Have you ever taken the time to really think through how often you see an ampersand in a typical day? In design work, the symbol crops up quite often. It’s common on movie posters, company logos, headlines and on websites. The use of ampersands isn’t limited to a particular genre or niche. All industries and markets rely on this handy punctuation.
The invention of the ampersand may have initially come from Roman scribes who wrote the word “et” in script, which is the Latin word meaning “and.” The “e” and the “t” became somewhat swirled together to create what is today called the “ampersand.”
The word “ampersand” results from the fact that, in the early 19th century, “&” used to be the 27th letter of the English alphabet. It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z and.” Instead, people recited these letters as “and per se and.” Because “per se” means “by itself,” this is the equivalent of saying, “X, Y, Z and — by itself — and.”
Over time, people began to string the words “and per se and” together more quickly. Then the word for the symbol became ampersand. This elision makes sense. It’s human nature to shorten and simplify words and phrases over time.
Although scholars aren’t quite sure when the first “&” was put down in written form, archaeologists have found ampersands in Pompeiian graffiti dating back to 79 CE. Therefore, one can surmise the ampersand dates back at least to the first century, but possibly even earlier than that. By the eighth century, ampersands had developed to the point that they were clearly recognizable as the symbol we use today. They have appeared throughout history from that time forward, and always with the basic meaning of “and.”
The Ampersand Today
The modern ampersand is typically reminiscent of that Renaissance-era symbol. When written by hand, it sometimes appears as a large epsilon. It looks like a backward numeral three with a vertical line through the center. People also sometimes use the plus sign as an abbreviation for the ampersand. The abbreviation is most commonly used in informal writing.
As mentioned above, the overall look of the ampersand hasn’t changed in many centuries. However, it can be styled differently through adding extra loops and serifs to make it a bit fancier or plainer, depending upon its usage and how formal or informal the creator wants the ampersand to look.
The different styles of the symbol include the more traditional Carolingian/Roman style, Italic style and Gothic, or typeface. With the advent of digital typefaces, these styles are sometimes meshed together, such as when Roman and Italic are used to create a font. An example of this combined style is Adobe’s Caslon Pro in italics.
Each font gives its ampersands a different look. The overall appearance of the ampersand can even vary. It’s based on whether you use the regular or italic form of a particular font. Because of the numerous fonts available today, there are also hundreds of potential ampersands from which to choose, including clipart ampersands.
Typical Ampersand Usage
The ampersand is used widely today in logos, company names, headlines and as an abbreviation. Some companies that use the ampersand in their names include AT&T, Tiffany & Co., Johnson & Johnson and Barnes & Noble. You can likely think of a few companies in your neck of the woods that employ the ampersand in their name or logo.
Tips for Using Ampersands in Your Designs
There are hundreds of different fonts, and all have an ampersand symbol available for your use. Finding which style works best with a company’s brand is a matter of understanding the tone of different fonts and understanding that Roman is a bit more formal in nature than Italic. You can also use images of ampersands within design, taking open-source ampersands and placing them into a logo, for example.
One thing to keep in mind is that the ampersand is a display symbol. For example, you wouldn’t use the ampersand within the body text of a formal report. However, you can use an ampersand in a headline or in business signage. Don’t be afraid to make the ampersand a different size, color or even font than the rest of your text. This can make the symbol blend or stand out, depending upon where you wish to place the emphasis.
The symbol is used most often for organization titles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it in headlines. Consider the spacing and kerning between the text and the ampersand. Especially if you are using a graphic for the ampersand and a font for the text portion of a logo.
Basic Ampersand Rules
There are some basic rules of using ampersands. If you can stick within these rules, you’ll have better success using this symbol in design. Don’t just use the ampersand to replace the word “and,” but use it in proper nouns, logos, for book, song and movie titles, as well as within citations for multiple authors. Of course, there are other instances where you might want to use an ampersand. However, if you follow these basic rules, you’ll find it helpful.
Designers tend to appreciate the ampersand because it has a flow to it that is just downright pretty and almost feminine. It also can be slotted between two letters or words, placed slightly behind them, made larger or smaller than the rest of the text, or just used to add interest to an overall design. What’s not to love?
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.