Form(al) education

form magazine cover

The re-issued form magazine dedicated an  issue to design education. Anja Neidhardt asked me four questions, as part of her research for her article. (The issue can be read on Isuu via the form website.) Here are my answers to Anja’s questions:


At Typo Berlin (if I remember right) you said about teaching: “What we do is: We cheat”. Please explain this statement.

The context for this sentence was a longer statement about the nature of typographic and typeface design. Typography happens in contrast with other areas of design, where the functional conditions are relatively simple and the space for formal experimentation relatively wide. In the typographic disciplines we look to past practice as a guide to the assumptions that users will make in each circumstance. This happens because the design objectives are relatively complex (the information density is high) and their configurations relatively stable (a news article has a similar structure on a print newspaper as on a smartphone); and because the consumption of typographic design is iterative, and cumulative: changes take place in an environment of many similar objects used concurrently, within a continuum of experience by each user. In other words, the more radical a change, the more it needs to echo and relate to pre-existing structures and affordances. The use of visual metaphors in interface design is a typical case of this mechanism.

So, designers rely on a whole range of pre-existing decisions for their own designs to make sense. In the best case, these pre-existing conventions are consciously acknowledged; in these cases the designer can engage in depth with his subject, and improve the discipline. But in many cases designers are only partially aware of the way conventions have been formed, and how their own ideas are influenced by the design environment. In these cases, designers “cheat” in the sense that their work feeds off past projects without due recognition.


How does education in the field of typography look like today? What should be changed, and why?

It is possible to see strong growth in some areas, and early signs of risk in others. My own niche area of typeface design is experiencing strong growth, and will continue to do so for many years, in response to the globalisation of typographically complex documents, and the need to support text-intensive environments. The result is a lot of new courses at a range of levels, and a strong interest by both younger and more experienced designers to study. With regard to document-level typography (from a periodical publication to newspapers to reference works) there is a critical transformation in progress, with inadequate response by education institutions globally.

Until roughly the last decade the design and the production spheres were relatively separate, and with clear professional roles (in other words, a designer was not also the printer). The situation nowadays is different, where the “maker” may be a designer as well, or work in an environment with a lot of overlap (the person who writes the code to render a text on screen may implement a specification by someone else, but may just as easily devise the typographic specification him/herself).

This new environment, where the typographic specification has, in fact, a high overlap with the encoding of the text, places new requirements for typographic education. The easiest examples are those of “conventional” publications like novels and magazines turned into ebooks and tablet-based apps. The old model called for a relatively stable typographic specification, implemented by typesetters and printers who made the content of authors and editors appear in print. In contrast, we now have typographic specifications that are not only fluid across platforms and use scenarios, but also across time: the typographic design changes often in little steps, instead of only every few years in big ways. And, whereas the roles of authors and editors may be clear, the “makers” (designers and coders who make the content appear on each device) are now melded into multi-skilled individuals, or closely integrated teams (at least where things go well).

It is my impression that design education has not responded fast enough to the challenge of these new models of publishing, and have not acknowledged the need to respond to the demand for these new roles. Furthermore, we are now at a stage where “tradition” typographic education is at risk of falling behind. The sequence in which complex documents are migrating to screens, and the way in which content is specified, has helped establish some basic parameters for on-screen typography that makers can refer to while maintaining the readability of documents, but lacking the skills and understanding to deal with more complex information structures (this is a kind of “cheating” like that discussed above).

Colleges and universities teaching typography face the challenge of adapting to a typography that is personal, portable, responsive to its context and that of the reader’s route through texts, that references established conventions, that integrates time-based elements, and even jumps across may possible combinations of all these parameters. The ones that respond to this challenge will have strong growth ahead, but I think that the difficulty of radical change in many institutions puts typographic education at risk.


On the one hand there are many, many fonts made for the latin writing system. But on the other hand there is a lack of fonts in some countries. How can students be taught to design typefaces for languages they don’t speak?

