Tips for Adding Ligatures and Swashes to Your Lettering

Tips for Adding Ligatures and Swashes to Your Lettering
April 20, 2016 Daniel Palacios

How do you visually add interest and break the predictability of a lettering composition?

One way you could do this is by setting the letters above and below a curved baseline to create rhythm and movement. You could also connect two or more strokes to form a single character, which is known as a ligature in typography and writing.

In calligraphy and lettering, you have more flexibility to create interesting ligatures because there are fewer rules that would normally restrict you in typography. That’s what makes it so fun.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with some of the basic ligatures, you can break the consistency and get creative with your composition.



Some common typographic ligatures are ff, fi, and fl. In most instances, the tittle (dot on the letter i) gets combined to form a single glyph. You can see a lot of examples of this throughout Colin Tierney’s work. He utilizes the tittle ligature very well to create interest and balance. He’s a good candidate to study on Instagram.


These are essentially just extensions of a terminal, leg, tail, ascender, descender, crossbar and entry/exit stroke. If these words don’t make sense to you, then familiarize yourself with the anatomy of typography. There are several images all over the internet that explain these terms.

Use Ligatures and Swashes to Add Balance


Aside from creating interesting relationships, you could also use ligatures and swashes to balance out your composition. It’s a great way to fill in empty gaps or negative space.

Generally, swashes work well at the beginning and end of a word. I like to utilize the “return swash” on the last letter to underline the word. I especially enjoy ascender and descender swashes the most.

Swash ≠ Flourish

Example of flourishes by <a href="">Drew Melton</a>

Example of flourishes by Drew Melton

What makes swashes different is that they’re exaggerated parts of a letter that could resemble flourishes. However, flourishes and swashes shouldn’t get mistaken for one another. A flourish is usually decorative and a standalone piece of the composition, which means it’s not attached to a letter. You could have a complex swash surrounded by flourishes, but they are still different.

Swashes are essentially just extensions of a terminal, leg, tail, ascender, descender, crossbar and entry/exit stroke.

Don’t Go Overboard

Keep in mind that your word or phrase should remain legible. If it isn’t, then you might need to remove or shift things until you find the right balance. You’ll be spending a lot of time getting familiar with how these two work. Combining them together in a harmonious composition takes hours of practice and getting used to.

Study Other Artists

It’s always a good idea to study the work of the people with more experience. It’s easy to do with social media today. If you’re unsure who to look to for examples, you can start with my series of posts on lettering artists and inspiration.

This should get you going in no-time.