Putting up with diacritics
Putting up with diacritics
The current technological landscape allows designers to easily create and utilise typefaces in numerous languages and scripts. However, the presence of varying diacritics across different languages could present a challenge for type and graphic designers alike – their existence in scripts such as Latin, Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic requires special attention when designing or setting type as they serve a crucial grammatical function in altering the sound values of the letters which they are added to. This adjustment is not only significant for the sound and meaning of words, but also in the visual appearance of text. Besides digraphs, trigraphs and special characters, diacritical marks are important devices that are used to expand the Latin alphabet and mitigate for its shortcomings. Yet the use of diacritical marks can be considered undesirable since they undermine the nominally universal nature of the Latin alphabet, which some consider beneficial.1 This can also be argued from a purely visual position; a text set in a language that uses few or no diacritics will tend to look cleaner and more orderly than one filled with extra marks. Nevertheless, we could consider diacritics as not only a linguistic feature, but also as modifying marks that serve to enrich designs. Not only do they have a strong visuality, but, as extensions of written language, accents have significant cultural meaning and influence.
Fully understanding these choices will result in designs that consider a wider audience.2 In order to fully appreciate the purpose and value of diacritics, one has to look back at their evolution. The Latin alphabet was adopted from the Greeks around the seventh century BC to denote the sounds of the Latin language. It initially consisted of only 21 letters (A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X), all capitals, and none possessed an accent. Later, G was added, and during the eleventh and twelfth century the letter U was introduced to distinguish from V. No further changes occured after this for some time. Then, during the Middle Ages, the use of accented letters (such as ä ă â c é è ê î ñ u ó ô ö ş ú ü) allowed further denotation of languages from Western, Central and Eastern Europe.3 In European languages, diacritics mostly have a single preferred use4 (exceptions are the cedilla5 which can take two forms and the Polish kreška, which is ‘not exactly an acute’6).
When designing a typeface or a layout in a language that uses various diacritical marks, it can be easy to get flustered by the challenges that their presence imposes. It can be argued that they make texts unsightly and the type designer’s job more tedious,7 from less freedom in adjusting line-height, to highly differing colour of text on a page, to issues with kerning and spacing. Awareness and experience of these problems gives rise to questioning if there could be a better solution to take the place of diacritics. The desire to unify systems derives from our general understanding of the designer’s role i.e. to make things simpler and more convenient to use, with an emphasis on functionality. With that said, an alternative route could be to explore new ways to embrace, rather than eliminate, these typographic quirks. How can one’s practice benefit from the linguistic and cultural heritage diacritics possess? Is it possible to push functionality to the background and explore a more experimental approach within type design and graphic design?
In his 1992 book The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst questions if typography makes any sense at all, and later concludes that, if it does, it makes sense in at least two ways – visually and historically.8 Making visual sense is bound up with communication, which is one of the principal functions of typography. According to Bringhurst, the greatest threat to communication is not difference, as many of the Modernist designers would probably argue (take Vignelli or Rand), but rather sameness. ‘Communication ceases when one being is no different from another: when there is nothing strange to wonder at […].’9 This reasoning supports the idea that diacritics should express the variety and complexity of written languages,10 rather than attempting to homogenise and inhibit their visual effect. Cultural as well as formal correctness in the design of diacritics is crucial for a typeface to be accessible for a wider audience. Additionally, knowledge of their purpose also provides an opportunity to probe uncharted territories, experimenting with their design and rearranging hierarchies to place more emphasis on accents.
In his 2017 talk for ATypI, David Jonathan Ross told how he used to consider drawing accents as a chore, where he was entering the static phase of a font’s production, following the more exciting and dynamic earlier design phase. Later, while travelling, he realised how accent marks on street signs created a space of belonging – a realisation that motivated him to look at accents through a new lens.11 Likewise, in the case of graphic materials, accents still maintain a space of belonging, their inherent connection to language situating designs in a cultural context. It can also be examined as to why the design of accents often takes place in this so-called static stage of the type design process. If diacritics become a more integral part of the creative process, how far can this be taken? How experimental could their design and their application become? To answer this with a few examples isn’t as easy as expected, but worth an attempt.
Nantes-based type and graphic designer Benoît Bodhuin,12 in collaboration with Antonin Faurel, accentuated the diacritical marks of Elastik and turned it into a variable font consisting of four weights and with four states of ‘stretchiness’ for diacritics.13 In the poster and identity for the exhibition ‘Peter Märkli: Drawings’, Marek Nedelka appropriated the umlaut and dot from the architect’s last name into a design device, repeating them throughout the layout as structural elements.14 Eric Hu’s mark for Satié utilises Sharp Type’s Ogg italic style with an exaggerated dot employed as an acute. In each of these cases, diacritics play pivotal roles, demonstrating more considered and imaginative ways to deal with these marks that most of us just put up with.
Laura Csocsan is a graphic designer from Budapest, Hungary, with several years of experience working in-studio and independently as a freelancer. She is a participant at the Master Type Design at ECAL since September 2020.
‘Stories’ are writings by students where they reflect on the contemporary challenges that are driving current type design forward. The essays are written and edited as part of the MATD Theory class.
 Florian Coulmas, Writing Systems. An introduction to their linguistic analysis, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 102.
 Victor Gaultney, ‘Problems of diacritic design for Latin script text faces’, Dissertation for the University of Reading, 2002, p. 16. (accessed: 18.08.2021)
 Zsigmond Jakó and Radu Manolescu, A latin írás története, Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1987, p. 142.
 Gaultney, ibid.
 Filip Blažek, Diacritics. All you need to design a font with correct accents, 2009. accessed: 26.11.2020].
 Adam Twardoch, Polish Diacritics. How to?, 2009. [accessed 26.11.2020].
 Bianca Berning, ‘Language as Design Criteria?’, Part III, Alphabettes.org, 2017. [accessed 27.11.2020].
 Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, Vancouver: Hartley and Marks, 2004, p. 9.
 ibid, p. 89.
 David Jonathan Ross, ‘How *not* to draw accents’, talk at ATypI 2017, video. [accessed 27.11.2020].
 Homepage of Benoît Bodhuin /BB-Bureau. [accessed 27.11.2020].
 Jyni Ong, ‘Typefaces for “bold graphic designers with a taste for risk and expressiveness”’, in: It‘s Nice That, 2019. [accessed 27.11.2020].
 Homepage of Marek Nedelka, 2020. [accessed 27.11.2020].
Agnieszka Małecka and Zofia Oslislo, The Insects Project: Problems of Diacritic Design In Central European Languages, Katowice, 2016. (accessed: 18.08.2021)
Ondrej Jób, ‘Context of Diacritics’, 2013. (accessed: 18.08.2021)
David Březina, ‘On Diacritics’, 2009. (accessed: 18.08.2021)