A few things about typeface design

Teaching on a postgraduate course feels very much like a spiral: the annual repetition of projects, each a vehicle for a journey of education and discovery for the student, blurs into cyclical clouds of shapes, paragraphs, and personalities. There seems to be little opportunity for reflection across student cohorts, and yet it is only this process that improves the process from one year to the next. Having passed the tenth anniversary of the MA Typeface Design programme was as good an opportunity as any to reflect, and ILT’s offer to publish the result an ideal environment to get some ideas out in the open. Although my perspective is unavoidably linked to the course at Reading, I think that the points I make have wider relevance.

Our students, both young and mature, often find themselves for the first time in an environment where research and rigorous discussion inform design practice. The strong focus on identifying user needs and designing within a rigorous methodology is often at odds with past experiences of design as a self-expressive enterprise: in other words, design with both feet on the ground, in response to real-world briefs. In addition, students are expected to immerse themselves in the literature of the field, and, as much as possible, contribute to the emerging discourse. (There are many more books and articles on typeface design than people generally think; some are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but some are real gems.) I shouldn’t need to argue that research, experimentation, and reflection on the design process lead not only to better designs, but better designers.

In recent years, two significant factors have started influencing attitudes to design. Firstly, as generations grow up using computers from primary school onwards, it is more difficult to identify the influence of the computer as a tool for making design decisions, rather than implementing specifications. Secondly, the trend in higher education to restructure courses as collections of discrete modules results in a compartmentalization of students’ skills and knowledge: it is becoming more difficult for the experience in one class to have an impact on the work done in another. (A third, less ubiquitous, factor   would be the diminishing importance of manual skills in rendering and form-making in design Foundation and BA/BFA courses, a subject worthy of discussion in itself.)

So, repeating the caveat that these observations are strictly personal, I offer them in the hope they will prove interesting at least to the people setting up and running new courses in typeface design, and the many designers teaching themselves.

1 Design has memory (even if many designers don’t)

Typography and typeface design are essentially founded on a four-way dialogue between the desire for identity and originality within each brief (“I want mine to be different, better, more beautiful”), the constraints of the type-making and type-setting technology, the characteristics of the rendering process (printing or illuminating), and the responses to similar conditions given by countless designers already, from centuries ago to this day. Typographic design never happens in a vacuum. A recent example is Emigre magazine: can its early period be seen without reference to the sea-change in type-making and typesetting tools of the mid-eighties? and is not its middle period a mark of emerging maturity and focusing, critically and selectively, on those conventions worth preserving in a digital domain? Emigre is important as a mirror to our responses to new conditions and opportunities, and cannot be fully appreciated just by looking at the issues. (Especially if you look at scaled-down images, rather than the poster-like original sizes!). At a more subtle level, the basic pattern of black and white, foreground and background, for “readable text” sizes has been pretty stable for centuries, and pretty impervious to stylistic treatments. Does not a type designer gain by studying how this pattern survives the rendering environments and the differentiation imposed by genre and style?

And yet, many designers have a very patchy knowledge of the history of typography and letterforms. More worryingly, students and designers alike have little opportunity to experience genre-defining objects in reality (imagine discussing a building looking only at the blueprints for building it, not walking up to it, and through its rooms). It is perhaps not surprising that the wide but shallow knowledge gained from online sources is dominant; there seems also to be little discrimination between sources that employ review and editorial mechanisms, and those that are open to wide, unchecked contributions. This shallow approach to reading and investigating results in a lack of coherent narratives, not only about how things happened, but also why. And how were similar design problems addressed under different design and production environments? What can artefacts tell us about how people made decisions in similar situations before? How did changing conditions give rise to new solutions? To paraphrase Goudy, the problem is not any more that the old-timers stole all the best ideas, but that the old ideas are in danger of being re-discovered from scratch. (Just look at the web designers rediscovering the basic principles of text typography and information design, as if these were newly-found disciplines.)

[IMAGE: Michael Hochleitner’s Ingeborg, an award-winning typeface that revisits Modern conventions with originality and humour.]