Indeed, in recent years we see an overdue push to cover gaps in global typeface design coverage, both in wide character sets (multi-script typefaces) but also in extended typeface families in non-Latin scripts. This corrective is a response to changes in type-making and typesetting technologies, the growth in the range of documents (in the widest sense of the word) produced in global scripts, and the spread of readership in new demographics. Although digital technology liberated the type-making tools from the geographic restrictions of previous technologies, the know-how and support resources have remained, for many scripts, near the traditional centres of typeface design. It is not surprising, then, that designers who are experienced in some scripts may be called on to design typefaces in new scripts – a practice reinforced by existing professional networks and the focus on business development in English. In practice, professional designers may be expected to build experience in a whole range of related or unrelated scripts. The education challenge is then clear – and pressing, since the market is growing faster than existing designers can develop their skills.

Four areas need to be addressed for a student to develop non-native design skills (and the same for a designer experienced only in their native script):

First, and most fundamentally, an understanding of the historical development of the written and typographic script as it currently stands, with particular focus on the impact of type-making and typesetting technologies on the form of individual characters, the character set and any composition rules (esp. substitution and positioning).

Second, an exploration of the key combinations of writing tools and movements that generate “valid” letterforms and words in the script. This is particularly important in all the scripts that have a much closer relationship to written forms than the Latin (which is, in fact, the overwhelming majority).

Third, an understanding of how existing styles correspond to specific typographic structures, and how they are used in native documents. (For example, how is hierarchy, emphasis, and differentiation in tone indicated in the typography of the non-native script? What is the practice when equivalents to styles like “italic” or “thin” are not present?)

Fourth, an understanding of the tension between tradition and modernity in the context of the local visual culture. This forms the basis for progressing beyond mere adaptation towards originality and even innovation. The role that lettering can play in inspiring alternate styles is a key example of this area; another is the relationship of stroke properties to established styles (for example, in one script a monoline stroke may be considered “default and traditional” whereas in another the loos of contrast may be a radical proposition).

While developing a critical understanding of the non-native script, students also need to do some text analysis. This will give them insights into the combinations of letters and the patterns of shapes (just as a German designer will also test their Latin typeface with texts from all European languages). Unlike the four areas of learning, this is a process that is easy to share amongst designers, and pool the results, which can then be converted into common test documents.

It is, of course, important to seek feedback from native readers, but not any native reader – even if they are design professionals from the native community. Feedback needs to be sought from people who can give type-specific comments, which are fairly specialised. (Graphic designers, for example, are used to seeing type in a different scale from type designers, and tend not to understand the cumulative effects of detail changes within individual letters.) And before readers instinctively object, it is useful to be reminded that there are many examples of exceptional typefaces by non-native designers, with and – in some cases – without native feedback.

A final caveat: in Reading type design students develop native- and non-native script skills in parallel. This makes for better, deeper education, but is a different scenario from that of an already experienced designer of (for example) Latin typefaces seeking to learn how to design in another script.


Will there be another, new Erik Spiekermann? Or is time up for big stars like him?

This is a nonsense question. Erik is very successful in his field, with a high public profile – but the same can be said of many professionals in their respective fields. It is more appropriate to ask why is Erik’s success interesting, or whether his career is more revealing in relation to other high profile designers of his generation (of which, let’s be clear, there are many).

Erik’s career is notable for two reasons: firstly because, unlike other designers whose work is focused within a relatively narrow domain (such as typefaces, or posters, or transport maps, or branding) his work spans several domains: all of the ones I just mentioned, and then some. This richness of practice is illuminating in itself, regardless form the fact that in some of these cases it can be described as capturing the spirit of the times perfectly, and in a few cases even being ahead of the curve. There is a problem in this richness for those who want to capture design outputs into neat narratives, because clearly in Erik’s case there isn’t one, but multiple strands of thinking in parallel. So, the uniqueness of his work lies not in individual projects, but in the totality of his work.

The second reason Erik’s career is notable is that he has made a point of using his visibility to get key messages about design to wider audiences, and not just in the design world. Even in his most indulgent moments, the notions of rigour and process are present. He has also shown that user-sensitive, evidence-driven design does not need to be dry or visually uninspiring – a common failing in the wide information design world. And, related to this, Erik does not take himself seriously – one of the most positive personality traits one can aim for.

The second question (“is it time up for big stars”) neglects the length of Erik’s career. There are many people in the wider design world who are gradually building very strong public personas that can be expected to be just as recognisable and influential when they reach Erik’s age (and probably, give the speed with which things happen nowadays, much sooner). They are more likely to be from the “design for screens” crown (I want to avoid separating IA, UX, and so on) but there are many possible candidates.

