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New symbol designed to replace ‘the’

By Benjie Moss | News | Jul 8, 2013

An Australian entrepreneur, usually known for his restaurants, has stunned the design world by creating a ligature to replace the word ‘the’.

It could be a prank until you hear that Paul Mathis estimates spending anywhere between $34,000 and $68,000 USD developing his symbol, leaving a shocked design world asking, ‘How on earth did he spend $34,000 on that?’

His inspiration it seems, was the ampersand which he mistakenly believes to be an ‘and’ symbol. The ampersand, which is a ligature of ‘e’ and ‘t’, is derived from Latin, popularized by French, and has been in use since at least the 2nd century AD.

There are numerous problems with Mr.Mathis’ proposed ligature, the first and foremost being that it isn’t a ligature of ‘the’ it’s a ligature of ‘th’.

Of secondary consideration is the fact that the characters don’t lend themselves to being a ligature. The purpose of ligatures is the increase readability where letter spacing is such that parts of characters, such as the arm on an ‘f’ and the dot over an ‘i’, collide.

Another spanner is thrown into the works when you consider the relative relationships of uppercase characters and the ascender height of lowercase letters: in roman typefaces, the cap height is frequently shorter than the ascenders, and almost exclusively so in serif faces. The ligature proposed by Mathis becomes counter-productive, by either creating a jarring inconsistency with the rest of a typeface, or by forcing the redesign of all typefaces using the symbol.

The final nail in the coffin is that nobody knows what the ligature is supposed to be. It doesn’t increase readability if it isn’t familiar and so, other than giving you two extra characters to play with on Twitter, serves no purpose.

Whilst you can purchase extended keyboards from the Android store that include the new symbol, the Apple store have so far resisted Mathis’ attempts to release his app.

This vanity project fails because you can’t steer culture. Typography has developed over many hundreds, if not thousands of years. If there was a compelling case for a ‘Th’ ligature, its genesis would be evident in prior work. Language is an evolutionary, not revolutionary process. Mr Mathis would have been better spending his $34,000 lobbying Twitter to raise the character limit on his account.

It’s a great moral lesson for entrepreneurs everywhere: good design solves problems, it doesn’t invent them.

 

Would you consider using Mathis’ Th ligature? Does any good come from vanity projects? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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  • Gordon Chapman-Fox

    The other big problem is that, unlike the flowing ampersand, it’s clunky as hell to write with a pencil or pen.

  • http://jonathoniscreative.com/ Jonathon Tesch

    It’s not aesthetically pleasing even in the slightest. O.o

    The ampersand (&) is touted by many as one of the most (potentially) beautiful glyphs in common English use. Ћ just looks silly, especially when inserted into a line of mostly lower-case letters.

  • Stephen W. Piercey

    Ugly as hell. I hope this never takes off.

  • Benjie

    He has 4 apps for sale, so somewhere there’s an app developer with a very happy bank manager.

  • Benjie

    It was rhetorical. Presumably he spent it on PR to publicise his idea.

  • Benjie

    Yes, flackjap’s link above is to the Serbian character.

  • Benjie

    Fascinating, thanks!

  • kbojan

    I think people are used to standard latin letters so anything new tends to look wierd. I’m Serbian, and this letter looks nice to me. We use both cyrilic and latin scripts, but mixing them is considered illiterate. However, even though I would love to se a Serbian glyph popularized, I do admit it looks kinda dumb when I see it within a latin type.

    Here’s my contribution…

    • Benjie

      kbojan, as a Serbian, what typefaces do you tend to use? Are you accustomed to full Cyrillic sets? Would you mix and match?

      My problem with the design itself is really that it’s incongruous in the latin alphabet (or analphabet), just as a Japanese character would be.

      • kbojan

        Cyrillic is the traditional Serbian script. Serbian Cyrillic is an adaptation of the traditional Cyrilic. It was designed specifically for the Serbian language in 1818 (‘Ћ’ was one of the letters added). Our version of Latin was developed in 1835 by the Croats and introduced to Serbian later when we created Yugoslavia. Both Latin and Cyrillic are derived from the Greek alphabet, I think, so I guess they are more related than Latin and Japanese. Serbs are taught from childhood that mixing and matching is a no-no, so unless you are looking to make some creative statement (see picture, Google it), you would tend to write in one or the other because it just looks awkward (despite the common Greek root).

        Personally, I prefer Cyrillic, because it’s just a beautiful script to me. It doesn’t have diacritics, which suggests that the whole script was designed for the Serbian language. It’s a phonetic alphabet. In general, it was an ambitious project. Also, Latin letters have some spikey feel to them, and Cyrillic are more round and warm. Of course, that’s just my interpretation :D

        My point is that, even though we have a very nice script designed for us, another script is more popular today. This tells us that aesthetics and design in general aren’t necessarily the key factors in what catches on and what doesn’t. Some people connect Cyrillic to the old, conservative breed of Serbians, and the Latin to the modern and liberal – rarely people talk about which script looks better.

        If I were this guy’s PR, I would try to market the new glyph to the rebels, the hipsters, the alternative teens – the same group of people that use all internet slang and acronyms. Because when you use this letter in your message, you don’t want to just get the message across as clearly as possible. You want to say to the person: “Hey, I know this super cool thing that only the l33t people know.” That’s the only use of this glyph that I can see. (also, you can always annoy people with it :) And, of course, not the extra 2 characters you can spare, that’s just BS.

        tl;dr: If marketed properly, Ћ might one day replace THE. However, more likely it will fail unfortunately because the whole campaign looks a
        little silly.