2 Design is iterative, and improved by dialogue

The process of typeface design is, in essence, a reductive refinement of ever smaller details. First ideas are just that: sketches that may offer starting points, but have to be followed by a clear methodology of structured changes, reviews, testing – and repetition of the whole process. The attention of the typeface designer must progress in ever decreasing scales of focus: from paragraph-level values on the overall density of a design, to the fundamental interplay of space and main strokes, to elements within a typeform that ensure consistency and homogeneity, and those that impart individuality and character. At the heart of this process is dialogue with the brief: what conditions of use are imposed on the new design, and what are the criteria to determine excellence in responding to the brief? (For example, how will the end users make value associations with the typeface?)

The wider the typeface family, the deeper the need to test conclusively, not only with documents that highlight the qualities of the typeface, but also with documents that approximate a wide range of possible uses. Even in cases of very tight briefs (as in the case of bespoke typefaces for corporate clients), the range of uses can be extremely broad. But good designers are also aware of the constraints of their testing environment. The misleading impression of transparency and fidelity that computer applications give, and the limitations of laser-printer output, obstruct trustworthy decisions. Designers must be aware of how looking at medium resolution printouts in dark toner on highly bleached paper can bias their decisions.

We are also seeing a gradual return to typeface design being a team enterprise, drawing on the expertise of a group rather than an individual. This, of course, is not new: typeface design in the hot-metal and phototype eras was very much a team product. But just as the digital, platform-independent formats enabled designers to function outside a heavy engineering world, so it enabled the explosion of character sets and families to unprecedented levels. The necessary skills and the sheer volume of work required for text typefaces have driven a growth of mid-size foundries, where people with complementary skills collaborate in a single product. The corollary is a rise in the need for documentation and explanation to a community of fellows. The short-lived “creative hermit” model is giving way to new models of work.

[IMAGE: Eben Sorkin’s Arrotino, a contemporary typeface with deep roots in fifteenth-century typography.]

3 Scale effects are not intuitive

The conventional curriculum for design education rarely tackles scales smaller than a postcard. More importantly, the compositional aspects of design tend to take precedence over details at the level of the paragraph, let alone the word. Typeforms for continuous reading are designed at fairly large sizes (on paper or, more usually, occupying most of a computer screen) but are experienced in much smaller sizes where their features have cumulative effects, weighted by the frequency with which specific combinations occur. These conditions arise in every text setting, be it for prose read forty centimetres away, or a sign viewed from a distance of tens of metres.

Of all the skills typeface designers need to develop, understanding how to make shapes at one scale behave a particular way in another scale is the most troublesome one. Imagining the difference that a small change in a single letter will have in a line or paragraph of typeset text is not an innate skill: it is entirely the result of practice. The best designers are the ones who will naturally ask “why does this paragraph look this way?” and try to connect the answer to specific design choices.

A common example of problems connected to scale effects arises whenever a student follows a writing tool too closely as a guide for designing typeforms: whereas the ductus (the movement of the stroke) and and the modulation can be preserved across scales without much difficulty,  the details of stroke endings and joints cannot; typographic scales demand a sensitivity to optical effects that simply do not apply at writing scales. The best examples come from typefaces designed for the extremes of text scales: for telephone directories (famously by Ladislas Mandel and Matthew Carter), Agate sizes for listings, and early typefaces for screen rendering. The smaller the size (or the coarser the rendering resolution), the more the designer primarily separates blobs and bars of white space, and only secondarily deals with style and detail.

[IMAGE: Alice Savoie’s Capucine: an award-winning typeface in a fluid modulated style that successfully integrates Latin and Greek in magazines.]

4 Tools are concepts

Regardless of the scale effects mentioned above, there is a requirement to appreciate the  link between typeface design and writing, and the tools used for writing. To be clear: I am not talking about calligraphy, but writing in the widest possible sense, from graffiti, a hasty ‘back in five minutes’ sign, to the most elaborate piece of public lettering. More than the specific forms of letters, the process of writing illuminates the patterns and combinations we are used to seeing, and gives insights into the balance of shapes and the space between them. The relationship of writing tools to the marks they make has been discussed in some depth (for the Latin script by Noordzij and Smeijers, most importantly), but the transformation of these marks through the computer much less so. (There are some texts, but mostly they focus on specific cases, rather than general principles; the notable exception is Richard Southall.)