From concrete to fluid, but not yet to social

Lectures are often static objects. The size of the audience, time constraints, and the need for conference organisers to keep some editorial control make sessions mostly about transmission (“this is going to be just me speaking now”) rather than engagement (“I’ll guide a discussion through which you’ll learn”).

Although the audience size and format are often quoted, the traditional static nature of lectures was also connected, and in no small measure, to the way visual material was prepared. Slides (of the old kind, not digital ones) were expensive things you’d have to plan very carefully. Object needed to be photographed (expensive and slow), and slides developed and mounted (ditto). If you wanted text on slides, you’d need to prepare the text separately and shoot the slide on a rostrum (yet more cost and delay). Once lectures were delivered, they would either remain in the memories and notes of attendees, or be published as pamphlets or transcripts, usually omitting the images. The situation for lectures that are preserved as podcasts is similar.

My oldest lecture with PDF slides is from early 1999. I still remember the elation of being liberated from film. Scanners and Acrobat made planning of versions for different lengths and audiences orders of magnitude easier, and eliminated many costs. And working with text in slides became trivial. Yet, while the speed and flexibility of building lectures improved dramatically, the format of the lectures changed very little. From the point of view of the audience, the only difference is that transitions between slides were much faster and smoother, and that it was possible to linger on a single slide for many minutes, since doing this with a transparency risked burning the slide. Regardless, the transition to PDFs did not change the structure of the lecture from a somewhat rigid narrative punctuated by images.

The gradual adoption of presentation software like Keynote and PowerPoint for public lectures (because teaching environments are a different case; another blog post)  precipitated a shift to lectures being structured as sequences of images with annotations attached to them. The ease with which presentation apps allowed tree-style outlines to be built or imported strengthened this trend as a way to compose a lecture.


two lecture structures

From a single script with reminders to change the slide, to a series of slides with annotations.

For the speaker this means a greater number of slides, since each point in the narrative needs a slide simply to exist, let alone be elaborated. For the audience this is a Good Thing, since it adds a visual dimension to explanations that would otherwise be left to words alone. This is pretty much where we are today; tools like Prezi do not shift from this model. (Sliderocket offers collaborative functions and tracking elements, but these are intended for internal teams, not public engagement.)

But whereas lecture composition and delivery has (sort-of, if you’re in a generous mood) kept up with developments in content authoring, it has not progressed much in adding value to a lecture after it has been captured. We have acceptable records of what was shown and said at the time of delivery, mostly by sticking a camera in the aisle so that both the speaker and the slides are in the frame, or by splicing a talking head in a frame that is mostly taken over by the slide, or by trying to switch between the two. From the speaker’s point of view, the best you can hope for is a separate feed for the audio from the  microphone, instead of the camera’s own.

GL at ALUO talk, Ljubljana 2013

Close but no cigar, v.1: Less that half of the frame is important, images are skewed, and details may be lost. (From

Both these options exist in silos on YouTube or Vimeo, mostly. Although comments on the video’s page are possible, these stick on the page of the video, and by default refer to the whole: comments cannot link explicitly to a point in the stream.

River-Valley.TV slide

Close but no cigar v.2: both speaker and slides are visible all the time, but the interaction between the two is lost. (From

Depending on the how the speaker uses the lecture slides, posting the deck on Speakerdeck or Slideshare may be anything from very useful to utterly confusing. Some speakers use their slides to illustrate points and punctuate their talk: they conceive the narrative as a combination of verbal and visual content in sync. But these decks tend to make little sense on their own, since the speakers’ explanations and bridging sentences are missing. (A “bridging sentence” spans two slides, and is used to join the transition to a new visual message with the verbal narrative.)

Tribute to Adam

Close but no cigar v. 3: “What’s this guy doing here? What’s the speaker’s point? By the way, nice jacket.” (My slide, from a TypoLondon 2012 talk)

On the other hand, speakers that use their slides as a record of the argument trade a less engaging presentation for a more useful record of the talk’s key points. This category of decks spans anything from a few sentences on a slide, like this:

Slide from a W3C workshop

Close but no cigar v. 4: “Why do I need to hear the speaker say these things, if I can read them already?” (My slide, from a W3C workshop panel, 2013)

… to semantic soups that make your head spin and scream “FFS, what where you thinking?!”


