A Look at the Letter б

This is the first in a series of columns on let­ters from the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet. What can we say about a let­ter when we look at it? Only that its form im­plies an in­fin­ite num­ber of vari­ants. But what hap­pens when we com­pare a let­ter with sim­il­ar char­ac­ters in a type sys­tem? The let­ter­form be­gins to make sense. Type de­sign­er Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an shares her opin­ion on shap­ing one of the trick­i­est let­ters in our al­pha­bet. We should add that every pro­fes­sion­al has gone through much suf­fer­ing over many years of prac­tice to come to these con­clu­sions, which means that they are sub­ject­ive and can be the sub­ject of de­bate.

8 June 2016


Gayaneh Bagdasaryan

any de­sign­ers of Cyril­lic type be­lieve that suc­cess­fully draw­ing the let­ter б is half the battle. In­deed, б is a very com­plex let­ter, partly be­cause his­tor­ic­ally its con­struc­tion has not been firmly es­tab­lished. But since we’re in charge here, whatever we draw—goes. Be­sides, it doesn’t be­fit us Cyril­lic type de­sign­ers to com­plain about the short­com­ings of our nat­ive al­pha­bet. It’s bet­ter to be in­spired by the fact that this im­per­fec­tion gives us an in­cent­ive for new re­search and ex­per­i­ment­a­tion. Al­low me to share my ex­per­i­en­ces, which I think have been rather suc­cess­ful.

For a long time, I’ve no­ticed that the let­ter б sticks out of the al­pha­bet in many typefaces. Ap­par­ently, the is­sue is that it does not have any sharp edges and looks too soft or even spine­less along­side the oth­er Cyril­lic char­ac­ters, primar­ily made up of straight lines. This is es­pe­cially dis­tinct in clear-cut geo­met­ric­al typefaces or those with a strict char­ac­ter:

From top to bot­tom: Charter (Mat­thew Carter, Vladi­mir Ye­fimov), Swift (Ger­ard Un­ger, Ta­gir Safayev), Fu­tura (Paul Ren­ner, Vladi­mir Ye­fimov, Isa­bella Chayeva).

Do you see? The let­ter б is des­per­ately ask­ing her al­pha­bet­ic­al sis­ters to let her come in­to the house and try­ing to con­vince them that they’re ac­tu­ally re­lated. But the sis­ters just look at her war­ily and dis­trust­fully through the pee­p­h­ole. And this is the case in a large num­ber of Cyril­lic typefaces. I de­lib­er­ately chose well-known and high-qual­ity typefaces by re­cog­nised mas­ters to make it clear that we’re not talk­ing about am­a­teur or for­eign Cyril­lic here. It’s all about the lack of es­tab­lished form for the let­ter б. How can we help our little let­ter with its gentle nature and ro­mant­ic­ally flow­ing hair­style?

To be­gin, we should ex­plore the ex­ist­ing op­tions for its struc­ture. There are two of them. Or to be more pre­cise, two and a half. The first (a) is, roughly speak­ing, a let­ter o with a branch at­tached to it. In the second vari­ant (b), the bowl and branch have a com­mon spine to which the right side of the bowl is firmly at­tached. Lastly, the second op­tion has a sub­vari­ant (c) with a light­er joint between the right-hand side of the oval and the spine:

a—Filo­sofia (Zuz­ana Ličko, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an), b—Greta Text (Peter Biľak, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an, Alexei Kas­si­an), с—Didona (Vladi­mir Ye­fimov).

There is a sep­ar­ate hand­writ­ten form, but I’m not go­ing to ex­am­ine it in this art­icle, be­cause there’s noth­ing wrong with it. So, we have two ba­sic types of б. Which op­tion is prefer­able for a par­tic­u­lar sort of typeface? There is no clear an­swer to this ques­tion, but it seems ap­pro­pri­ate to look in­to the design choices of neigh­bour­ing let­ters and see how their ovals at­tach to the ver­tic­al bars: lightly or firmly? Chances are that the lo­gic­al and nat­ur­al choice would be to have the same type of joint:

