In praise of swashes
In praise of swashes
A swash is an ornamental typographic element and there are different kinds according to where on a line of text they’re used. They often act as a ‘hook’ (fig. 1). Drawing a swash mainly involves extending the end of a letter to expand a serif, exaggerate the beginning stroke, or even to change the shape of a letter more fundamentally.
These kinds of flourishes date back to at least the sixteenth century, as we can see in Italian scribe and type designer Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi’s book La Operina (fig. 2). Published in Rome in 1522, La Operina is a calligraphic manual which teaches the reader about strokes, uppercase and lowercase letter construction, and, of course, about swashes. Arrighi demonstrated that a swash can be modest and minimal or expressive and flamboyant, though interestingly, he does not explain how to draw them, focusing more on the appearance of the basic alphabet rather than about how to deal with ornaments. Revealingly, he says of his calligraphy that: ‘Everything has its measure: beyond certain limits on either side nothing is right. The middle way is best.’1
As italics are mainly based on calligraphic shapes, swashes are usually found in these cuts as they can be incorporated more naturally into their flow and movement. However one can also find swashes in regular cuts, often for specific reasons.
With the arrival of moveable type, swashes transcended their purely ornamental purpose, taking on the more pragmatic function of aiding the setting of justified text. Justification and typesetting in moveable type was a long and tedious process, especially when it came to spacing. Adding a swash could save the day: by extending the end stroke of the last character of a line, you could lengthen it and resolve a line that would otherwise fall too short.2 This helped maintain a harmonious justification, making the typesetter’s job much easier, as well as imbuing a block of text with extra flourish.
In the mid-twentieth century, with the emergence of photoytypesetting technology, the production of type became less laborious and adding special ornamental glyphs to a character set was now significantly easier. In the 1960s and 70s, alongside the introduction of new typefaces featuring a huge variety of alternate characters and swashes, revivals of old fonts were given new swashes that were not part of their earlier glyph sets. A good example is Bookman Meola, issued c. 1970 and based on the original Bookman font from 1869, which features an extensive range of swashes (fig. 3). This practice was not new however, as seen in the example of Adobe Garamond Pro. Its italics and swashes are based on Granjon’s designs and not Garamond’s.3 Adding new glyphs at a later date was not uncommon. Moreover, one can also notice that swashes are not necessarily restricted to italic cuts and ‘script’ design. This influx of newly designed swashes characterised the visual spirit of the time and the upturn in their use, epitomised by Herb Lubalin’s output, contrasted sharply with the clean rationality of the International Style, which was happening at the same time: on one side, a rejection of swashes and everything that they represented, and on the other, their wholehearted acceptance.
In 1969, Phil Martin merged these two radically different philosophies by adding swashes to Helvetica, naming the font Helvetica Flair (fig. 4). The result caused outrage. Martin states: ‘I was accused of typographic incest before my first year of innovations was over. […] If you don’t like my Helvetica Flair, just term me the Marquis de Sade of letterforms.’4 Martin followed up by applying the same concept to Univers with Univers Flair (fig. 5), which apparently amused Adrian Frutiger so much that he hung a specimen sheet on his office wall5.
Sadly (or for some, happily), many of the swashes produced for phototypesetting didn’t make it to the present digital era – Helvetica Flair being a notable victim. Indeed, looking in more detail at specimens from that period, you can see, for example, that ITC Souvenir included swashes that are not included in the current Monotype set.6 Souvenir is not alone. With the arrival of digital type, foundries needed to quickly upgrade their catalogues for their clients, which meant digitising entire libraries, and, as the saying goes, ‘time is money.’ Why lose time digitising non-essential characters when you can sell a basic typeface just as easily? It is also possible that, in this new digital era, foundries sensed that swashes might feel old-fashioned, and too associated with a 70s aesthetic.7
With the introduction of OpenType technology in the late 90s, allowing the inclusion of hundreds of additional alternate characters, swashes found their way back once again. This came hand in hand with a renewed taste for 70s graphic sensibilities, to the pleasure of some and the despair of others. Christian Schwartz sides with the naysayers: ‘[…] and if we are lucky, maybe graphic designers will use a little more restraint this time.’8
But what about swashes in 2021? Well, it doesn’t seem that they have changed that much. Looking at current type design production, they are still mostly confined to calligraphic, brush, script and italic fonts or revivals, and 1960s–70s anthology projects. While some recent geometric typefaces do include swashes, they tend to be viewed as weird prosthetics attached to otherwise able-bodied letters. However, one interesting contemporary example of a sans serif typeface utilising what might be considered as swashes is Dinamo’s Favorit Lining. All of the descenders extend to form a single, long underline. Dinamo explains that they ‘[…] were becoming tired of using design software’s typical underline function, which is thin by default and sits awkwardly close to characters.’9 Favorit Lining’s original approach to working with elongated descenders indicates a way forward for swashes.
Finally, to quote Christian Schwartz again: ‘Swashes are like salad dressing: great as a condiment, but you wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass.’10 Perhaps not, but it’s always more exciting to make your own with each meal.
Amélie Gallay is a graphic designer from Nyon, Switzerland, recently graduated from HEAD-Geneva with a diploma in Visual Communication. 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.
 Ludovico Vicentino Degli Arrighi, La Operina, Rome, 1522, PDF version by Operina LLC, 2007, p. 25 [accessed 19.11.2020].
 ‘Typographic alignment’, Wikipedia. [last edited on 26.10.2020, accessed 20.11.2020].
 ‘Garamond’, Wikipedia. [last edited on 5.10.2020, accessed 20.11.2020].
 Mark Simonson, ‘Interview: Phil Martin’, Typographica, 18.05.2004. [accessed 22.11.2020].
 ‘Univers’, Wikipedia. [last edited on 25.11.2020, accessed 24.11.2020].
 ITC Souvenir, MyFonts. [accessed 25.11.2020].
 Robert King, ‘Caribbean Gulf Hotel newspaper ad’, Fonts In Use, 11.10.2018. [accessed 19.11.2020].
 Christian Schwartz, ‘Back with a flourish’, Eye Magazine, Winter 2006. [accessed 11.11.2020].
 ‘Typeface Release: ABC Favorit Lining’, Dinamo Type Foundry, 10.10.2017. [accessed 11.02.2021].
 Schwartz, ibid.