And yet, since the early days of punchcutting, type-making involves a process of fracturing the typeforms, modularizing and looking for patterns. Later on, when the roles of designer and maker began to be distinguished (most emblematically with the Romain du Roi, like the Encyclopédie a true product of the Age of Reason) typeface design became programmatic, each typeface an instance of a class of objects, rooted in a theory of letter construction – however sensitive to human practice or aloof that may be. Later, the hot metal “pattern libraries” and the rubylith cutouts of shapes to be photographically scaled and distorted for phototype point to the same process, of abstracting the typographic shapes into elements that have little to do with the movements of a tool. As for the digital domain, deconstruction and repeatability remain key aspects of the design process.

To ensure a typeface built with fragmentary processes has internal consistency, the designer needs to develop a mental model of a tool that may follow the tracks of a writing tool, but may include mark-making and movement behaviours quite distinct from anything that is possible to render with a real writing tool. (Easy example: the parallelogram-like serifs of a slab, on a typeface with a pen-like modulation.) Such mental models for typemaking are increasingly important as type families expand into extremes of weight and width, where any relationship with a writing tool quickly evaporates. So, an invented tool that, for example, makes incised vertical strokes and pen-like bowls, can become the basis for a wide range of styles, ensuring consistency without the limitations of a specific tool; at the same time, because the model is agnostic of weight and width, it does not hinder the generation of large families with overall consistency but local richness. (Compare this approach with a wide family developed through extremes of multiple master outlines, where consistency relies on the details of typeforms having close correspondences.)

[IMAGE: A small part of Jérémie Hornus’ analysis of the Amharic script in preparation for developing his own successful typeface family.]

5 The Latin script is the odd one out

The demand for typefaces with extended character sets has been growing steadily for many years. OEM and branding typefaces are expected to cover more than one script, and often three or more. Beyond the obvious scripts of the wider European region (Cyrillic, Greek, and Latin), the interest has shifted strongly towards Arabic and the Indian scripts. But there are two key differences between the Latin typographic script, and pretty much everything else: firstly, that the type-making and typesetting equipment were developed for a simple alphabetic left-to-right model that would have to be adapted and extended to work with the complexities of the non-Latins. Although rectangular sorts will work sufficiently for the simple structure of western european languages, the model strains at the seams when the diacritics start multiplying, and pretty much collapses when the shapes people use do not fit in neat boxes, or change shape in ways that are not easy to describe algorithmically. No surprise that most non-Latin typesetting implementations make use of compromises and technical hacks to get the script to work. The second factor is that most non-Latin scripts did not experience the full profusion in styles that arises from a competitive publications market, as well as a culture of constant text production. (It’s no surprise that the language of display typography first developed in nineteenth-century Britain, in parallel with the Industrial Revolution: urbanization, rising literacy, and trade in goods and services go hand in hand with the need for typographic richness and differentiation.)

Many students (indeed, many professionals) will ask ‘Can a non-speaker design a script well for a language they do not read?’ But a typeface arises in response to a brief, which by definition taps into wider design problems. For example, many of the conventions surrounding newspapers apply regardless of the market; the constraints on the typographic specification can be deduced from the general qualities of the script and the language (e.g. can you hyphenate? how long are the words and sentences? with what range of word lengths? what is the editorial practice in the region in terms on article structure, levels of hierarchy, and headline composition?). Having established the typographic environment, we can examine the written forms of the language, and the tools that have determined the key shapes. In this matter most scripts other than the Latin (and to some degree Cyrillic) maintain a very close relationship between writing and typographic forms. Writing exercises and a structural analysis of examples can help the designer develop a feel for the script, before reading the words. More importantly, in their non-Latin work, analysis of the script’s structure and the relationship between mark-making tools and typeforms can help the designers to develop criteria for evaluating quality.

Typographic history is well populated with designers excelling in the design of scripts they could not read – indeed, the examples are some numerous that it would be difficult to choose. Encouraging students to address the complicated design problems inherent in non-Latin scripts is not only a way of enriching the global typographic environment, it is also a superb means of producing designers who can tackle a higher level of difficulty in any aspect of their design.