While ig­nor­ing this fact may make the sis­ters be­gin to doubt their re­la­tion­ship with their neigh­bour:

Des­pite the fact that many mod­ern typefaces are very far re­moved from cal­li­graphy, hand­writ­ten lo­gic and a rhythmic link between the form of the char­ac­ter and the writ­ing in­stru­ment can be found in the con­struc­tion of most of their char­ac­ters. If we roughly di­vide cal­li­graph­ic tools in­to two large groups—broad and poin­ted nibs—we dis­cov­er that the let­ter б with a sol­id spine is ob­tained by writ­ing with a broad nib, where­as it’s easi­er to add the branch on a thin stalk with a poin­ted one.

Curs­ive in­scrip­tion with a broad (top) and poin­ted nib. Il­lus­tra­tion: Ju­lia Baran­ova.

Of course, this doesn’t al­ways work, due to the fact that the Cyril­lic al­pha­bet evolved in the era of print­ing, so the re­la­tion­ship between the form of its char­ac­ters and cal­li­graphy is not as dis­tinct as in oth­er writ­ing sys­tems. Nev­er­the­less, tak­ing in­to ac­count the writ­ing in­stru­ment gives us an­oth­er ar­gu­ment in fa­vour of the fact that the second design op­tion is more ap­pro­pri­ate in typefaces with ri­gid joints, while the first is a bet­ter fit for smooth­er at­tach­ments. This lo­gic is of­ten vi­ol­ated in fa­vour of the first op­tion, which is much more wide­spread and is se­lec­ted, so to speak, by de­fault, without much thought. Mean­while, there is no reas­on to con­sider this form the tra­di­tion­al one (if it is at all cor­rect to talk about tra­di­tions with re­gard to post-Pet­rine Cyril­lic). This б ap­peared re­l­at­ively re­cently:

Evol­u­tion of the let­ter б from the 17th to 19th cen­tury. Se­lec­ted by Danila Voroby­ov (from the cata­logues of Rus­si­an type foundries).

This form did not ex­ist in pre-Pet­rine hand­writ­ing either:

Vari­ants of the let­ter б re­con­struc­ted from his­tor­ic­al hand­writ­ing samples. By Al­ex­an­dra Korolkova.

There­fore, the ob­vi­ous nu­mer­ic­al su­peri­or­ity in mod­ern type design of the con­struc­tion based on the let­ter о can be seen more as the res­ult of ste­reo­typed think­ing than a mean­ing­ful choice. This con­struc­tion has no corners, and al­though this isn’t the end of the world in typefaces with soft con­nec­tions, the let­ter б looks dis­tinctly spine­less in the vi­cin­ity of ri­gid joints. There are quite a lot of font fam­il­ies with these joints—prob­ably about half, in­clud­ing most dy­nam­ic typefaces. But at the same time the second type of let­ter б is rather rare. Even though it is much more struc­tured.

The sol­id spine be­comes a new ele­ment in type­set­ting—a ver­tic­al stroke with a unique form. A di­versity of forms is an un­doubted mer­it of any al­pha­bet, and Cyril­lic is ob­vi­ously lack­ing in this. So the thought­less choice of a let­ter б, based on o, only ex­acer­bates the form mono­tony. This may be good for stat­ic typefaces, but dy­nam­ic ones need more drive.

In ad­di­tion, the sol­id spine plays the role of a bridge between the x-height and as­cend­er zones. In the Ro­man al­pha­bet, the as­cend­ers of the let­ters b, d, f, h, k, l and t take on this func­tion, while in Cyril­lic there’s only б and ф. If we re­move the б, ф will re­main in a state of sad loneli­ness.

I ser­i­ously thought about all this for the first time when I was work­ing on the cyril­lisa­tion of two Ty­po­theque typefaces—Fedra and Greta—and res­ol­utely chose the let­ter б with a sol­id spine. In my opin­ion, the res­ult is rather har­mo­ni­ous:

The re­ward, like a de­li­cious design dessert, was the dis­play styles of Greta, in which the let­ter б gained an un­ex­pec­ted dec­or­at­ive ef­fect:

So I vote in fa­vour of choos­ing this design in typefaces with ri­gid joints, but, of course, this de­cision should not be made reck­lessly.

