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10 Hidden Font Features That Will Make Your Design Life Way Easier

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 6 min read
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We have a lot of fonts here at Creative Market, and when it comes time for you to pick one for your next project, it helps to know what you’re getting into. Fonts that have the standard characters are pretty much expected with anything you pay for, but what kind of options would make your design life easier? What if there were a way for each font to have its own set of features that can give you flexibility while creating your designs, while still allowing it to stand out on its own? Well there is, and it’s awesome.

Getting the Basics Down

First off, let’s address a pretty major issue. These tips come thanks to the invention of OpenType fonts, which give users a ton of options. They’re multi-platform (both macOS and Windows), backwards compatible with many applications and you can mix them with other types of fonts without issues. You can find many of them in the Glyphs panel in Adobe products, and sometimes in Special Characters in the menu bar. In short, if you want to use these features, you’re going to want to install an OpenType font, or the one with the .otf extension.

Discretionary Ligatures

Have you ever bumped into a problem where you want two letters to flow together in a unique way that adds style to the text? One way to handle that issue is with Discretionary Ligatures. These are the ones that add a little flair or swoosh to your text, usually in pairing with another letter. For example, ck, sp, st and rt are all fairly common Discretionary Ligatures, and if you have a font that uses these options, then you’ll have lots of choices when it comes to putting your text together.

Ligatures

You know what’s the worst? No, not Bob in accounting (although he is the worst), it’s when two letters bash into each other. Like how sometimes the lowercase “f” can hit an “l,” “i” or even another “f.” Ligatures turn those two letters into one single character that merges the two (or three) letters together into one smooth character. Instead of the top of a lowercase “f” being so close to the dot on a lowercase “i” that it looks awkward, the top of the “f” could curl into the dot on the “i” as a stylistic look. That, right there, is usually worth the price of admission to a decent font set.

Swashes

Dig around on Creative Market for a bit and you’ll hit a bunch of fonts that use Swashes. These are the ornamental flares that can come from all sorts of letters — “e,” “Q” and “S,” for example — that only are used to accentuate the text. It’s not commonly used in a body copy way, but when it comes to headlines and titles, these can be great in the right setting.

Small Caps

Now this sounds like a straightforward deal, but it’s not, so bear with me for a sec. You would think that at Small Caps would be a capitalized letter that sits at the same height as a lowercase letter in the same font, but you’d only be partially correct. Yes, they are the same height, but they’re also the same width, that way they complement the text better. However, prior to OTF, Small Caps were usually computer generated, in which case they just shrunk the capital letters down, which resulted in a heavier look on the actual capital letter, and a thinner, lighter look on the small cap. Today, fonts that use a designed Small Cap look a ton better, as they’re the same color, weight and proportion of the regular capital letters, so they flow with the rest of the text.

Titling Alternates

If you’re working with display text and you want to produce something that looks better in caps at a larger size, then look at a font with Titling Alternates. These have two functions: give you variations on a glyph designed for display use, and, because they’re all caps, they’re scaled to look best when they’re blown up to big sizes.

Contextual Alternates

Let’s say that you have two letters next to each other that look good, but could look better with a tiny bit of tweaking. In this case, a Contextual Alternate is a good choice. These glyphs improve upon the spacing and look of the two characters together, linking them such that the combination looks better than they would otherwise. You’ll find these often in script typefaces because this look goes well with a handwriting style.
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Stylistic Sets

Now all of these different types of glyphs are cool, but it can be frustrating to try to click through a bunch of letters trying to find that perfect option for your case. Stylistic Sets are just what they sound like: groups of glyphs that all fit a certain style. So if you want your entire group to fit within a certain set, you can use that package via the Glyphs panel.

Caps, Oldstyle, Semi Oldstyle; Tabular and Non-Tabular Figures

Work a lot with numbers? Then this is where you want to be, so let’s break it down so it’s all nice and clear. Caps Figures are numbers designed so that they align with the capital letter characters in the rest of the typeface. Oldstyle, on the other hand, have both ascenders and descenders to match the lowercase characters in the rest of the typeface, while Semi Oldstyle blends the two. Both Tabular and Non-Tabular Figures deal instead the alignment of the letters in relation to each other. Tabular Figures are monospaced so that you can line up columns of the numbers and add them up, just like you would if you were doing a math problem. Non-Tabular figures don’t align, but they work better for headlines and such because the spacing between the letters and numbers doesn’t look unnatural.

Ordinals/Superior Letters and figures

Have you ever run into a situation where you wanted to lift or lower a letter or number in relation to another to form the correct word? For example, “No. 1” could be written out just how it looks here, or you could lift the “o.” into a higher position like a numerator in a math problem, but shrink down the text in relation to match. Basically, like you see “1st” and “2nd” written out. Ordinals/Superior Letters and Figures are already done that way, so all you have to do is dump them into your text using the correct glyph.

Initials and Finals

Swooshes and other cool trails on words can be a cool style to work with, but Initials and Finals are different. These add flourishes just like a Contextual Alternate, but the difference is that they only go on the beginning (Initials) or ending (Finals) part of a word.

There you have it! There’s a lot to soak in here, but if you get a font with a lot of options, then you’re giving yourself flexibility for future designs. And ultimately, isn’t that what we all want?
Products Seen In This Post:
Font Pairing Cheatsheet
15 Pre-designed Font Combinations
Free Font Pairing Cheatsheet

We've curated a list of font styles that work well together so you can design interesting type lockups in minutes.

Download the cheatsheet
About the Author
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Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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