For the Love of the Ampersand

Anatomy of an Ampersand, a Vitruvian sketch of an ampersand

It’s been said by the likes of Gandhi, Samuel Johnson, and Pope John Paul II that the true measure of a society is how it treats the least of its members. The same can be said for a typeface.

Great design is a matter of seemingly insignificant details. When a typographer draws her glyphs, she does well to take into account not just the shape of the letter, but the kerning of her new alphabet and the varying weight of strokes. Letters are no simple things: They come with a lot of required parts, and when putting them together type designers have to strike a balance between their own creative ethos and a font’s potential uses.

The different elements of each glyph are pointed out in: 'Design will save the world. Right after rock AMPERSAND roll does.' The image itself is an element from 'Bold and Justified: The Typographic Universe in One Infographic'

Often, typographers will sneak a little more personality than other letters can afford into those glyphs utilized less often. Chief among these is the ampersand—the andsymbol tucked away above the 7 on your keyboard—which is rarely used outside of logos (including our own in the DWRL!) and so can be an opportunity for typographersto add some flourish to an otherwise dry script.

The 7 key from a typewriter, with an ampersand on top.
Ampersands of various typographical styles

It’s understandable that the ampersand has come to embody a typographic sense of play, considering that the logogram is the result of a dual corruption. The image as we know it originated as a ligature (two letters connected in a single glyph) of the Latin word et, which in English became and; look hard enough and you can still see a capital E and T, and some typefaces try to draw attention to this origin.

As for the strange name, it stems from an archaic means of learning the alphabet. Schoolchildren would add the Latin phrase per se to letters that could stand alone as a word—i.e.,or I—so that a recitation exercise would sound something like, “A per se A, B, C, D…” (which pretty much ruins the melody of the nursery rhyme). When the student got to the end of the alphabet, it was accepted practice to include the then-more-common ligature as a 27th letter—and because languages tend to drift as much as a child’s mind, “X, Y, Z, And per se And” eventually collapsed into ampersand.

Unsurprisingly, the birth of web design has seen a renewed interest in the ampersand. No longer relegated to the edge of a keyboard, you can find everyone’s favorite logogram on t-shirts, as tattoos—there was even a recent Tumblr project which involved designing a new ampersand every day for a year. In its very form, the playfulness of the ampersand seems to inspire amateurs and professionals alike to create new meaning, new connections, to say and in positive ways and exp& toward new horizons—such as the “Amperclan” of visual puns by artist Sophie Elinor:

  • YesWeCanpersand
  • Ampearsand
  • Amperbambam
  • Amperbanned
  • Ampercancan
  • Ampercircus
  • Amperplant
  • Ampersanta
  • Ampersantorini
  • Ampersink
  • Amperspam
  • Amplesand
  • Antlerpersand
  • Babygrandpersand
  • Campervanpersand
  • Disneylandpersand
  • Gingerbreadmanpersand
  • GreenEggsAndHampersand
  • Instagrampersand
  • JackieChanpersand
  • KABLAMpersand
  • Nanpersand
  • Nyanpersand
  • Sandpersand
  • Snowmanpersand
  • Stampersand
  • Toucanpersand
  • Trampersand
  • Vietnampersand
  • YesWeCanpersand
  • Ampearsand

Graphic designers have pushed the ampersand well beyond its use as a conjunction, transforming an archaic deformity into a symbol of digital art. In many ways and with many variations, the ampersand has come to epitomize the rhetorical possibilities of typography: The ability of a font, even a single glyph, to capture an ethos and create a feeling. From humble and mangled beginnings, the ampersand has come to represent the best parts of design, even if it’s one of the smallest parts per se.