[IMAGE: Fernando Mello’s Frida: an award-winning typeface that redefined what is possible in Latin and Tamil typeface design.]

6 And finally…

The final lesson for students of typeface design is that a formal environment can teach the functional aspects of design, but can only help them at a distance to develop the aesthetic qualities of their typefaces. Especially when they are working in categories already heavily populated with typefaces, the distinctions between the simply good and the superb will be very refined. And when the consideration turns to originality, inventiveness, and how much a particular design causes us to rethink our responses to typeset text, then teachers have little input. The student, balancing between the deep knowledge of the specialist and the broad curiosity of the generalist, must develop, largely on their own, their capacity to be conscious of past and emerging idioms, to see their own work in the context of developing styles, and – most difficult of all – to identify how their own personal style can co-exist with the restrictions of utility and the conventions of genre.

 

 

 

Type ahead

I measure the growth of my field 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), only to relax once my being in the mapping business was confirmed. But in the last few years – three or four, no more – things are different. I may even drop the words ‘typeface design’, without fear of meeting the agent’s supervisor. And, in some cases, I will be offered the name of the agent’s favourite font, and told about a book called Just my type.

This phenomenon, of typefaces becoming part of the mainstream, is not accidental, nor a fashionable blip. It was foreseeable many years ago, and has been accelerating under the dual impetus of the 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 previous 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. (In case you haven’t heard the two names before: Unicode attempts to describe every distinct character used in all written communication; and OpenType allows each character to take the appropriate visual form, depending on context and style.)

Take the core typefaces shipping with an operating system, or a smartphone, or Adobe’s applications: 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: ‘we’ve probably got some typeface that will render your language, and if you’re lucky there may be 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 is 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. Professionals need a wide range of typeface styles to express the identity 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 the 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 wide range of surfaces: screens, print-on-demand, and traditional presses.

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 small screens, that render almost exclusively text. Secondly, the speedy adoption of tablets, which are agnostic devices that do not anticipate 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 ‘hardware’). The four main tools in typographic design become the main carriers of any identity: from a simple publication to a large brand, 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 in some ways 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 broader titles (like the one you are reading now) 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.

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

[Published originally in In Computer Arts Collection: Typography Vol 2 no 2, 2013 and republished, slightly edited, on this site as The next ten years.]

 

An emerging discipline

Marc Weymann’s typeface in this issue is, like all good text typefaces, strangely familiar. Familiar, because the rhythm of black strokes and white counter spaces reminds us of so many texts we’ve read: the strokes neither loudly dark or vainly thin, and the details of the terminals respectful of the excesses of contrast and the resolution of tired eyes. Strangely so, because this veil of familiarity hides a whole range of subtle contrasts: a combination of smooth patterns reminiscent of formal writing with nibs, and the sharp clarity of letters carved in stone.

Marc’s typeface is misleadingly gentle with its references, but rewarding closer inspection. Other typefaces for text are much less discreet, forcefully calling attention to their novelty, even as they still respect that set of conventions that allow us to read comfortably. Jeremy Tankard’s Fenland, probably the most notable of typefaces published in 2011, takes the ancient paradigms derived from writing tools, and throws them aside for the sake of shapes reminding of discarded piping; its stroke joints challenge the instincts embedded in most modulated text typefaces of the last few centuries. Yes, expectations confounded, it proceeds to space the letters on exactly the same underlying pattern as Formal, as respectful of the reader’s eyes as any.

Formal and Fenland
Formal keeps its cross-strokes and bowls closely aligned to the modulation of a broad nib, adding an incised overtone in the underside of the top serifs, the top side of the lower ones, and open curves such as the outside terminals of the ’s’. By contrast, Fenland makes it difficult to talk about a consistent angle of stress: cross-strokes and bows have a discernible reverse stress (reminiscent of shapes in eastern scripts) but allows the modulation to change as if the writing tool was rotated halfway through the stroke. The ’s’ is typical of this approach, reversing completely the traditional notion of the diagonal cross-stroke as a dominant feature.

