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# The letter S

Posts: 36

I found this old article today, which was originally published in the Periodica Polytechnica (scientific journal of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics) in 1979. It covers issues regarding the designing of the letter S. The text from a PDF along with some illustrations are provided below.

What are you think?

# THE LETTER “S”

by
J. Gróh
Department of Drawing and Composition, Technical University, Budapest

The characters S in “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” printed in the shop of Aldus Manutius are excellent. Among patterns arisen in the first century of printing, the designs by Vicentin, later by Cresci, show a dynamic letter S. Construction of the letter S by Durer is, however, faulty, the character falls backwards. In later periods, up to present, many good and bad examples are found, the difference between them slowly fading out.

Forming of the letter S is unparalleled in our alphabet. The floating statics of the intertwining arcs makes it the most problematic character, ahead in difficulty of the construction of characters inexistent in the Roman alphabet therefore uneasy to be fitted into its form system.

It is well known that S forms (both capital and lowercase) are built of two superposed circles. The two circles are joined, opened on top and bottom, in general by applying a tangent arc (a). The obtained initial form is not bad. If, however, the letter is less wide than the circles, the character tips over; vertical chords adjusted to the endings make the cause of this phenomenon evident (b). The S tilts less to the left when only the upper part is shorter than the length of the diameter (c). Just as deficient a form results from enlarging the lower part for the sake of an apparent, optic equilibrium of the two parts; thus the character obtains a vertical tangent on the left but none on the right (d). The correct solution is evident; the upper circle has to be slid to the right (e). Even with identical circles, a balanced form tending to the right is achieved.

Fig. 1

S varieties are easy to construct from joining identical circles slid on each other (Fig. 1). In drawing four squares, not only those enveloping the circles but also their reflections along the horizontal bisector, diagonals of the overlapping squares intervene in constructing the letter. They provide numerous points and refer to other ones suitable as centres for circular arcs to be composed at will. Thus the letter may be formed optionally to match the given alphabet. The construction is simplified by adhering to the enveloping circular arc for the outer arcs, rather than to join both circles by an arc, necessarily empoverishing the form. These letters have in common to always keep the statics of S and mostly also its impulse.

***

Initial letter (Hypnerotomachia Poliphili)

Roman capitals inscription at Via Appia.

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• Posts: 1,097
The S is still my favorite letter to draw.  Yes, it is demanding but also satisfying. I must admit that I just draw it rather than construct it.  It is interesting to see this theory, however.
• Posts: 788
In summary: Dürer's compass/straightedge rationalization was wrong. Tilt the S a bit and make the top smaller.
• Posts: 191
Ah, my old nemessssisssss... (sorry!) Damn hard letter(s) to draw, especially if you're using a mouse. This circle method is so much easier, producing usable results nearly instantaneously, with very little work. Plus, its authenticity is impeccable, being millennia old. Very nice!
• Posts: 461
Geometric construction works very poorly, even for monoline geometric typefaces. All of Gróh's examples depart radically from the underlying circles. (And they're still not very good.)  Meanwhile, constructing an S out of circles doesn't work at all for most styles of letter. You can't make grots, garaldes, didones, transitionals that way, to say nothing of more calligraphic forms.  You sure can't make an s for Michael's M75 face (which, fwiw, I think is shaping up very nicely).

Michael, if you think the circle method produces usable results fast, I suspect you're not looking hard enough. Drawing an s is a basic type design skill. Trying to find a trick to avoid learning it will not help you develop.
• Posts: 1,097
To me, this is the fun part! Ahh, at last, I get to draw an S!  Forget about that damn W! ;-)
• Posts: 191
Well, in all fairness they're more usable than what I draw... the bar isn't exactly high. I never could get the upper left and lower right curves to look decent, not without hour after hour of work, deleting points and moving off-curve points.

Anyway, I think I unconsciously adapted a method of resizing and stacking the letter /o, rather than a circle -- already shaped for/by/with pen angles and such, and more oval than circular. This looks better than circles.

But I think Max has it right.
• Posts: 1,097
You only need to complete your 10,000 hours now ;-)
• Posts: 722
edited August 2015
Interesting, John. That’s the opposite of the sign painters’ technique taught by John Downer where they do the spine first.
• Posts: 679
...but sign painters don't use Bézier curves
• Posts: 722
• Posts: 520
edited August 2015
Besides the shape, another thing to consider is the width of your /s.
It's a letter that gives you some freedom to play.

Some examples:

Sans: Narrow: Avant Garde, Eras, Frutiger, Kabel / Wide: Franklyn, Helvetica, Titling
Serifs: Narrow: Garamond, Bembo, Baskerville, Stone / Wide: Fenice, Century, Stika
• Posts: 461
For what little it's worth, if I have to draw an S or any other glyph where organic flow is important, I personally have to start with pencil or ink, some method that lets me make whole forms with a sweep of my fingers and/or hand. Once I've got the essence, béziers are brilliant for editing. But compared to a drawing tool in my hand, I find, even after 30 years of practice, that using béziers to create complex curves from scratch is a bit like pushing strands of al dente spaghetti around with chopsticks.
• Posts: 1,176
David, that wouldn't work for me. I don't mind the /s, but the section mark never looks right to me.  ;o)
• Posts: 1,097
What a wonderful dissection of the problem, David ;-)
• Posts: 1,097
Maybe I was born with a bezier chromosome but I rather like starting straight away drawing with the mouse.
• Posts: 238
Is that strange to have done the section mark and/or dollar sign before both Ss?
• Posts: 1,097
Mr Berlow was enjoying a bit of humor, Michael.
• Posts: 461
Maybe I was born with a bezier chromosome but I rather like starting straight away drawing with the mouse.
• Posts: 476
edited August 2015
I don’t have one single method for drawing S, but I tend to focus a lot on the negative shapes – to the point where I sometimes draw them before I draw the actual letter.

And, I’ve found that a spine with a straight segment gives me a lot more control.

This one isn’t quite there yet.
• Posts: 42
Ray's method is pure gold! You could even start a font by these steps (in Glyphs)
1) Ray's method, only with a monoline (no serifs if serif typeface)
2) Apply Broad Nibber plugin for serif typeface or plain Offset Curve in sans typeface.
3) Tweak as necessary. (Add serifs if needed now.)
• Posts: 476
edited August 2015
I’d skip point one and two and just tweak everything – as necessary.
• Posts: 42
Polygonal templates have the most tweaking freedom. (Rotating and slanting artificially not worrying about extrema is really helpful.) The result of adding serifs and broad-nibbing the template has a certain charm I can't place my hand on.
-attachments-
On the left is the serif-and-broad-nibbed /s, on the right is a bold tweaked version (with more bézier curves. Also, sorry for the incompleteness.)

• Posts: 42
Definitely, Mark. I can't make my mind up on my bézier /s either leaning forward or backwards. (Only have 1-2 years of messing around with fonts.)