Jessica Helfand | Essays

The DNA of AND: Ampersand as Myth and Metaphor

From corporate rhetoric to consumer cliché to faux finishes and desktop veneer, truth has gone from being a steadfast principle to a silly posture. Once the stuff of morals and fables, its presence in everyday life has become an imperiled commodity. We're left with a culture teeming with contradiction: Reality TV. Fuzzy Math. Jumbo Shrimp. Political Intelligence.

Is it real or is it memorex?

If form is driven by content, then the consequences of this shaky reality have driven us further from the utopian promises of modernism than any of us ever dared to imagine.

Wither the ampersand?

In a decidedly non-utopian analysis of current design thinking and practice, the ampersand provides a unique lens through which to examine truth as an ideal — and design as a reality. Bill and I spending a week this summer at the Maine School of Art working with students and contemplating the fates and fictions of and and and.

Letterpress printers have long grouped the ampersand along with other assorted marks (including the asterisk and number sign) under the loose rubric of "allsorts." See the separated-at-birth diptych above: not quite punctuation mark and not quite ligature, the ampersand is a confection to be savored, indeed.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Typography

Comments [10]

Truth as an ideal, and design as a reality... It's a very thought-provoking observation. But what is so special about the ampersand, specifically, in regard to this?

It seems to me that the history of type (all letters) from the Trajan Column on has been a series of utopian desires. Everyone is always looking for the ideal letterform, and even those deconstructionists are trying to be precise about the nature of reality. I wonder how utopianism ever got lost, when everything we say, do, and design seems to be a longing for it, even still.
Tom Gleason

The ampersand also evokes a mysterious tale of formal mutation. Was there some cabal of grizzled typographers, who decided to leave behind the Latin letterforms despite the ink-stained finger-wagging of their colleagues and the accusations of blasphemous formalism? Or is the character the accumulation over two thousand years of the repressed creativity of scribes and typographers, for whom the ampersand offered the greatest opportunity for flair?

Whatever the backstory, what began as the Latin word et became a liguature of those letters and then transformed into the musical squiggle we know today. And somehow (I would argue because of its form) it came to mean more than the word it was designed to represent. In film credits for example, & represents a closer collaboration than and.

I can imagine a similiar trajectory for a single character representation of the. I propose calling it thesithe from the phrase: the character is the. Perhaps over time such a ligature would come to represent THE, not just the.
Dmitri Siegel

For me the ampersand is the preservation of gesture in the printed word. Even in sans serif text, where the hand's movement is most abstracted, the ampersand suggests a more immediate presence and attention of the writer among words set mechanically and, by extension, the presence of the reader. It's specific intention casually reaches out and takes down a wall.

And for those who like to walk among letterforms, the delight of closed rooms and open places.
Michael Hentges

My former company, France Télécom, even made it their logo (I guess @ signs were too passé). The French words for ampersand and commercial-at are quite poetic, esperluette and arobace respectively.
Fazal Majid

I agree that an ampersand is like candy. I see it not as excess, but as a treat: a break from the monotony of type that plays by the rules, a creative doodle amongst measured letterforms. The ampersand, for me, connotes whimsy. It stands out as such because it is derived from, and fits into a system of typographic rules. Rather than replacing truth, it plays off of it.

The lure of oxymorons like Jumbo Shrimp is in the push and pull: the sobriety and the "aha!" The push and pull of the official and unofficial, fortunately and unfortunately, (some may even say) the monumental and the miniature...these are intersections which become charged. That the ampersand looks vaguely alien in amongst its peers is exactly its value.

The ampersand is an embellished form of 'et' just as Reality TV is drama derived from some sort of truth (the truths of: having roommates, trying to start a musical career, dating) They are play, entertainment. And there's value to that.

The pursuit of truth in design is one way to go, to be sure. But why deny there is fun to be had? Who wants to be rational all the time? Is that really the goal? Imagine a life without sweets! Rational, sure, but dry as toast.
Julie Teninbaum

I call it the death of authenticity, which often seems to me the most characteristic aspect of the last few decades.

Maybe it's natural - or maybe it's Maybelline.

(Is "wither" an intentional pun, or a typo?)

Other gravestones to authenticity:
- cosmetic surgery
- e-mail diplomas
- shooting grey scale with digital cameras
- polystyrene architectural mouldings
- "Would you like lies with that?"
- superfluous Hollywood remakes

The ampersand, while not absolutely necessary as a tool of communication, is still helpful. It was thankfully included in the ISO "basic" set which assured its survival in the internet age, along with its new neighbour, the at symbol, and less useful glyphs, such as the asciicircum, which is the pointy hat sitting on your keyboard's 6 key.

While the ampersand started as a contraction of a phrase - and per se and - and of two letters - et - it has taken on a form of its own which enables it to travel throughout the roman alphabet-using world. Because it has no other meaning, an ampersand clarifies its context where language tends to obfuscate. An ampersand replaces "y" in Spanish, "e" in Italian and Portuguese, "und" in German, "and" in English, "et" in French, "og" in Danish and Norwegian, and "en" in Dutch, to name just a few. (What a difference a language makes: in Dutch "Starsky en Hutch" means "Starsky and Hutch", whereas in French "Starsky en Hutch" means "Starsky in Hutch", which is a different kind of movie. Only an ampersand has the power to clear up the confusion for Starsky & Hutch.)

Like many other typographic niceties, the ampersand lost its status as a player in running text and was relegated to the allsorts bin. To read Eric Gill's books, still available in facsimile editions, in which Gill used "&" to replace "and" throughout the text, is to come face-to-(type)face with an anachronism. The ampersand just looks weird when it pops up in running text all the time. (The same applies to 17th-century books with their tall "s"s, "ct" and "st" ligatures, and other necessary evils of hand-set type. It also applies to Prince's song titles and lyrics, which freely replace "forever" with "4ever", "you" with "U", and "I" with a little eye icon. I don't know Prince's reading proficiency level, but his typography is strictly middle school.)

The ampersand is, in my opinion, more useful than it has ever been, and its design should be as well-considered as any other glyph in a typeface. It is safer to make an unoriginal ampersand which looks like an ampersand than a zoomy and unique form which confuses the reader. As a type designer, I take great pleasure in drawing ampersands, and am always trying to find the ampersand that the typeface-in-development "wants". A typeface meant for signage systems should have a conservative ampersand, but a unique display font should push the formal representation of & - it should be a confection to be savoured.

In this age of globalisation, the ampersand remains an eminently useful communication tool, all the more so for its sometimes whimsical behaviour.

Images and texts from Jan Tschicholds fantastic ampersand exposé is avilable here:


I've been working with fonts for 26 years now. This character (aka: the ampersand) is in almost every one of the 30 or 40 thousand fonts(that's right) out there. The fonts that don't carry an ampersand are pi and picture fonts. The ampersand isn't going away anytime soon, at least not in the next thousand or so years.

But if 'we' do decide to get rid of a glyph or 2, lets all jump on the 'per mil'. And then there are those math characters that we put up with. I can see the plus and minus but when's the last time you went hunting for the logicalnot or the plueminus. And what about the curency symbol? I know, lets dump some of these characters and add a few alternate versions of the ampersand or how about.......

Jobs | July 13