Typeface design involves, at the most basic level, decisions on shapes at the level of the letter, the line, and the paragraph. I use this definition intentionally, to make the point that design decisions are not circumscribed by the immediately manipulable (in the case of digital fonts: the glyph outlines, or the spacing interface, or the code for positioning and substitutions). Indeed, typeface design decisions happen at the tip of a siphon, where a whole range of considerations about readers, texts, typesetting environments, and wider cultural concerns get distilled into virtual nudges of points or mouse drags.

In other words, a typeface designer is conscious of the context surrounding his field of practice – in the narrow sense of the typeface design industry, in the intermediate sense of typographic design for documents (where typefaces are but one of the constituent elements), and in the wider sense of design as interaction with a visually rich and refined culture.

This is what makes typeface design such an interesting area to work in: it is a context-driven discipline, where past practice, conditions of use, user perspective, and invested meaning all weigh heavily in design decisions. Indeed, professional experience in typeface design is primarily reflected in the depth of understanding of these wider considerations, the clarity with which these can be translated into typeforms, and the insight with which this context can be married to a personal creative voice.  If we want proof of this, we need only look at the older generations of typeface designers, who – working ,more often than not, on decades-old applications – still produce new designs that contribute fundamentally to our typographic libraries.

Formal and Fenland
Despite their very different texture, both typefaces follow a very consistent pattern in their fitting. Notably, Fenland avoids the typical problem of sans typefaces having overly narrow sidebearings in letters with vertical strokes. This more open underlying pattern ensures the typeface remains perfectly readable in smaller sizes.

This approach can be seen most clearly with work in scripts that the designer is unfamiliar with, and in any case cannot read fluently. In this scenario, design decisions cannot be trusted without an engagement with the characteristics of the script, an understanding of the way the typeforms of the script have responded to changes in type-making and typesetting technologies, and an appreciation of the typographic conventions for the genre of documents the typeface is intended for. In fact, the closer the connection of the script to its written form, and the more complex its typesetting, the more important it is that the designer engage intimately with these considerations. This approach places four-plus-one conditions on multi-script typeface design. First, that the designer has access to historical and contemporary artefacts: books and other printed material, ephemera, type-making and typesetting equipment. Second, access to primary sources: texts and material such as drawings produced during the type-making process. Third, access to secondary sources: texts written by type makers about type-making, and designers about their practice. Fourth, interpretative sources: texts by researchers such as historians and theorists on the development of type design. The ‘plus-one’ is a framework for integrating research into design practice that enriches the designer’s understanding, and unlocks informed creativity.

It is not difficult to see the connection  between these conditions and the growth in formal education in typeface design, largely in parallel across the world. In fact, typeface design is in some ways leading a gradual shift in the wider design education sector, away from a paradigm of silently reflective responses towards user-centred, research–informed design practice. This approach is typical for a research-based discipline in the humanities. It is, though, alien to design taught in art colleges and institutions based on practice teaching outside of context, on the model of apprenticeships.

Brill and Brill Greek
Typeface design across scripts: the Brill typeface, developed for the Dutch academic publisher by John Hudson, covers a wide range of languages and is developed specifically for text-intensive typesetting. The forms of the letters in the two scripts here are quite different, to respect the typographic traditions of each script. The overall typographic colour is similar in tone, allowing the texts to differentiate solely though the differences in typographic texture.

These considerations are not purely an academic matter. In the last decade we have witnessed a rapid growth in the demand for typefaces with very large character sets spanning many scripts. Pan-european typefaces with several hundred characters are often just a starting point, with Arabic or several Indian scripts added during the typeface’s lifetime. More recently we have seen notable growth in Armenian, as well as East Asian and South-East Asian scripts like Korean, Thai, Khmer, and Burmese. This demand, driven by an expansion of communication services and globalised branding, has pushed typeface design towards a level of effort that rewards teamwork, and the gradual building of expertise, through the combination of formal and self-directed study, and professional activity.

This is the environment in which we should seek to educate typeface designers: to expect them to ask questions about their practice, and seek answers through research. Indeed, we should see type design skills as inseparable from research skills, and an enquiring attitude. We should expect designers to engage with their field actively, and to write: to produce knowledge about their discipline. Seeing design activity as wider and deeper than any individual project is a key characteristic of the transition of typeface design towards a fully-established discipline.

