Beautiful Smudges

Phil Jones looks at the double-storey, lowercase ‘g’, a letterform which in practical terms should probably be extinct, if only it wasn't quite so beautiful to look at.

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Squint at many passages of text setting and you are likely to find slightly denser smudges that emerge from an otherwise homogeneous grey texture. One frequent culprit in such circumstances is a Letterform favourite: the double-storey, lowercase ‘g’. This is something of a problem for those typographers who aspire to make flat, even, grey, transparent fields of type in which the reader is imagined to be immersed through an experience we call reading. Reading is something of a struggle between at least two different forms of attention. There is the top-down, concentrated form of attention that enables us to look at words but think of concepts, then there are the bottom-up forms of attention, the noises off that distract us for apparently no reason. Heterogeneous smudges would seem to belong to this latter category.

There is of course an alternative form to the double-storey ‘g’ which has a more open tail, arguably feels more modern, is easier to write, and which more closely matches the balance of form and counter-form found in its fellow type characters. Which begs the question, why has the double-storey ‘g’ endured? If evolutionary principles apply, one might have expected its fitter rival not only to have survived, but to have superseded it. Instead of extinction, however, there is a continuing phylogenesis: a diversification in this case of one letter into two distinct typographic sub-species.

The survival of the double-storey ‘g’ might be down to literary tradition or affectation, but I would like to think that we simply cannot bear to say goodbye to something so beautiful. Xavier Dupré’s, FF Absara Sans Regular provides a useful example; an amalgamation of forms that fuse elegantly into one powerful expression. Although a sans serif we can still trace the gesture of a pen as it comes to a stop at the top right of the bowl, making a corner before completing the graceful closed loop. Almost nothing seems to align yet everything is perfectly balanced. A few reference points anchor it to the baseline, though the letterform does not so much seem to stand on the baseline but float on it using the duck-like buoyancy provided by the bowl of the ‘g’ submerged below.  

Perhaps it is this richness and complexity exhibited by lower case ‘g’s and their uncompromising refusal to trade-off beauty for absolute subservience to readability, that make them such a recurring topic of Letterform.