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Design Trend Report: Sans Serif Ligature Fonts

Traditionally seen mainly in serifs, ligature fonts are now breaking out of their limitations to make sans serifs more readable and give them some decorative touches.

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 13 min read
You don’t often associate ligatures with sans serifs, but we’ve increasingly noticed that they’re showing up in all sorts of sans serif fonts, where they’re certainly making an impact. Ligatures use their joining power to combine two or more letters into a single letter, which helps readers with the flow of typography. Traditionally seen mainly in serifs, ligature fonts are now breaking out of their limitations to make sans serifs more readable and give them some decorative touches. The result is a new aesthetic that uses an established technique in a modern way. If you’re looking for a radical way to make your typefaces pop right out from your designs, then look into sans serif ligature fonts in your next design project. Here’s an in-depth walkthrough of this design trend that’s shaking up the world of typography.

What Are Ligatures?

In all your years of reading books, menus, invitations and, more recently, the copy on websites and apps, you’ve likely seen your fair share of ligatures. You’ve probably taken them for granted, but you’ll recognize them when you see them. A special character, a ligature integrates two characters into just one; sometimes, ligatures can even combine three characters into one letter. There are also different kinds of ligatures that serve different purposes:
  • Standard ligatures
  • Discretionary ligatures
Standard ones are all about practicality: they address the issue of separate characters colliding into each other when put beside each other in a word. Besides being visually unattractive, these colliding characters can also impede legibility and, therefore, readability, to a degree. As a result, there’s great utility in using ligature fonts in design.
There are some letters where this problem of collision occurs more frequently than in others, owing to their unique anatomy, such as x-height, ascenders, descenders, cap heights, and terminals. The lowercase “f” is notorious for creating these types of collision problems. Its crossbar (the horizontal line) and hook (the terminal at the top of the letter) run into problems when paired with a lowercase “i” (thanks to its dot) or a lowercase “l” (thanks to its ascender). It has to be pointed out that this problem tends to occur more noticeably with some fonts compared to others. Pairings where these collisions tend to occur include:
  • fi
  • ffi
  • fl
  • ff
  • ffl
Note how, in each combination, the spaces between the f’s crossbar and terminal are very close to the i’s dot, as well as the l’s ascender and other f’s crossbar. Using standard ligature fonts solves this unattractive collision in a cinch by smoothly combining the parts of these formerly clashing characters. Now, your readers won’t be caught up with the unappealing collision of those characters and can instead concentrate on the meaning of the words. The other part of the equation is something we call a discretionary ligature. These types of ligatures are less about helping to solve a legibility or readability problem and more about ornamentation. In other words, they’re more about form than function. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that they’re useless; far from it. It’s more about using discretionary ligatures—as their name implies—more judiciously and sparingly. You’re free to use these discretionary ligatures as you see fit, but it’s a wise move not to overdo them. As with the aforementioned standard ligature fonts, discretionary ones work best in some specific situations:
  • Th
  • st
  • ct
  • ck
  • oo
  • TT
  • LL
And like the standard ligatures, these discretionary ones work better with some fonts than with others. The “Th” combination at the beginning of a word is likely the most common discretionary ligature that you’ll come across. Palm Beach, a font by Studio Aurora, contains a number of discretionary ligatures including Th. Ligatures in “st,” “ct” and “ck” combinations give the font uniqueness and a sense of gracefulness. That’s not to say that the ligatures we spotlighted above are an exhaustive indication of everything that’s possible with these special characters—far from it. These are just some of the more frequent combinations in use, but there are literally dozens of additional combinations that are possible.