      • Benjie

        Thanks for the extra information :)

    • Isis Marques

      I agree with you, I don’t find it ugly at all. I an imagine people sayng it to the first ampersand “but how in the hell someone will be able to draw this quickly?”. I like it.

  • Lulie

    Amazing idea, but hardly applicable. I don’t see that symbol any smart to read, even if I know that by time I would be accustomed to. And aesthetically talking, I am sure it would only look awful to deal with. _Ћe_ best thing sometimes is to leave things _the_ way they are.

  • Corinne Hitching

    Where’s the e? It looks like it wants to fall over. Sorry

  • Corinne Hitching

    Love fun facts like that. Thanks

    • Daniel

      That is a pretty awesome fact. I didn’t know that at all, I mean I know where he’s headed with this and I don’t know if it’s necessarily a bad thing as long as it fits in with paragraphs and doesn’t look odd really. Though lots of Keyboards have the ‘&’ and no new symbol.

  • Benjie

    I didn’t calculate it, he originally estimated $75,000AUD himself, then revised it down to $38,000AUD. So the actual figure is somewhere in that $34000USD discrepancy.

    It was a question posed in disbelief, without expectation of an answer; hence, rhetorical.

  • jonschlackman

    i understand all the arguments against it. but it’s still kinda fun so i’m going to use it for awhile.

    Also, i do believe certain common use word/letters will become consolidated over time in the digital age.

  • http://jussie-hay.com/ Jussie™

    This is a wind up right?

  • Uroš Stanojević

    This is just regular letter “Ћ” (оr small ћ, Ć in Latin alphabet) from Serbian alphabet. Also, he could have taken the letter Ђ (ђ, or Đ in Latin) because it doesnt look like a simple combination of capital “T” and small “h” :)

    Read more about the letter “Ћ” here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tshe

  • Stephan

    Reminds me of this one:

  • wmwmwm

    It cost $34,000 less in development and your scribble of a ligature is better.

  • bgbs

    This ligature looks awfully familiar. Oh yeah, I’ve design something very similar in the first semester of college 15 years ago.

  • Training in Chandigarh

    Looks innovative but spending $34000 is unbelievable!

  • Netbulae

    the symbol is not good enough

  • Shane Kamar

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tshe — Looks very, very similar.

  • http://www.graphicbakehouse.com.au/ Greg Bakes

    I think everyone is focusing on the $34K and ignoring the fact he might be on to something. While I agree it’s ugly the idea of a symbol to replace “the” is commendable.

  • Ota

    Must be so embarrassing for the bloke. I guess he was like “Darn, I should have looked up all the relevant symbols first. I cannot believe what I spent my $xx.xxx on already exists. THE VERY SAME SYMBOL. Darn!”

    Would you be saying the same thing?

    • flackjap

      I guess that it’s the easiest way to rob someone. Just pick someone that’s incredibly rich, make them believe that you’re onto something really good that somehow benefits them and that they don’t have to do anything at all…

  • http://justinjwilson.com/ Justin Wilson

    That looks a bit like a reversal of the Chinese character for the word “strength”. I can dig it.

  • http://lengstorf.com/ Jason Lengstorf

    Explains the “Ye Olde Pub” signs, and makes me feel like an idiot for pronouncing it incorrectly.

  • Shin

    I prefer using ‘THE’

  • RalfMC

    All the issues mentioned only hold when you insist on calling the replacement symbol a ‘ligature’. As soon as is’t called ‘symbol’, the entire article becomes pointless; maybe the objections are a little shallow? And how does the ampersand look anything like an e and a t? Only in actually writing it a few times will you see how the symbol might look. Have you tried that?

    I also see lots of objections of ‘unfamiliarity’ (it’s clunky, it looks silly, etc.). You don’t think this has to do with the fact that you are not used to it? I’d say that a K is clunkier. And Russians don’t seem to have any trouble with a similar symbol (also in lowercase, which is basically small caps).

    • Benjie

      I don’t agree, but even so it is a ligature (as is an ampersand).

      An ampersand does look like an ‘Et’ especially if you look at an older form — it has evolved as have other characters over the last 500 years.

      Russians, may not have an issue, but they’re not using the Latin alphabet. Serbians may not, but it seems it means something different to them.

      Any aspect of type that draws attention to itself is usually wrong.

      The bottom line is you can’t reinvent a language, it has to evolve.

  • RalfMC

    Apart from the serifs, that looks just like a ‘h’; so you are doing away with both the T and the e. ;-)

  • Benjie

    Well, the ampersand first evolved when the world was restricted to calligraphy, which is a medium far more suited to ‘happy accident’.

    Type design nowadays is far more precise; a single character can be reproduced exactly an infinite number of times. So there’s little scope for evolution, just contrivance.

    I agree that initiative such as these do drive change, but only if they answer a need. For example the @ symbol is commonplace worldwide, despite being relatively obscure 20 years ago. But the @ symbol was adopted by mutual consent, not driven an individual or group.

    I’m sure we could survive without articles, but English would be far less rich as a result and I doubt that people would cooperate. Just like the grocer’s apostrophe, it’s something that happens outside of our conscious control.