Close but no cigar v. 5: It really is impressive that any eavesdropping happens at all if they use these for training.

Both video capture and deck publishing are undeniably useful. But they are closed objects, with very limited scope for interaction and cross-referencing. Especially in non-academic circles, where a talk is not an exposition of a scholarly paper, the video or slide deck may be the only “text”. Speakers may transcribe their points in blog posts, but then the text in the blog post encapsulates the ideas, not the talk itself.

It is also possible to take a deck as a starting point, and annotate it in a way that it becomes a more-or-less self-contained text. I tried this with my latest talk on the relationship of tools and innovation, delivered in Warsaw a week ago. The slides went from 67 to 93, and the word count from 590 to 1,330. This is an experiment to compare the reach of this deck with other decks that were uploaded within minutes of delivery, warts n’ all.

Warsaw Design Debate uploaded slide

A slide that was projected during the lecture.

This was the slide that I added immediately after, in the uploaded deck:

Warsaw Design Debate uploaded slide

This slide summarises the explanations of the four points in the previous slide.

In some slides, I added text on the original slides:

Warsaw Design Debate uploaded slide

The text in white was presented in the lecture; the darker text was spoken, and added in the uploaded version.

So far so good?

But a good lecture generates commentary, both during its delivery and after it has been published. While a lecture is being delivered, things are happening: people are reportingcommenting, expanding, and even making old-style notes:

speaker evaluation

Services like Eventifier or Storify can build a partial record of an event after the fact, but they are not optimised for the smaller scale of a single lecture. And they primarily compile what’s already out there, without the functionality to edit the results or comment on specific parts. Even so, these results are not linked back to the lectures themselves, let alone the moment the tweets were posted or the images taken.

Worse, if someone writes a coherent and engaged response to a talk (like John D. Berry did for my Ampersand talk) this is isolated from the source, whether it exists on video or slide deck. Or any other part of the discussion the talk might have generated, for that matter.

Not very “social”, then. Events that are, in essence, starting points for discussions and catalysts for ideas, become fragmented, flat sets of disconnected objects.

So, what then?

A good lecture is a story with convincing arguments. A great lecture will leave the audience with new ideas, and set off ripples of discussions and further “texts”. Ideally, all these things are connected, and become part of a collaborative document. This is what citations do in the academic world, and what links do online. It seems paradoxical that we have easy ways to connect verbal hiccups, but do not have an easy, robust, and open way to link within lectures. Considering the effort that a good lecture encapsulates, this is pretty wasteful.

I don’t know if this platform exists, but here’s my back-of-an-envelope model for a slide deck viewer; obviously only one slide (and the discussion it generates) are viewable at a time:


Model of a slidedeck viewer

A vertical timeline, with author content on one side (slides and annotations) and social content on the other (comments, tweets, links) arranged alongside a specific slide, or a span of slides.

For this to work every slide would need to have its own URL, but that should be really easy. (So, my slides above could have addresses like
and a comment

For a video talk, something like this:

Model of a video viewer

Author annotations (if supplied) below the image, appearing according to timestamps. Below, a timeline with a liveblog-style scroll of tweets, in sync with the timestamp they relate to. And, next to them, a column with links and external references.

If there’s an easy way to link to a specific time point in a video stream from within a comment or a tweet, and collect all that together, I’ve missed it. But I’d like to be able to link to

You get the picture.

Any takers, internet?

Echoes on designing across scripts

Last Sunday, at the ATypI conference in Amsterdam, Alexandra Korolkova was awarded the Prix Charles Peignot for Excellence in Type Design. Although the award is for work in typeface design, Alexandra stands out for another reason: she has written, illustrated, and composed a book on typography within a very short time after graduation. I can’t read Russian, but I bought the book straight after she showed it to me in 2008, as a superb example of early achievement and determination. It also looks good.

In her acceptance speech Alexandra touched on the issue of typeface designers working in scripts they are not native to. The comments sparked some discussion on Twitter, when Laurence Penney noted the contrast with my article on Typographica reviewing the developments in global type design. My article encapsulated my research and practical experience in this area, rather than address the specific issue of contemporary designers working on multi-script typefaces. (I promised I’ll do this before too long.)

