Unlock More From Your Fonts

Using OpenType features to add character and flair to your design.

Sometimes a letter catches your eye because of something unique about it — like the way the “y” in “manufactory” curls up whimsically here. How do you get the letters to look like that?

That curl in the “y”(and the twist on the “t”) is called a swash. It’s just one of the dozens of OpenType features that type designers intentionally build into their fonts, sometimes for wider range of expression and sometimes just for fun. When you use them, the result is eye catching, and since it’s so easy to personalize it’s a great way to distinguish yourself — not just as a sandwich shop sign maker, but as a designer.

But it’s not like there’s a “swashy y” key on your keyboard next to the ÿ option. Fortunately, many design applications have controls for OpenType features. Personally, I often use Adobe InDesign for typographic layouts — so in this article I’ll walk through how to find and use OpenType features there.

Getting to know OpenType in InDesign

OpenType features are simple replacement mechanisms that substitute a standard letter with an alternative form. This is what transforms the standard “y” into its curly swash version in the typeface I’ve shown in the first image, which happens to be my own LiebeRuth.

InDesign’s Character panel is where you might choose your font and set the size for your text, and also happens to be where the OpenType feature controls live.

Choosing the Options toggle in the upper right of the Character Panel interface pops open a sub-menu where the OpenType features can be found. Features shown with [square brackets] are not applicable for this typeface (LiebeDoni) but may be for others.

In this submenu you will see a list of possible decorations that you can apply to your text. Note how the “st” and “ck” in “sticky” are artfully looped together? That’s because I’ve activated Discretionary Ligatures in this menu.

Contextual alternates and ligatures, both checked in this example, are usually on by default. Type designers build these into their fonts to keep adjacent letters in good balance with one another, and to avoid collisions between letters that naturally overlap. The discretionary ligatures and other decorative options that we’re playing with here are more ornamental and less functional by comparison.

If you select your entire text frame and activate a certain feature (for example, Swash), it will be applied to all of the text in that frame. Depending on how much the designer has built into their typeface, you might notice very little… or all hell could break loose.

Select the “Swash” option from the OpenType menu, and transform your ordinary letters into their wilder selves. A little will go a long way! The font shown here is LiebeRuth.

This can get out of control if a font offers a multitude of decorations. So I would advise only applying decorative features to one or two letters at a time until you’ve reached just the right level of flair.

Select just one letter, and a hover menu will display a mini preview of any alternative versions available to activate. Swap between them until you find the one you like best.

Common words like “the,” “and,” and “for” are sometimes drawn into neat arrangements called catchwords. Try selecting a whole word to see a hover menu with available character alternates and combinations.

Not all fonts will have catchwords. They are more common for decorative or script fonts like LiebeGerda shown here.

See more at once with the glyphs panel

If you’re working with a font for the first time and you aren’t sure what kinds of special character options might be included, there’s a good way to get a big-picture view of that. From the top menu bar in InDesign, head to Type → Glyphs, and pop open the Glyphs panel.

Many of the characters may be too small to see clearly here, but you can tap to select individual letters through the Glyphs panel, and they will insert directly into a text frame.

In this example, I placed the black brushstroke directly from the glyphs palette in a text frame, then placed the word “ROOTS” in white text in a second text frame on top of it.

This may not be a reasonable way to closely browse the entire font, especially since some fonts may contain over 1,000 characters. For example, if you don’t need to see every variant of the capital-letter swashes and just want to get to the catchwords, I’d advise making use of the filtering option available in the “Show” drop-down menu.

View only the catchwords, or any other decorative set, by using the drop-down “Show” menu in the Glyphs panel. Catchwords shown are for LiebeGerda.

One font = lots of possibility

I’ve only scratched the surface of OpenType features in these examples, and there’s much more you might find — it’s completely up to the type designer how many extras they decide to draw for a font.

If you’re eager to experiment with more of these features, Adobe’s Using OpenType features guide is a great reference to have. (There’s advice in there for getting these text features to display on the web, too.) By knowing your way around a font, you can use it in ways that will create typographic variety and make your design more interesting as a whole.