Going global: the last decade in multi-script type design

Science fiction is a mirror. It’s rarely good at predicting the future, but it’s great at telling us what we’d like the future to be, or what we fear it may become. Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick: familiar names that guided many imaginations to think about societies spanning the galaxy. Then Star Wars finished off what 2001 started: rich visual textures and soundscapes made it ever more difficult for our imaginations to keep up.

But there were two things that always bothered me about science fiction. First, everybody speaks the same language, or understands the other person’s locutions without so much as an “excuse me, can you repeat this?” And, most frustratingly, nobody ever reads. Nobody. Sometimes there are symbols, diagrams, and gibberish that brands a vehicle or a building, but that’s pretty much it. It is as if some mundane version of mind-meld has rendered obsolete those moments between you and some letters on a surface in front of your eyes.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. We know that people read more than they ever did. Perhaps they read fewer of some traditional thing or other (and even that depends on the region) but, overall, more people spend more time looking at strings of letters. What was once a dedicated activity has expanded to fill out the previously empty spots of the day: news, a story we saved for later, the playground utterances of Twitter, the trivial ego massages of Facebook. It pains to imagine Dick’s Deckard checking his smartphone while slurping at the noodle bar, but you can bet that this is exactly what he’d be doing today. And we have only begun to see what ubiquitous tablets will do. Many years from now, these very few years at the beginning of the century’s second decade will be seen as a key inflection point: The combination of portable, personal, ever-present, ever-connected screens will transform our ideas of learning, of exchange, of creating new knowledge to degrees unimaginable by our idolized authors.

Our regional identity is deeply personal. It is the language in which we dream and laugh, the language of our exasperations and tears. For most of us, this language is not English, and quite likely it is not written with the Latin script.

There is one problem, however: the future is turning out to be more complicated than we had imagined. Instead of a single, Esperanto-like über-language, most of us are growing up with two parallel identities. One is based on a commonly-owned, flexible, and forgiving version of English, with a rubber-band syntax and a constant stream of new words that spread like an epidemic to other tongues. The other is our regional and historical identity: local in geography, and deeply personal in its associations. This identity is awash with the memories that make us who we are. It comes in the language we dream in, the language of our laughter, our exasperations, and our tears. Overwhelmingly, this language is not English, and quite likely it is not in the letters of the Latin script.

Indeed, just as globalization brought a wave of uniformity, it also underlined the rights of communities to express themselves in their local languages and dialects, in the script of their traditions. But the growing urban populations (over half of everybody, now) are contributing to a demand of complex script support. The equivalent of a single typeface rendering a plain-vanilla version of a language is not a new thing. For about two decades we’ve had the equivalent of a global typewriter, spitting out a single-weight, single-style typescript for nearly every language, with varying degrees of sensitivity to the historical forms of the script. Great if you only speak in one tone, only typeset texts with minimal hierarchies, and don’t care much about the impact of typography on reading. Indeed, the typewriter analogy is supremely fitting: the limitations of typewriter-like devices migrated onto subsequent technologies with astonishing persistence, despite the exponential increase in the capabilities of our typesetting environments.

Stage One: getting fundamentals right

So, here’s the context: globalized technologies and trends, with localized identities and needs. But typeface design is nothing if not a good reactor to changing conditions. Indeed we can detect a clear path for typeface design in the last decade, with two-and-a-half distinct stages of development.

The first stage was about rethinking how we develop basic script support for global scripts. Starting with pan-European regions (wider Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek) and gradually extending outwards to Hebrew, Arabic, and mainstream Indian scripts, typeface designers moved away from re-encoding the dated, limited typefaces of the previous technologies. This development led to two narratives that are increasingly central to typeface design. On one hand, an understanding of typemaking and typesetting technologies, and their critical impact on character sets, the design of typeforms, and the possibilities for complex behaviors along a line of text. On the other hand, an appreciation of the written forms: the relationship of the tools and the materials used for writing that determined the key formal features of each script.