And it goes without say­ing that the sol­id back in isol­a­tion is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess—you still need to find the right form for it. The let­ter shouldn’t slouch, and the look­er should un­der­stand where the ver­tic­al stroke ends and the ho­ri­zont­al one be­gins:

From top to bot­tom: Titla Brus (Oleg Kar­p­in­sky), Lino­type Pisa (Lutz Baar, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an).

And that’s not all. The con­struc­tion with a branch on a thin stem can be drawn in dif­fer­ent ways too.

a—ITC Charter (Mat­thew Carter, Vladi­mir Ye­fimov), b—Filo­sofia (Zuz­ana Ličko, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an).

See the dif­fer­en­ce? In the second ex­ample (b), the branch has a clear struc­ture and a ri­gid di­vi­sion in­to zones: the thin stalk bends sharply and turns in­to a clear-cut thick branch with one strict move­ment to the right and up­wards. And the branch ends equally clearly with an ac­cen­tu­ated serif of suf­fi­cient size. The first ex­ample (a) has none of the fea­tures de­scribed above. The branch’s di­vi­sion in­to zones is very ar­bit­rary—it of­ten doubts wheth­er it’s grow­ing in the right dir­ec­tion or not and has got in­to a com­plic­ated re­la­tion­ship with its serif. All this mess­ing around does not give the let­ter any con­fid­en­ce, and as a res­ult its more suc­cess­ful friends start to shun it. Com­pare the group dy­nam­ic in the first and second ex­amples here:

It looks like the lat­ter ones have more fun.

Don’t be scared to end the branch with a serif, and treat it well—it’s no worse than the oth­ers:

From top to bot­tom: Greta Dis­play (Peter Biľak, Nikola Djurek, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an, Alexei Kas­si­an), Aldine 401 (Bit­stream, based on Francesco Griffo’s draw­ings, Isa­bella Chayeva).

In the serifs, it’s im­port­ant to pay at­ten­tion to the har­mony between the б branch and the legs of the к. I’m not say­ing they ab­so­lutely have to be sim­il­ar and of­ten draw them dif­fer­ently my­self, but a com­plete dis­reg­ard for the styl­ist­ic unity of these ele­ments ob­vi­ously doesn’t be­ne­fit a typeface. Typ­ic­ally, such a cor­rel­a­tion can be seen in typefaces with soft к branches, which can’t be said of those with ri­gid legs, where more at­ten­tion should be paid to this “rhyme”. The ex­ample on the right looks more lo­gic­al:

From left to right: Didona (Vladi­mir Ye­fimov), Charter (Mat­thew Carter, Vladi­mir Ye­fimov), Greta Dis­play (Peter Biľak, Nikola Djurek, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an, Alexei Kas­si­an).

Don’t de­mand ob­lig­at­ory soft­ness from the branch, it has the right to be an­gu­lar—just like the oth­er ones:

From top to bot­tom: Swift (Ger­ard Un­ger, Ta­gir Safayev), Greta Text (Peter Biľak, Gay­ane Bag­dasary­an, Alexei Kas­si­an).

When it is styl­ist­ic­ally jus­ti­fied, let the branch grow up­wards en­er­get­ic­ally. Don’t force it to bend to­wards the ground in search of shel­ter:

Of­fi­cina Sans (Erik Spieker­mann, Ole Schäfer, Ta­gir Safayev, Isa­bella Chayeva).

Let it be as simplist­ic and geo­met­ric as its neigh­bours are:

Bru­tal Type (Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an, Dmitry Rastvort­sev).

If the branch doesn’t fit in to the con­fined space for as­cend­ers, take some away from the bowl, but be sure to dis­trib­ute the white space fairly and evenly:

From left to right: Fedra Sans (Peter Biľak, Gay­an­eh Bag­dasary­an), Rostis­lav (Alexei Cheku­layev, based on Dav­id Ber­low’s Char­coal).

Long story short, learn to love the let­ter б, and it will al­ways be joy­ful, beau­ti­ful and cheer­ful.