Lowercase a - the typeface design quality indicator?

loremipsum's picture

Does anyone think it makes sense to say that in most, or very many cases you can judge how good a typeface is designed looking specifically at the lowercase “a”? I can't express it more "scientifically" and it surely is an extreme statement, but anyway: do you find some amount of truth in it, or is it in your opinion just pure b.s.?
Related: does lowercase “a” say much more about the overall character of the typeface than the other glyphs?

satya's picture

No.

Si_Daniels's picture

For interesting thoughts on this check out the ES extras on the Helvetica DVD.

Florian Hardwig's picture

does lowercase “a” say much more about the overall character of the typeface than the other glyphs?
More than €, &, ©? Yes.
More than l, 1, I? Probably.
More than R, e, g? No.

loremipsum's picture

I just don't know - all typefaces I don't like, starting with Arial, have an ugly “a”. In all typefaces that I love, I consider “a” a very successful design. It's just experience. I could not consider Arial ugly only seeing its “b” or “t”.

Nick Shinn's picture

The quality of a typeface is more about the way the letters combine than what they look like individually.

loremipsum's picture

"More than R, e, g? No."

I feel like I don't agree :-)

satya's picture

There can be a series of letters which can define the the characteristics of a typeface. The most common of them are &, @, ?, 4, $, a, e, f, g, G, K, Q, R, S and W. But it also depends on the typeface.

loremipsum's picture

"The quality of a typeface is more about the way the letters combine than what they look like individually."

Nick, no one could disagree with that. It's just my experience that typefaces where letters are combined very well are incidentally (?) those that also contain a very good lowercase a.

loremipsum's picture

"There can be a series of letters which can define the the characteristics of a typeface. The most common of them are &, @, ?, 4, $, a, e, f, g, G, K, Q, R, S and W."

Ok, but I am not talking about differential traits that easily identify a typeface. It's much more about its “feel”.

Ehague's picture

One aspect of a typeface's quality is the consistency with which its feel is embodied by each glyph. Success in this respect (i.e., homogeneousness) can't be reflected by a single glyph, only failure can.

>>Nick, no one could disagree with that. It’s just my experience that typefaces where letters are combined very well are incidentally (?) those that also contain a very good lowercase a.

This is probably the case, but I'm not sure they're related. Save that maybe individuals who produce very even typefaces are coincidentally also handy at drawing lowercase a's.

satya's picture

Well, if you just want to feel the face style; "Aa" pair can do but, you really cant judge the quality of that face until unless you see it in a running text.

Chris Keegan's picture

This seems very subjective. Couldn't you say the same thing about the "g" or "e"? And "good" is a matter of opinion as well. There is a type designer whose "S" and "s" I don't care for, but I seem to like the rest of his typefaces, it's just those particular glyphs that look odd to me.

loremipsum's picture

I think it applies more to text faces.

* * *

Although R is very characteristic and useful to ID a typeface, it seems to me somehow that "a" tells me much more about the rest of the typeface. It's like reading age, race, social position and temperament from a human face.

pattyfab's picture

Loremipsum it seems to me that you just want people to bow down at the wisdom of your theory here, but that's not how this forum generally works. You've gotten a bunch of varying opinions and all you've done is reassert what you said in your initial post. Maybe you should listen to some of the other voices.

The lower case "a" is not the first character I look at. I am more likely to choose or reject a font because of its R.

pattyfab's picture

Plus if all you care about is how the "a" looks, you'll probably never buy an Emigre font. They have some sort of obsession with the squared off "a" which tends to stand out like a sore thumb and ruins some otherwise very decent and usable fonts.

loremipsum's picture

"it seems to me that you just want people to bow down at the wisdom of your theory here"

Absolutely no. I only wanted to explain more exactly what I mean because answers like "you really cant judge the quality of that face until unless you see it in a running text" are very predictable and, yes - they are true.

I wanted to check if someone happens to have the same experience, that's all.

loremipsum's picture

"Plus if all you care about is how the “a” looks, ..."

That's not what I'm saying. I would prefer to use a typeface that I like less if it fits a purpose better.
My "theory", as you named it, applies to the general beauty, balance and craftsmanship of a typeface. This is to explain, not to ask others to bow down :-) If you think it's nonsense, I'm ok with it.

rs_donsata's picture

I always look to the lowercase a of a typeface to judge the style of it and it is also the most useful glyph for type recognition in my opinion.