For many designers the depth of research required to tackle a new script was a surprise, and not always a welcome one; but increasingly the dimensions of the challenge were respected, and understood. This research began, very slowly, to liberate global scripts from the formal tyranny of the Latin script and the expediency of copy/paste. Notions of a uniform stress at a steep angle, and of serifs to terminate strokes, are gradually seen to be primarily Latin-specific. And the faux-geometric, over-symmetrical, pot-bellied International Style typefaces are steadily unmasked as an intensely North-Western style, meaningful only as a response to the post-war trauma and urban explosion of the 1950s and 60s. Already dated by 1985, their continued adoption serves only to discredit their users and promoters. When taken as a model for non-Latin scripts, they are increasingly recognized as the typographic equivalent of a cultural straightjacket, limiting innovation and the expression of a more sensitive and current identity.

This does not mean that new typefaces with non-Latin character sets were all good, let alone perfect for their purpose. But people started questioning their assumptions, and put their money where their mouth was. Most notably, Microsoft (with a global perspective early on) and Adobe (starting with Europe, and gradually expanding its horizon) asked themselves, and others who could help, how to get things right. Their typefaces with large character sets raised the bar for many subsequent designers, and in many ways continue to determine the default level of script support on a global scale. (Regrettably, Apple never claimed a seat at this table: throughout its ecosystem its use of typefaces remains persistently unimaginative and pedestrian, abandoning any aspirations of typographic leadership.)

Stage Two: linear families

The second stage in global typeface design came when development migrated from the big developers to the publishers catering to the publishing and branding markets. The briefs for typefaces mutated from very broad specifications (for fonts that ship with operating systems and office suites, or bundled with page layout applications) to the needs of very specific documents, with rich hierarchies and multiple styles. While Office could muddle through with four Latin styles and one each for most non-Latin scripts, a newspaper or a magazine demands a range of weights and widths — especially if the templates are imported or designed to match an existing house style. Headings and subheadings, straplines and pull-quotes, footnotes and captions, for starters. And, hot on the tails of global publications and multi-script branding, come the limitations of doing the same on smaller screens, where the color palette and the typefaces may be the only elements that transfer fluidly with some consistency across materials and devices, bridging scales from the pocket to the poster.

In the previous stage designers had to ask themselves what are the fundamental differences, for example, between Arabic-script typefaces for Arabic and Persian and Urdu texts. Now the matter shifts to something like, “What are the typographic conventions in these language communities, what are their traditions, and what are the rules for differentiating between contrasting kinds of text within the same document?” In real terms, this moved design from the single typeface to the family: how will a bold Devanagari relate to a text weight, and how far can you go in adding weight? Can you squeeze, condense, or compress? And how light can you make the strokes?

[Image of Juliet Shen’s Lushootseed typeface.
Caption: Juliet Shen’s typeface for Lushootseed, the language of the Tulalip Native American tribe.]

The answers to these questions stem from a deeper engagement with the script, and an understanding of which elements are integral to maintaining the meaning of the glyph, and which are there to impart a style and build the identity of the typeface. All typeface designers (native or not) need to understand the impact of type-making and typesetting developments on the script, engage intensively with the written forms, and consider the development of typographic norms within a community. But we know, through the evidence of many successful typefaces, that designers need not be native to a script to design well for it; in many cases, they might not even be able to read the text they are typesetting. This may seem counterintuitive. However, good typefaces rely hugely on the designers’ dialogue with convention, and their understanding of very clear — if not always obvious — rules.

Having said all that, this stage of typeface development for global scripts is inherently conservative. The recognition of the formal richness of non-Latin scripts, and the efforts to design new typefaces that respect this complexity and represent it adequately, is a corrective against past sins, technological and human. Typefaces that are well-designed and comfortably read by native communities, while allowing multi-script typesetting for a range of different applications, are a Good Thing, but nothing to be particularly proud of. This is the typographic infrastructure of a connected world. These typefaces are elementary, and essential. They have to be many, because the documents they are used in are hugely variant in their specifications and complexities; and when contemplating multi-script typesetting, the specifics of the document determine which typefaces will do the job better.

But for all the celebration, these new, expansive families are refinements of fundamental forms, without raising difficult questions. It is a relatively simple process to add weights to a typographic script, hindered only by the scale of the work, when the character set is substantial. The challenge becomes interesting only in the extremes of the family, the very dark styles, and the very light ones. At these extremes designers need to deal with loops and counters, stroke joints and cross-overs, and all sorts of terminals that may not accommodate a dense stroke within the available space, or dilute the distinctive features of the typeform. Indeed, these extremes demonstrate clearly how the neatly expandable grammar of the Latin script, with its misleadingly simple-to-modulate strokes, is a crippled model for a global typography.