The History of Ligature Fonts

These ligatures, whether in the traditional serif variety or in the newer sans serif, actually stem from the practice of using a stylus to write on either paper or clay. A stylus is an ancient writing tool that’s fashioned out of a small rod with a pointed tip. It was ancient businessmen who were looking for a technique to make written communication for efficient who had early success with ligatures. They discovered that joining letters together, along with using abbreviations for lay people, was faster and more convenient for transactions than relying on the traditional, longer forms for the words. Ligatures figure prominently in historical manuscripts and writing systems such as:
  • Germanic Migration Period runic inscriptions
  • Sumerian cuneiform (ancient Mesopotamian writing system)
  • Brahmic abugidas (Southasian and Asian writing systems)
In medieval times, scribes began to realize that using these ligatures could help them save time, write faster, and become all-around more productive. You have to remember that, back then, everything was written by hand and computers were still centuries away from being invented—so it was imperative that scribes found ways to become more efficient at writing! Abbreviations were very popular in medieval texts; it was common for manuscripts in Old Norse, Old English, and Latin to feature them in droves. Of course, in keeping with the distinction between standard ligature fonts and discretionary ones we still see today, some medieval ligatures were also purely aesthetic in purpose. When movable-type printing was invented in 1450, the fonts featured a lot of these typographical combinations, simply because they took their inspiration from the handwriting that was already full of ligatures. Including these ligatures in movable type made the overall printing process less complicated, however: Fewer blocks of letters were needed (thanks to the combinations of characters), and more interesting character designs were possible without the collision of letters.
Interestingly, the 20th century saw a negative sea change for these special characters. They started to become less popular after many centuries of great usage. Now, their complexity was what made them less appealing to typographers. The fortunes of ligature fonts continued to drop as the desktop publishing revolution started in the late 1970s with the earliest computer software. The reason was twofold:
  • Early computer software was too basic to allow for these special characters
  • Digital typefaces at the time had no use for these characters
Ready for another twist in this saga of typography? In the last two decades—since the start of the 21st century—ligatures have become more prevalent once again. This also helps to explain with these special characters have started to show up even in serifs, when they used to be almost exclusive to sans serifs for centuries. Simply put, an increasing number of typesetting systems today accommodate ligatures. In addition, newer typefaces are being created that feature a lot of ligatures. Some prominent examples include:
  • Hoefler Text
  • Eaves
  • FF Scalia
Yet another reason for the resurgence of these special characters is the support in modern computing for all sorts of alphabets and languages besides English; many of these alphabets and languages use ligatures more extensively than English. Practical results of this development are:
  • OpenType (digital typesetting technique for scalable computer fonts)
  • More ligature support embedded into the text displays of operating systems like macOS, Microsoft Office, and Windows
Have a look at the typefaces available on your desktop and tablet, and you’ll quickly spot these ligatures within font families in all sorts of places.

A Showcase of Stunning Sans Serif Ligature Fonts

Here’s a closer look at the sans serif fonts that have embraced the newfound popularity of this design trend by incorporating ligatures into their aesthetic.

Sunflora – Unique Ligature Font

This minimalist and elegant sans serif typeface does a couple of interesting things with ligatures, one that’s based on a more traditional use of the special character and another that’s more of a decorative approach.
It’s rich with examples of the “f” ligatures, detailed exhaustively above, which helps to make reading easier for words like “Fiji” or “flicker.” The “Th” ligature is also present for very common words like “The.” This font also features less popular combinations like “er,” “un” and “tr,” just to name a few, for a well-rounded ligature experience. These sorts of combinations are better described as the discretionary ligatures, also detailed above, which should be used more sparingly because they offer a more decorative, as opposed to a more functional, purpose. Sunflora is a typeface that’s ideal for the following projects:
  • Greeting cards
  • Invitations
  • Websites
  • Templates
  • Stationery design
  • Brochures
  • Menus

michael beautiful ligature font

With this “michael” font, we have an example of a more modern and contemporary sans serif typeface that features elegant ligatures. It features a plethora of ligatures, and the digital foundry even invites customers to suggest to them new ligature fonts to add to their already extensive collection.
This typography asset is perfect for designers who want to be more experimental with their font creativity, as most of the ligatures included are discretionary ones. As a result, this font is perfect for a whole host of design projects, such as:
  • Logos
  • Branding projects
  • Social media covers or posts
  • Labels
  • Product packaging
  • Stationery
  • Invites
  • Watermarks
  • Product designs
  • Wedding invitations
  • Photography
Due to its well-balanced design, the font also comes with a significant amount of legibility.

Fragile – A Delicate Typeface

A font that boasts its share of mainly discretionary ligatures, Fragile is aptly named, which is what makes it such a delicate contribution to typography. Legible but ethereal, bold but light, Fragile exhibits eye-catching design contrast with its alternatingly thin and thick stems and crossbars.
The font also displays a somewhat vintage aesthetic, which makes sense when you consider its inspiration from letterforms of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps most noticeable about it are its intricate ears and loops that make certain characters—like the lowercase “g” and uppercase “S”—stand out with impact. Fragile is available in OpenType, which is what enables its discretionary ligature fonts.

