Using Type: Contextual Alternates, Ligatures

Help! I purchased a font, but I think I downloaded a different one.

Part of FontShop’s sales and support staff, Mayene de Leon gets this impassioned request all the time. So she put together the following basic review on how to access the glyphs that may not appear all on their own at first. My additional notes added, marked DS.

Alternates, Ligatures

If you’re seeing different results when you’re typing with a font you bought and installed on your computer than previews you may have seen online, chances are you purchased a font with OpenType features. If you are using these fonts in Adobe Creative Suite programs (such as InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop), you can change the way some of the letters look. Some fonts have variations on different letterforms; for example, the lowercase “a” might have two different shapes or forms for one font. If you bought a font online, installed it, started typing, and realize the letters look different from what you saw online, there are ways to access these alternative letterforms, called “Contextual Alternates”. (DS Other features exist for accessing non-default glyphs as well, such as Stylistic Sets, Discretionary Ligatures, Swash, All Small Caps, etc.. Mayene’s right though to focus on Contextual Alternates as the most common cause for mistaken identity among recently purchased fonts. Of course, not all fonts have or support all or any of these features.) The above example is set in Alejandro Paul’s Storefront.

Contextual Alternatives in Adobe InDesign or Illustrator

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 4.32.00 PM

Glyph palette showing Burgues Script

In Adobe InDesign or Illustrator, you can access your Glyphs palette by going to the menu bar, and under the Type menu, you’ll see an option for Glyphs. This will open up a window that will show you all the glyphs — or characters — available for use in a chosen font. (DS This is probably the best way to get a good look at the entire content of the font, and to choose specific letterforms when composing, but if you’d like to simply “turn all Contextual Alternates on,” keep reading. As of this writing, Photoshop still doesn’t have a Glyph palette, but InDesign and Illustrator both have similarly functioning character palettes as described in the Photoshop-only section below.)

Contextual Alternates in Adobe Photoshop

Contextual Alternates in Photoshop

In Adobe Photoshop, if you know which letters have an alternative letterform, you can change it by going to your menu bar, and under the “Window” menu, open up your Character palette. In the upper right of the Character palette, you’ll see a tiny triangle with four lines next to it; click on this icon and windows will pop-up. If you hover over “OpenType” as shown above, you’ll have the option to uncheck “Contextual Alternates” — this will change the letterforms if the font has OpenType features offering alternatives for that letter. The above example is Underware’s Liza Display.

In the example above, you’ll see that Acta Poster Regular OT has two different lowercase “a”s, which you can choose from depending if you check or uncheck Contextual Alternates in your Character palette.

DS I’ll close with a tip: If you work with script faces a lot, consider turning Contextual Alternates and Discretionary Ligatures on by default. In whatever CS app you use to set type, open the Character palette without any documents open, and turn on the features using the method described above. This will become your new default.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 25, 2015 at 11:13 AM | Permalink

    This was very helpful. Worked perfectly.

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