Héctor

dstype's picture

I always start my typefaces by designing the lowercase 'a'. It's one of the most used glyphs in dozens of languages, and I believe it shows perfectly the character of any typeface. This doesn't mean that I disagree with Nick. What he wrote is true and I guess no one will deny it. I'm just saying that the 'a' is very important to any type design, in the sense that will allow the understanding of several other glyphs like 'n', 'm', 'u', 'h' and so on.

I draw the 'a' all the time. My sketch books are full of them.

A few months ago my daughter asked me why was I always drawing the 'a', she said that even with 8 years she already knew how tho write more letters than myself. Who is you teacher, she asked me.

That's hard to ear ;^)

pattyfab's picture

I don't think it's nonsense if it works for you - and for Hector. It just seemed you weren't open to what others had to say.

Funny you didn't include Futura - or other geometrics - in your graphic above. Futura's lower case 'a' is pretty much a deal-breaker for me.

Quincunx's picture

Somehow I do seem to look at the 'a' of typefaces specifically. I don't know if it's an indicator for the overal quality of the font, but I guess I do find it an important glyph.

loremipsum's picture

"Funny you didn’t include Futura - or other geometrics - in your graphic above. Futura’s lower case ’a’ is pretty much a deal-breaker for me."

Futura is quite an unusual typeface where characters need some specific optical corrections to work well with the rest of characters and to fit its purpose. As the result, a single letter may not look that beautiful.
But then, I said "in most, or very many cases", not "all cases".

loremipsum's picture

"...maybe individuals who produce very even typefaces are coincidentally also handy at drawing lowercase a’s."
Maybe this is what I observe?

"...but I’m not sure they’re related."
This is why I asked my question!

russellm's picture

In Canada, we use the lowercase "eh". ;-)

-=®=-

Si_Daniels's picture

>In Canada, we use the lowercase “eh”. ;-)

at least you're not using the "dubya" :-(

ryanholmes's picture

<>

I would say Emigre's inability to understand the concept of word spacing in their designs, is a bigger problem than designing a quirky "a".

Gary Long's picture

I have rejected typefaces (for book typesetting) because of the lowercase a, f, g, and y, as well as the uppercase G. But these were exceptional cases: normally I judge by overall consistency, eveness of colour, legibility, good kerning, and I don't mind if a particular glyph in isolation isn't maybe what I think is ideal. Since it does appear to so often, the l.c. "a" needs to be at least not badly designed. It's one of the trickier letters (I find) to get "right". I'm sure type designers spend extra time on the trickier glyphs to make sure they are right.

In Canada we have a lowercase "zed" too, but it looks the same as the U.S. "zee."

Si_Daniels's picture

oops wrong thread

James Arboghast's picture

Lowercase "a" *can be* the mark of a decent font, but it is by no means a measuring stick in any general sense. I emphasize "can be". It isn't always true. Plenty of "good" text fonts consisting of eye-pleasing letters that work well together as a team are equipped with an excellent lowercase "a". Plenty of other "not-so-good" text fonts consisting of letters that grate on the eye and work together poorly are also equipped with a good or excellent lowercase "a".

In a well-designed font the lowercase "a" is often a useful starting point for assessing the overall style and character of the face (as Hector says), but it's only a starting point and never an absolute. "a" alone tells you nothing about integration in a typeface design.

I would say Emigre’s inability to understand the concept of word spacing in their designs, is a bigger problem than designing a quirky “a”.

You're talking word spacing or letter spacing? Please post some examples. Mazda use Emigre's Base series unmodified, with no spacing problems, to promote their cars. I've used Matrix and Filosophia for editorial advertising and never had any problems with word spacing or letter fit.

Futura’s lower case ’a’ is pretty much a deal-breaker for me.

That's a hard-core type user :^)

j a m e s

David Rault's picture

I actually never thought of that, I guess I can not judge a typeface until I played with it a little, but the truth is, everytime my hands are free and I'm drawing a letter in a notebook or on a tablecloth, it is a lowercase a. I guess I give it more importance than to the others. Dunno why. It's the first one? It's the most beautiful? It's the one that bears the most distinctive characteristics of the font?