So far, so good. If nothing else, the exchange highlighted that the type world is not yet in agreement about the issue of designers shaping letters in scripts they can’t read. But this morning I was hunting for an unrelated reference and Spotlight brought up an email from the very first OpenType list that gave me that special feeling of

The email is dated 1 July 1998, and the subject is Matching glyphs from different scripts. It is part of a long thread, which does not survive complete in my archive, so it’s somewhat in medias res. I’ve anonymised the correspondents, and excised a short paragraph that was referring to another thread. Otherwise it’s as was.


Dear [A] and [B], I think you missed my point. Please let me explain.

First I wrote:

Greek certainly proves the point that, while proficiency in a non-native language helps the designer, it by no means an essential condition for excellence in type design.

This is supported by typefaces such as Porson Greek, Scholderer’s New Hellenic, the Max Steltzer Series 90 (via Schelter & Giesecke), more recently some of Matthew Carter’s designs. Although the first two knew classical Greek, the conditions of approaching a language as an object of scholarly observation and analysis based on a finite and immutable set of texts, and the conditions of reproduction of such texts, argue against the
classicists having a dynamic relationship with the language. A native user not only engages in dialogue, but also encounters the written/printed language in unknown format & content, and in huge variety. On the other hand, there are too many typefaces designed by Greek graphic designers / computer engineers / whatever in which the native familiarity with the language did not do the least good in terms of the typographical quality of their work. I cannot refer to examples here, since such typefaces are limited to the domestic market, but I promise to bring a folder with examples at ATypI 98 (I showed some examples in my talk at ATypI 97, if things go as planned these will get a wider airing in the coming months).

My point is that the ability to design a successful typeface, resides primarily in the ability to digest as much as possible of the script’s/language’s typographical tradition, analyse it in formal terms pertinent to typograhical design (which are not necessarily as exact as an engineer would have in mind) and apply the personal interpretation stemming from experience, opinion, and talent of the individual. The reason why non-native designers find Greek much harder than their native flavour of the Latin script is not their inability to converse in Greek, but the lack of continuous contact with a plethora of Greek letterforms. (To this you could add the lesser factor of the unfamiliarity with scribal letterforms, but this is a huge debate in typographical circles, and I would take it with a pinch of salt.)

[A] wrote:

I’m afraid you cannot convince me that you believe this when two breaths later you aver

My feeling … is that people at the right places are becoming much more aware of the need to *test a design with qualified native speakers ….* The problem with marketing would seem to be the budgetary and scheduling pressure for few test/feedback cycles. But still, I think the situation nowadays is better than a a decade or two ago.

I’m terribly sorry, but if you grant the requirement to test a design with native speakers — and then go on to decry the evil of budgetary constraints which allow only a “few” test / feedback cycles, you are not doing anything but confirming my original claim in different language. The glyphs may have been rearranged, but they appear to add up to the same point.

[A], I did not write: “test a design with native speakers”, I wrote: “test a design with qualified native speakers”. The “qualified” bit is at least as important — if not more so — than the “native” bit. The non-typographically aware reader is a very poor judge of typeface design, simply because familiarity with the language and the experience of daily exposure to a huge variety of written/printed letterforms makes reading a far from conscious excercise relying hugely on contextual deduction. This is well established and you can easily test yourself. The limited number of revision cycles (and note that I did not place “few” within quotes) simply encroaches on the amount of information the non-native type designer can receive from the _qualified_ native reviewer.

It is also very hard to accept that the type industry has more funds available for testing now than it did two decades ago ! … !

It probably does not. But the speed and ease of altering digital designs makes revision much easier than the production of hot-metal or phototype typefaces ever allowed, wouldn’t you agree?

Moreover I have problems with the implication that all the subtleties of a printed language can be resolved in a few “beta cycles”. A typeface is not some tacky little piece of software, no matter what technological clothes it wears.

Nobody suggested that “all the subtleties of a printed language” can be resolved in a few revisions, whatever these subtleties may be (which I am not sure I could answer conclusively). But I would think that it is beyond doubt that a promising design can be made at least adequate, if not quite good for producing printed/rendered texts in the language in question; and, of course, a design with no promise can be pointed out as such, so that no more effort is spent on it. Yes, a typeface is not a piece of software; it is a bunch of shapes and patterns of black and white whose designer intends to be preceived in a particular way. In other words, typefaces are subjective interpretations of relatively stable common denominators in a far-from-watertight cultural (in the broader sense) environment. It is precicely because of this definition that it is possible for a person with more experience/knowledge/ability/whatever to help another person with parallel qualifications to achieve a new subjective interpretation of these denominators that is accepted as valid within that cultural context.

