Taking Typography to the Next Level

These florid catchwords are from the typeface HWT Catchwords

By Nigel French

In typography, sweating the small stuff is more than just nitpicking; it’s about clear communication. And to communicate clearly, we need to care about small details. In this excerpt from my book InDesign Type, I’ll explain how to use some OpenType features in Adobe InDesign to make your work look better and communicate more effectively.

You can access InDesign’s OpenType features through the Type Contextual Controls, from the OpenType menu on the Control panel, or through the OpenType features dialog that is part of a paragraph or character style definition. Note that the list of features on the OpenType menu is really a list of potential features. There is no OpenType typeface that includes them all, and indeed some are mutually exclusive. If an option is surrounded by square brackets, it is unavailable for that particular typeface.


Ligatures are two or more intersecting characters fused into a single character. In fact, everyone’s favorite glyph—the ampersand — started out as a ligature, combining E and t, forming the Latin word et, meaning “and.”

The left-hand column has no ligatures. The middle column shows ligatures in a serif typeface, and the right-hand column shows ligatures in a sans serif face.

They are used to avoid collisions, most commonly between the finial of the lowercase f and the dot of the i or between the finial of the f and the ascender of the l. InDesign is smart enough to substitute individual glyphs for the ligature when the letterspacing is increased and Check Spelling is smart enough to recognize them and not flag words that contain them as misspelled.

Some display fonts offer decorative ligatures.

Ligatures are a response to a design problem and as such may not be necessary with sans serif typefaces, where there’s no danger of a character collision. First try setting the type without ligatures. If the characters collide, then turn on ligatures. If they don’t, well—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, especially because using ligatures may make these letter combinations appear more tightly set than the rest of your type. Ligatures can be turned on from the Control panel menu or, when applied as part of a paragraph style, in the Basic Character Formats.

Examples of dipthong ligatures are on the left; on the right, discretionary ligatures.

OpenType fonts may contain discretionary ligatures, such as ct, st, and sp. In certain decorative typefaces they may allow for unique letter combinations that give a hand-lettered look. Diphthongs are ligatures that visually represent the pronunciation of a combined vowel. Their usage is considered archaic in modern English, especially American English.

Both discretionary ligatures and diphthongs can be applied on a case-by-case basis through the Glyphs panel. Choose Discretionary Ligatures from the Show menu to isolate the available options.

Top, a ligature; bottom, the dotless i.

Because ligatures can look odd in display type, you may be better off kerning to avoid character collisions, or replacing the i with a dotless i (Unicode 0131). On the Mac, the dotless i can be typed by pressing Shift+Option+B. On Both Mac and Windows, to locate the dotless i in the Glyphs panel, type 0131 in the Search field.


Sometimes referred to as fleurons, typographic ornaments were historically used to expand the typesetter’s palette. While some typefaces, like Chaparral Pro, contain playful ornaments, ornaments typically create a historic feel—useful in a book cover, title page, or chapter opener, or in repetition to create a typographic wallpaper suitable for endpapers. Ornaments can also useful as bullets or end marks.

Examples of ornaments as decoration, catchwords, and social media icons.

Some ornaments were designed to be used in multiples to make decorative frames—although these days, it’s a lot easier to achieve the same result using a custom brush in Adobe Illustrator.

Some typefaces may contain decorative catchwords, like “the,” “and,” “of,” and so on, that are available as a single glyph. Catchwords are also available as whole fonts—for example, HWT Catchwords.


Some italic styles of OpenType fonts have swashes; you can check by opening the Glyphs panel and looking for Swash in the Show menu. Where available, these are accessible through the Type Contextual Controls, the OpenType menu, or the Access All Alternates subset on the Glyphs panel. Typically, swashes are used at the beginning of words or sentences. Some fonts also have lowercase swash characters called finials or terminal characters, intended for use at the end of a word or line. Used sparingly (and never in all caps) swashes can add a flourish to headlines, titles, logos, drop caps and initial letters, chapter headings, invitations, and—if you’re a pirate—your treasure map.

The top examples are both without swashes. The bottom left example shows swash initial caps in Adobe Caslon Pro Italic. The bottom right example is set in Funkydori with swash and finials.


Some OpenType faces, usually scripts, have alternate characters that let you personalize your type. Some contextual alternates are designed to connect better in certain letter combinations; others exist just to expand your palette. Sometimes there may be several alternates to choose from, and applying them randomly, especially with handwriting or calligraphic typefaces, creates an organic look. You can choose the alternates on a case-by-case basis using the Type Contextual Controls or by choosing Alternates for Selection from the Show menu in the Glyphs panel. Alternatively, choose Contextual Alternates from the OpenType menu, and as you type, the glyph to the left of your cursor may change according to the glyph that follows it—if there’s an alternate for that particular letter combination.

From left to right: Mostra Nuova without (top) and with contextual alternates; Minion Pro without (top) and with contextual alternates; and Bickham Script Pro without (top) and with contextual alternates.


Not to be confused with a 1970s Philadelphia soul group, stylistic sets tap into OpenType’s potential to provide whole sets of alternates that allow you to vary the character of the typeface. Rather than using the Glyphs panel or Type Contextual Controls to substitute every b and g, for example, with your preferred alternates, you can choose a stylistic set that uses those alternates as its default form for the b and g characters. To find out what’s in a given stylistic set, you can use the Glyphs panel and filter your view using the Show menu. InDesign allows more than one stylistic set to be applied on the same text to create unique combinations. Like all OpenType features, stylistic sets can be incorporated into a paragraph or character style definition.

Thomas Phinney’s Hypatia Sans Pro has 14 stylistic sets, allowing you to introduce more customization and expression while using a single typeface.

This once obscure and misunderstood feature has been made slightly less obscure. There are more fonts that have stylistic sets, but relatively few of them have descriptive names for those sets to indicate how they might be used. Some fonts come with accompanying documentation in the form of PDFs or webpages that offer more information about their stylistic sets.

As you’ve seen, there are many details to consider. While there’s usually more than one way to get them right, there’s always a multitude of ways to get them wrong, so keep that fine-toothed comb handy. Each of these details is an opportunity to demonstrate craft in our work.

Excerpted from InDesign Type by Nigel French. This article previously appeared in Adobe Creative Magazine.

Want to learn more?