"Mmmh This IS a tasty font" (Samuel Jackson, Pulp Fiction)

dr

James Arboghast's picture

For a classy text font, assuming all the other characters are in synch, and extender lengths, metrics, spacing and so on are well sorted, a does tend "bear the most distinctive characteristics of the font". In that sense a does more to set the personality or tone of a font than any other single letter. One exception is all-caps settings where no part of the lower case is seen.

j a m e s

Florian Hardwig's picture

Come on, loremipsum, all you really want is a personalized type ID quiz! ;°p


(No, you don’t have to do that)

loremipsum's picture

Thanks, Florian :-)

You see, that second character in the second row, for example, is Monotype Bodoni? I like this Bodoni a little less than other Bodonis and yes, I like less its “a” as well.
Of course, I would use this typeface if it was more suitable for the purpose than let's say ITC Bodoni.

Florian Hardwig's picture

You see, that second character in the second row, for example, is Monotype Bodoni?

Yeah, that’s Bodoni! You passed the a-level! ;-)
(Actually, it’s URW Bodoni – its tail doesn’t point upwards)

And – I have to admit – while browsing through fonts, I realized the ‘a’ can be more characteristic than I have supposed before.

ebensorkin's picture

I am with Nick Shinn on this. Really all the way. It's about the relationships. I have been astonished more than once at what seemed like a really crappy 'a' in a typeface only to find that in the context of a line of it was working very very well. I can understand how looking at a beautiful 'a' could lead you to start thinking like this but I think it's a mistaken idea even if it is is a compelling/romantic one at first blush.

James Arboghast's picture

can be

j a m e s

Curioustype's picture

I must really be a moron because I find myself attracted to the curves in the lowercase "m," "n" and "h". And I also check out the lc "v". Then the lc "a" and "e". And the tail on the lowercase "t".While I find Mr. Shinn's observations a bit purist, certainly in the long run he is correct. However the world is inundated with people who buy CDs for a single song, a house for a single room, etc. What convinces the general public to buy a font, I believe, is the look of the individual letters because most of them aren't even aware of the word "kerning." In more commercial or esoteric situations, however, obviously what Mr. Shinn writes is almost the end all and be all.

James Arboghast's picture

One aspect of a typeface’s quality is the consistency with which its feel is embodied by each glyph.

I call it "integration".

Success in this respect (i.e., homogeneousness) can’t be reflected by a single glyph, only failure can.

Purely for the sake of debate---success at integration cannot be assessed by looking at one letter, even if the face is indeed well integrated. Failure of integration cannot be judged by looking at one letter either. Failure of integration can be established by looking at the whole font.

In more commercial or esoteric situations, however, obviously what Mr. Shinn writes is almost the end all and be all.

If you say so. Nick is very perceptive and lucid in his observations, but so too are many others. I think your impression is based on relative prominence. Nick is prominent but he's not the only person to write about type.

j a m e s

Curioustype's picture

In referring to Mr. Shinn's "end all" comment, I meant ultimately it is how the letters look together that determines the quality of a font. Otherwise they are just individual letters.

James Arboghast's picture

That's okay. I see what you meant. No problem-o :^)

j a m e s

Goran Soderstrom's picture

Does anyone think it makes sense to say that in most, or very many cases you can judge how good a typeface is designed looking specifically at the lowercase “a”?

I agree in a way, so I would say yes – but only if the typeface is well designed, that it is consistent in its shapes. But I also think the O, o and g holds identity in a typeface. Not to mention the H.

Inari Kiuru's picture

Perhaps, really, the beauty is sometimes in the eye of the beholder:

Just like different people are attracted to different things, visually, for various reasons, it could perhaps be said that each individual is first attracted, or instinctively notices, slightly different aspects of a typeface. This would come down to personality, taste, experience, character -- some love "curves", some love "long legs"!

There might also be a difference between what we gather from looking at a typeface through a 'hunch' (a subconscious response, a first feeling, something that a single letterform might evoke) and a more logical, methodical analysis of it (further study of each individual letter and symbol together).

Typography is life is typography.

IK

Dan Gayle's picture

I like Dino's point. I'm always drawing the letter a in my notepads and sketchbooks. Perhaps because it's the first letter of the 'bet.

It's also one of the easiest ways to determine the historical origin of a typeface, or the underlying foundational structure of a typeface.

If the lc a isn't working for me, I'm done with it. It's the primary reason why I hate ITC Garamond, amongst many reasons to hate that face.

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