I scent — perhaps I am being oversensitive? — a deeper implication here, that a great art/craft can be democratized to the point where virtually any “hack” can do it–an important postwar illusion that is gradually being punctured. […]

I think you are jumping to conclusions. Nowhere do I imply that it is possible to write a “Bible for Greek Type Design”. But I am certain that it is possible to put on paper unambiguously certain factors that affect significantly the probabilities a particular design has to be successful. For example, it is not possible to understand the development of Greek letterforms without correlating the changes in letterforms to political and cultural conditions a) within the Greek lands; and b) where Greek was used by non-Greek nationals. There’s nothing under this subject that cannot be put in a book (given the required research and effort) but much that contemporary type designers could not be bothered to delve into.

As a “beta tester” for Greek, I try to bring to the design process all the experience / knowledge / ability / whatever a design requires to be accepted by familiar users of Greek texts. I am confident that I give very good value-for-money, but I cannot guarantee the success of a typeface; that resides with the talent of the original designer. This factor, “the talent of the original designer”, is the only part of the  process that you can call an art. There’s more than one way of designing Greek. I can help the designer to make it “correct” Greek, but only the designer him/herself can make it beautiful.


I think [C]’s comment sums it up pretty well:
[…] The obvious answer to this dilemma is education and cooperation. We all need to learn from one another, and there will be mistakes but this is the only sensible way to go within our field. […]


Nothing new under the sun. (And, five years later, [C] would spearhead a project that marked a peak for cooperation in typeface design.)



I don’t remember when the OpenType list first went live. My earliest emails date from Q4 1997. For several years the list was probably the best source of information and expert opinion for people developing the OpenType standard. Since wide character sets and typographic “smarts” were part of the standard from the very beginning, it is no surprise that many discussions addressed issues in global typography.

The OpenType list of the early years is unique. This was one of the first online fora that documented script- and language-specific information for digital typography in a manner that, to subscribers at least, was easily accessible. If I remember correctly, early archives were lost in one of the server moves. Although these threads exist on subscribers’ personal archives, as far as I know they have not been made public. I’d love to be proven wrong.


The next ten years


I measure the growth of typeface design by the questions of border control agents.

A decade ago, the phrase ‘I am a typographer’ would trigger a subtle move of the hand towards the ‘dodgy traveller’ button (just in case, you understand). The agent would relax once I confirmed that I was indeed in the mapping business. But in the last few years – three or four, no more – things are different. Sometimes I even drop the words ‘typeface design’ without expecting to meet the agent’s supervisor. And, in a growing number of cases, agents will tell me the name of their favourite font, and that they got a book called Just my type for Christmas.

Typefaces becoming part of the mainstream is neither accidental, nor a fashionable blip. It was foreseeable many years ago, and has been accelerating under the dual impetus of the accelerating move to a standards-compliant, text-orientated internet, and the growth of mobile devices with usable browsers.

Designers who remember the last decade of the twentieth century will recall the shift from intensely localised markets, with only superficial communication, towards connected regions. The European integration project, from 1992 onwards, followed by the surfacing of the internet onto the mainstream three years later, required fonts that could support a growing number of languages (albeit primarily those written left-to-right, with unconnected letterforms). Fast-forward a decade, and the typefaces on pretty much any up-to-date computing device could render most scripts in the world, even if the more complex writing systems still suffer in fidelity and design range. The two technologies responsible for uniting the world typographically, Unicode and OpenType, are now in a stage of maturity and refinement, covering most of the needs of most readers.

The core typefaces shipping with an operating system, or a smartphone, or Adobe’s applications, are a good litmus test. Most have well over 2,000 glyphs in each font, with many additional glyphs for stylistic sets like small caps and non-lining numerals, across the Cyrillic, Greek, and extended Latin scripts. Other typefaces cover Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Hebrew, a whole range of scripts for India, and a growing number of scripts for East Asia: from CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) to Thai, Khmer, and Burmese. All these resources establish a base level for servicing most texts. It is now very likely that there is some typeface that will render almost any language, and possibly more than one, in different styles. But there are compromises: even if there’s more than one typeface, styles may not match across scripts, and the range of type families are generally uncoordinated. The profusion of styles, widths, and weights of the Latin script is only partly met in other European ones, and far less so in global scripts.