Problems compound with scripts that have only ever been implemented in type with a modulated stroke, or a monoline stroke, but never both. As the weight approaches the blacks, monoline strokes have to gain some contrast to fold around counters, and to save terminals from turning into blobs or stubby appendages. In the opposite direction, towards the thins, critical modulation may have to be sacrificed, and strokes that have only been experienced as curves turn into long, nearly straight strokes. Unsurprisingly, designers had overwhelmingly steered clear of these extremes for their non-Latin typefaces.

[Image of Vaibhav Singh’s Eczar. Caption: Vaibhav Singh’s Devanagari explores changes in pen shapes as the weight moves towards a Black Display]

Stage two-and-a-half: rich typography and typeface innovation

So far, so good. The developments that make up these two stages are not consistently evident in terms of market position or geography, but the trends are coherent and clear. Yet the last two or three years are beginning to kick typeface design onto a different plane. The causes may be a mix of technical developments (webfonts, and the improving support for complex scripts in browsers), a maturity of design processes informed by research, and a growing number of typeface designers working locally but having graduated from structured courses that build research and reflection skills. There may also be factors that are only barely registering in our discussions, that will be obvious in hindsight. Regardless, four notions are clearly emerging.

Most visible is the development of typefaces not only for mainline scripts, but for scripts from relatively closed markets (like Khmer or Burmese), for minority scripts, and for local dialects, with the required support. Such projects may be as diverse as an extension of Bengali for Meeti Mayek, a typeface for a Native American tribe, or the consideration of diacritics for Brazilian indigenous tribes. Only a few years ago these would be esoteric projects for academics, at best — and candidates for typographic extinction at worst.

[Image of Rafael Dietzsch’s Brasilica. Caption: Rafael Dietzsch’s typeface rethinks diacritics for the specific requirements of Brazilian indigenous languages.]

Secondly, we can see that typeface design is now, very clearly, a global enterprise, for a mobile and connected community. There are relevant courses in many countries, and no national monopoly. Designers from nearly any country are increasingly likely to be working for global projects, diluting the “old world” associations bequeathed to us by the large hot-metal and phototypesetting conglomerates. We may see young designers cutting their teeth in a European company, then returning to their native region to develop typefaces locally. This is unquestionably the mark of a healthy community of practice.

The third notion is that typographic families are being actively rethought, across all scripts. This process began some years ago with large typeface families moving away from a predictable, unimaginative, and frankly un-typographic interpolation between extremes, towards families of variants that are more loosely related, with individual styles designed for specific uses. Although this is only just beginning to be evident in the non-Latin realm, the signs are there. We can safely predict that many designers across the world will be contemplating the constitution of their typeface families on a more typographically sensitive basis.

The fourth notion stems from this expansion of typeface families. As designers try to address the issue of secondary or complementary styles within a family, the absence of established models opens up new possibilities. We have already seen Latin typefaces with radically different ideas of what may pass for a secondary style. Similarly, in non-Latin scripts designers are looking for inspiration in the written forms of native speakers, in a process that reminds us of the adoption of cursive styles for Latin typefaces. Even more, they are looking at the high- and low-lettering traditions: magnificent manuscripts, as well as ephemeral signs and commercial lettering. These sources always existed, but were considered separate domains from typeface design. Armenian, Korean, and many other scripts are beginning to break these typographic taboos.

[Image of Aaron Bell’s Saja. Caption: Aaron Bell’s Korean typeface borrows from native cursive writing to differentiate the secondary style.]

So, there you have it: the world may be turning upside down in other areas, but typographically it is entering a period of global growth, maturity, and cultural sensitivity. There will, of course, be many duds, due as much to deadlines as to over-confidence or sloppiness. But we can confidently look forward to many innovative projects, and exceptional designers from a global scene to making their mark.

(N.b. The first version of this text was published in Slanted Non-Latin Special Issue, July 2013.)