Palm Beach Ligature Summer Font Duo

This typeface contains more than 200 glyphs, some of which are exquisite special characters. You get more than 50 ligatures that’ll add better readability and flair to your next typography project.
All of the standard “f” ligatures are present here for enhanced legibility in design communication. Beyond that, you get dozens of discretionary ligatures that combine characters to add an unexpected, elegant touch to your messaging. The ligature fonts in this digital asset are ideal for projects such as:
  • Signboards
  • Quotes (for social media and beyond)
  • Book titles
  • Stationery design
  • Posters
  • Menus
  • Greeting cards
  • Invitations
  • Packaging design
Essentially, if it’s a title-design project you’re working on, this typeface won’t let you down.

Classy Marisa – Elegant Typeface

The Classy Marisa Elegant Typeface asset takes understated font design to another level. Its sans serif ligatures make for the most seamless character combinations that help you join letters together for a smoother reading experience.
This is a typeface that definitely skews toward the discretionary side of ligatures. While the standard combinations like “Th” and “oo” are absent, numerous discretionary ligatures like “ka,” “nn” and “dg” are out in full force, letting you experiment to your heart’s content. The appeal of this font is that it works equally well in big and small sizes, which makes it versatile across a variety of design projects like:
  • Branding
  • Clothing design
  • Magazine headers
  • Logos
  • Product packaging
  • Text overlays

Charoe Typeface & Extras

Charoe Typeface & Extras is a font asset that has great depth, making it a great choice for the typographer who wants a lot of options in their next design project. With six, unique weights, this font is well-suited to a wide range of design projects. In addition, its unicase design attribute means that you’re able to experiment with both lowercase and uppercase initials.
Overall, you get more than 30 ligature fonts and combinations in this asset, which empowers you to give your next project a unique aesthetic. More standard ligatures—like the frequent “f” ligatures—are ignored in this asset for a series of more experimental discretionary ligatures. Take that as free rein to mix up the weights and special characters to create the unique typography you’re looking for.

Chin Up Buttercup! Font Duo & Extras

This font duo features two, distinct fonts: the Cutecaps sans serif font and the Whimsical script. Both fonts feature ligatures, with the former featuring smaller ligatures like “oo” and the latter featuring a generous collection of standard ligatures. Together, these two fonts give designers a host of design possibilities when ideating and executing on a project.
To sweeten the deal, this font duo comes with an extra 40-plus doodle illustrations that work well for creating memorable typography designs. Here’s a list of ideas where using this sans serif ligature font would be ideal:
  • DIY projects
  • Greeting cards
  • Wall art
  • Posters
  • Websites
  • Photography
  • Image overlays
  • Tags
  • Scrapbooking
  • Window art
  • Signage
  • Quotes
  • Labels

Gilmer – Geometric Sans Serif

Gilmer is a sans serif ligature font that provokes thought in a stimulating way. That’s because a lot of consideration has been invested in its design. It’s a font that’s been inspired by typography heavyweights such as Avant Garde and Futura, making it eminently readable. Then, when you add its standard ligatures to the equation, this font becomes aesthetic and functional at the same time.
Some of this font’s attributes include:
  • Large x-height values
  • Sharp edges
  • Geometric shapes
  • Very tiny stroke contrasts
Feel free to use this typeface in a host of projects like: All told, this makes for a take on sans serif ligature fonts that’s modern, attractive and helps you communicate your design messaging in a crystal-clear manner.

Combining Characters for Readability and Design Smoothness

This new design trend is so much more than a passing craze. Drawing on a millennia-old tradition of using special characters to seamlessly join individual letters, ligatures are almost as old as the concept of writing itself. The mere fact that these ligatures were in use almost from the very beginning of many writing systems just tells us how useful and helpful they were to even our early ancestors. That also helps to explain why ligatures have been a writing mainstay for the longest time, although they have ebbed and flowed in popularity over the last several centuries. However, the 21st century has seen a massive resurgence of these special characters, where sans serif ligature fonts are now a hot trend. You can thank computers and their various operating systems for supporting these special characters. If you’re looking for a design element to add both function and aesthetic flourishes to your typography, consider adding some sans serif ligatures to your creative projects.
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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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