This state ensures basic communication, but is not very helpful for graphic designers and typographers working with global brands, multi-script documents, or with complex applications exclusively in non-Latin scripts. Communications professionals (in disciplines including, and beyond the obvious candidates of education and publishing)  need a wide range of typeface styles to express the complexity of a publication or a brand, and they need the right style in different weights, and widths, and so on. And this is why typeface design is growing, with no sign of abating: a triple combination of growing global brands, a migration to screens of documents with long print traditions (from ebooks and interactive school textbooks on tablets, to local news services replacing traditional newspapers), and a growth of personalised, transactional documents like online shopping catalogues, increasingly on mobile browsers. At the same time, niche print publications are growing: they take up the slack of offset press capacity, but they also thrive in print runs of a few hundred, a traditional no-man’s land that digital presses have opened up. These conditions, of transformed documents and new platforms, push the demand for ever more typefaces that are typographically rich, wide in script coverage, and tailored for use on a wider range of environments: not just different surfaces (screens, print-on-demand, and traditional presses) but also different canvases: spreads, pages, and columns of hugely variant sizes, each with its own demands on line density, contrast, and spacing.

Two factors add substantially to this need. Firstly, the explosion of mobile networks in regions where cable-based broadband is scarce, means that critical communications are restricted to smaller screens that render primarily text. Secondly, the speedy adoption of tablets, which are agnostic devices that do not convey any functional aspects of the documents they render. (In other words, the devices do not explain the interaction, like a print document does. The navigation arises from the document’s typographic design, not its material qualities.) The four main tools of typographic design become the main carriers of any identity everywhere: typefaces, spacing, visual hierarchies, and colour are the only reliable identifiers.

This process has precipitated a radical re-thinking of a typeface designer’s skillset, especially with respect to scripts the designer is unfamiliar with, and most probably cannot read fluently. In such cases, designers need to engage with the characteristics of the script, bringing to the table an understanding of how letterforms are influenced by changes in type-making and typesetting technologies. But just looking at a bunch of local documents is not enough. Designers need to bring an appreciation of the typographic conventions for the genre of documents in each culture. In response to these demands, the best typeface designers integrate research in historical and contemporary artefacts: books and ephemera, type-making and typesetting equipment, but also texts and material such as drawings produced during the type-making process. These combine with a study of texts written by type makers about type-making, designers about their practice, and a range of research texts on the development of typeface design. The key for all these to be included in a commercial schedule is a framework for integrating research into design practice that enriches the designer’s understanding, and unlocks informed creativity.

The weight of methodology and research place multi-script typeface design at odds with art school traditions of design education. There is, quite simply, too much to learn in areas touching on history, linguistics, and technology for self-taught professionals, or the informal osmosis of apprenticeship-based courses. And, rather than be seen as an oddity in the design world, typeface design is leading a gradual shift in the wider design education sector. Notions of clarifying a body of field-specific knowledge, and formulating a methodology for practice that is transferable across schools and regions are taking off, globally. (Increasingly, I am invited to speak on exactly that subject: how to develop a research-informed, culturally sensitive methodology for teaching that educates potentially excellent professionals. And promotion criteria for design educators worldwide are changing to include research-based outputs, moving design closer to the Humanities than the Arts.)

The growth in books and print magazines dedicated to typography, as well as special sections in general interest titles, are just one of the signs of typography maturing. The many conferences, workshops, and exhibitions are another – and they are aimed not only at typographers, but at web designers, brand designers, and graphic designers alike. But there is another, more subtle indicator that typography and typeface design are gradually emerging onto the wider consciousness.

As typeface families grow to cover multiple scripts, concepts of national and regional typographic identity become current, and often volatile. New typefaces can reflect both home-grown and imported visual trends; they give concrete form to the expression of community identities, and become inflection points in visual culture at a range of levels. Beyond functional requirements, they can embody political and generational shifts, and encapsulate a society’s dialogue with modernity. And it is exactly on this front that typeface design will be most visible, and relevant: in enabling this dialogue between different approaches to text-based communication, and making visible the tension between different traditions and ways of thinking.

Next time I cross a border, I’ll have a longer tale to tell.