alphabet (alpha beta--the first 2 letters in the Greek alphabet).
I believe that the Egyptian glyph for a reed shelter or house was "bayit" to become a "b"

ChrisL

PS: Alessio Leonardi wrote a humorous book on the origins of the alphabet called "From Cow to Typewriter" but read "Alpha Beta" first so the humor is clear.

thierry blancpain's picture

hmm, i dont think i can bear another books on letters and writing - i already have like 6 books permanently in my backpack because i dont get the time to read them all :)

but thanks, always good to learn new stuff and correct wrong knowledge.

dan_reynolds's picture

dan, are you sure about the following statement?
«It probably symbolized an Ox head for the Phoenicians, who probably got the Glyph from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Some people think it is based on Mesopotamian Cuneiform, though.»

Yep, I'm sure that many books point to Egypt for the A, even if some authorities also believe it could be Mesopotamian. Notice that I didn't say that it is definitively either or!

dezcom's picture

Alpha Beta is a very quick read.

ChrisL

John Hudson's picture

I believe the earliest appearence of an ox head in a writing system is in proto-cuneiform, generally recognised as the world's first true script. However, in the evolved cuneiform proper, the sign is abstracted through the use of the wedge stylus, and hardly recognisable as an ox head any more, so it seems unlikely that it made its transition into ancient Canaanite writing from this source. The Egyptian hieroglyph is a more likely direct source for what eventually became, via the Phoenicians and the Greeks, the Latin A. I don't think anyone has established a definite link between proto-cuneiform and proto-hieroglyphic, and the use of some common animal shapes may simply reflect the importance of the same livestock.

I'm reading this book about the decipherment of cuneiform, and enjoying it very much.

hrant's picture

Time for some contrariness I guess...

> An uppercase A has three strokes.

Please don't think of typographic letters as having
strokes. This for example is sufficiently an "A":


I say "sufficiently" because recognition
is a dynamic and always contextual thing,
subject to thresholds, not absolutes (like all else).

BTW, FYI, cars don't have a horse under the hood either.

Think of typographic letters (or really anything a person
has to look at and take some decision on) as instances of notan.

> what is essential for A is that it it closed at the top,
> open at the bottom, and there should be some kind of
> stroke connecting the sides.

Maybe but probably not; not really; not at all.
For one thing, an upside-down "A" is still an "A".

We can read a lot more than that, John... :->

> read “Alpha Beta” first so the humor is clear.

I found it a bit chauvinistic.

--

Every letter has "issues", some more than others,
and the "A" more than most. Here are some things
I think are worth worrying about:

1) Symmetry. People like it, at least in their consciousness.
But ductile "logic"* makes the left stroke** thinner than the right.
The thing is, stroke contrast is [generally] good for you, at least I
think so. So what to do? We haven't really thought about this yet.

* Do mind the quotes.

** Yes, I use it too - but not to mean anything chirographic.

2) Height of the bar. As Dan alludes to, the height of the bar should depend
on the design. Specifically, the higher the bar the more elegant the resultant
atmosphere.* Another thing about the bar height is that smaller sizes need it lower, functionality-wise.

* The potent miniskirt visualization notwithstanding.
Although when I picture a woman in a miniskirt with
her legs spread like that, I automatically see a machine
gun in her arms for some reason. Chicks with guns is cool.

3) Shape of the bar. Conventionally it's straight. But I think
there's a lot to be said about making it curve and/or thicker
on the left (especially if you maintain ductile "logic"). Some
recent South American designers have tried this, with great
results I think. And of course there's this:
http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/linotype/ehrhardt/

4) The shape of the top tip. Quite significant, atmospherically.

5) Outside serifs. Usually need to be shorter.

6) AE. Think about it during the "A", and vice versa.

BTW, Alfred Kallir insists that the "A" is a man with his member. If you read his book, that's not as crazy as it might seem. Who, after all, dreams of cows before sex? (No Gill jokes, guys! :-)

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Hrant, I think your 'A' is only sufficient in the context of the content of this thread. We're talking about letters, so we look at the image and think what letter it most resembles. If you took the same image and removed it from this alphabetical context, I think the distortion of the connecting stroke would cause problems of identification people. It's, um, a rocket nose cone!

Maybe but probably not; not really; not at all.
For one thing, an upside-down “A” is still an “A”.

Uh, yeah, an upside-down A, so the points of reference have been inverted, that's all. The opening at the bottom is upside, but it is still the opening at the bottom of the letterform.

John Hudson's picture

The Erhardt A is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, its loveliness increases.

rs_donsata's picture

But placed inside a word (context) is becomes an A John. Letters don't happen in isolation.

Héctor

hrant's picture

Even in "isolation" (which never really happens though) if you ask somebody what that is, he will probably say "it's an A", and that's good enough. Even a structurally "normal" A can suffer misreads sometimes, in some contexts. For example, make an "A" shaped like mount Ararat, and show it to an Armenian: he will see the letter secondarily (even if he reads Latin - and we almost all do - I mean the script, not the language :-).

And if you ask "What letter is this?" (an entirely normal and
useful question - you know, the good kind of question) then its
decipherability is fully assured. And no strokes or nothin'.

Upside-down A: John, come on. I was just saying "upside-down A" to save effort; if you instead think of it as just a shape (which is the point) then there really isn't any "point-of-reference" (except as post-rationlization).

--

The rules we tend to use to make our letters do not
fully correlate to how they're processed by users.

OR

The REAL rules are extremely complex, yet
to be fully grasped, and very fuzzy to boot.
A list of three points is just funny.

hhp

hrant's picture

You see what happens to women
who wear miniskirts and spread
their legs?! Unwanted pregnancy.
And some of them don't get it even
when you hit them over the head
with it - like that one.

hhp

dezcom's picture

She gave birth to a "D".

:-)

ChrisL

hrant's picture

Huh, more Kallir, in fact spookily fitting:
The "D" is a pregnant woman. So I guess
old Albrecht had psychosexually highly
synergistic initials. ;-)

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Upside-down A: John, come on. I was just saying “upside-down A” to save effort; if you instead think of it as just a shape (which is the point) then there really isn’t any “point-of-reference” (except as post-rationlization).

The orientation of letters is normative, and if they are rotated we identify them as such: this is an upside-down A, this is an A on its side, this is a bunch of letters jumbled at funny angles. Orientation is, in fact, a normative aspect of most shapes, because the shape changes when you change the orientation. [Someone who cares so much about notan should acknowledge that. If you shift the pattern of light and dark by rotating a form, you are redefining the notan.]

Now, an interesting phenomenon regarding letters is that children when first learning to write, very frequently flip letters horizontally (sometimes even when copying directly from a model), and they seem to have little or no difficulty reading such flipped letters even when mixed in text. But to my knowledge they do not rotate letters or manage to read rotated letters in the same way that they read flipped letters. This seems to me a pretty good indication of what might be termed natural normative orientation and learned normative orientation. Natural normative orientation enables boustrephedon, but once one learns normative orientation that includes directionality it is hard to go back.

hrant's picture

I've always said that lateral flipping is much more "natural" than rotation or vertical flipping. But it remains that a shape does not have to follow those three rules to be thought of as an "A", and that's what counts. My point is simply that: we don't know. And if you believe in A System Can Never Understand Itself, then it might even be impossible to know.

hhp

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