Type Tips

Enable Contextual Alternates

October 13, 2015 by
David Sudweeks
David Sudweeks

Especially if you work with connected scripts on a regular basis, it helps to set a few defaults in your design apps so that script fonts function as designed. In addition to ligatures, which are generally on by default, you'll want to make sure contextual alternates are also turned on.

Unlike discretionary ligatures, whose use is left solely to the typographer’s discretion (meaning your discretion), a contextual alternate is a glyph designed to work in the context of other adjacent glyphs. In connected scripts, contextual alternates are particularly important in order for the strokes to connect properly from one character to the next while maintaining a believable, natural flow. Full-featured script fonts that make use of contextual alternates, like Alejandro Paul’s Poem Script, shown here, generally include several alternates for each glyph, so even after the contextual alternates are in place, there are still options available in order to fine tune the word shape until it’s to a point where you’re happy with it.

From left to right, the Character/OpenType panels from PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Note that when no documents are open, Illustrator’s options are disabled since it requires that all defaults are document-specific.
From left to right, the Character/OpenType panels from PhotoShop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Note that when no documents are open, Illustrator’s options are disabled since it requires that all defaults are document-specific.

In the main Adobe apps, the trick to setting defaults is to open the program you’re about to use, and without any documents open, turning Contextual Alternates on in the Character panel (or in Illustrator, in the OpenType panel). Make sure ligatures are on as well. In Photoshop and Illustrator, these look like small buttons marked with an fi ligature, and a cursive o. In InDesign in the upper right of the Character palette, you’ll see a tiny triangle with four horizontal lines next to it; click on this icon to show more options. If you hover over the OpenType option, you’ll see Contextual Alternates in the menu. Verify that you’ve got a check mark next to this.

To set document defaults, do the same, just with a document open (but with nothing in it selected).

That’s it. You're ready to roll. Access the rest of your glyphs through the Glyphs palette to make any last adjustments when setting script type. Good luck, and ask for help here if you need it.