THE TIES THAT BIND

One of the features that separate commercial-quality typesetting from amateurish work is the use of ligatures. Look closely at a page of text from a major publisher. Find an instance of the letter combination fi or fl. In most text typefaces, the arm of the lowercase f extends to the right far enough that it crashes into the dot on the lowercase i or the ascender on the lowercase l.

non-ligatures

This is less than graceful, so type designers long ago came up with the solution of combining the fi and fl into single designs called ligatures. The standard set of ligatures consists of ff, ffi, ffl, fi, and fl. There are others in some typefaces, such as ft, fb (found in the word halfback, for example), and ij (used in setting Dutch).

ligatures

Ligatures are cumbersome to implement in a word processing program like Microsoft Word. They’re also not a feature of the coding used for web pages and email, so you won’t see them in running text here. But they are a standard feature of an advanced page layout program such as Adobe InDesign.

Why does it matter? The same reason any number of minor subtleties matter in book design. Such niceties usually fall below the conscious notice of the reader; but taken together, they impart an overall sense of quality work. And the book connoisseur, such as a wholesale buyer or anyone in the book trade, is likely to notice if they’re not present. That could be the feather that tips the balance in the direction of not making the purchase.


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[Brian Jud invited me to contribute short articles on book interior design to his Book Book Marketing Matters newsletter, a biweekly e-zine. This page is adapted from one of those articles.]