Ode to The Two-Storey A
“I hate the two-storey “a” said my seatmate at the signage company where I worked as a designer.
He was upset that a two-storey lowercase “a” created complications as part of internally-lit dimensional signage. At a not-so-big size, the shape of the “a” made it difficult to install lighting inside it. He preferred typefaces with the single-storey “a”.
But I love the two-storey “a”.
It’s one of the best-looking letters in the alphabet. Even if you doodle it casually, you can still get it to look pretty cool.
It’s just classy, and classic.
Now look at the one-story “a”. Looks simplistic and a bit boring against its more classical-rooted counterpart.
The two-storey “a” evolved from Roman letters, which started out as a uni-case alphabet (or all-uppercase, as we would recognize them today). The uncial scripts, which was the popular way of writing sometime between the 4th to 8th century AD, were evolving into a mix of letters we recognize today as a mix of lowercase and uppercase, and the “a”, by this time was evolving into half uppercase and half lowercase. Of course during that time it was just a normal “a”.
Unless one is a letter-obsessed type geek, one would hardly distinguish the two a’s, when reading anything from books to blogs, or signs, whether the a is uppercase or lowercase. As is the case in many functional designs, when you don’t notice anything — when nothing sticks out — that’s when you know it was done right.
And the double story a, despite its more classical appearance, is not confined to old-fashioned serif fonts. Even modern fonts use it. For example, Helvetica from the 50s uses a double-storey “a,” and the little teardrop of negative space has become an iconic shape.
Type geek trivia:
In serif fonts such as Georgia, Times New Roman, and Baskerville, the Regular version appears in double-story a. While the italics are in single storey a.
(That’s how you distinguish fake italics from real italics. Fake italics is a computerized slant applied on letters. Real italics were drawn that way by the type designer, not altered by typesetting software)
Strangely, the double-storey a looks great in typography, but a little odd when handwritten:
Thankfully, both the single-storey “a” and the double-storey “a” have stood the test of time. They make the typographic world more interesting.
And I’m grateful for the two and a half years I spent as part of a signage agency where I dealt with type in large scale, learned how to use geometry as a language, and had interesting conversations about which typefaces perform best in the world of 3D. I got to daydream about type and call it work.