Lower Is… Bigger

  1. Many glyphs rendered upside down look wrong. As if their proportions were distorted.
  2. This is due to an optical illusion making the top of two objects seem bigger.
  3. Type designers often have to design the lower part of a glyph bigger, to make it look balanced.

This article is going to be a bit shorter than the rest of the series on typographic illusions. The phenomenon on today’s agenda is much better expressed in images than in words. I will illustrate all the examples using Baskerville typeface by URW.

The typographic upside down

What is wrong with those glyphs? It is clear that they are upside down. But how can we even tell? And why does it look so bad?

The answer, as usually, lies in an optical illusion. Unfortunately, in this case we don’t really have a specific name for this effect, or anything resembling a theory on why it happens. Personally, I think it bears a close resemblance to the Ebbinghaus Illusion, but the specifics are a bit different. Jonathan Hoefler has a nice graphic illustrating his thoughts on the topic. You can find it here.

Same size… but bigger

What basically happens in this illusion is that it makes the top of two similar shapes look bigger than the bottom one.

In type design this is a very undesirable outcome: in most cases what letterforms need is an air of stability. So if you design an /8 with both loops the same size, you will end up with a top-heavy glyph. To make both loops look the same size you actually need to design the bottom shape larger than the top.

Common cases

This happens to all the glyphs in which the white space is separated into two parts (those are mostly capital letters and numbers). When you know about it is pretty easy to notice.

Lined areas in this image indicate the size of the top white space.

There are however some interesting variations and odd cases. For instance, take notice of how in /H you can counteract the illusion by simply moving the bar slightly above the mathematical center of the glyph. In a /B the process is more involved and demands moving the bottom bowl further right than the top. In an /E you combine these techniques by moving the middle arm higher than the mathematical center and by elongating the bottom arm to give the whole shape much needed support.

/N is also an interesting case, because the white space is separated by a diagonal into two triangles. In serif typefaces the top serifs are actually wider than the bottom ones, but the bottom white space remains larger than the top.

That’s it. You have made it through! If you liked this article about type design, why not leave a comment? And if you found it useful, be sure to share it with your network.

Have a great day and see you in the next one.

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