Over the past ten years, a remarkable number of typefaces for global scripts joined the thousands of Latin-based fonts on the market. Despite the wide variety of world languages and writing systems these fonts represent, the skill set required to generate them is universal to all type design practice: a feel for balance and relative proportion, and how those can be played with to give a design a particular character; an understanding of what needs to happen to shapes as they get heavier or lighter, wider or narrower, larger or smaller; and a knowledge of the existing idioms or genres of style.
The latter can be the most difficult to acquire when working outside one’s native writing system—it’s easy for a beginner to see interesting shapes in a script but not understand how they belong to specific styles that can’t be combined without producing a frankenfont. Although it isn’t necessary to speak or read a language in order to design a typeface for it, some uncomfortable cross-cultural generalizations can result when designers do not understand linguistic nuance and context. Type designers need to be wary of attempting to use Latin typeforms as the starting point for developing fonts in global non-Latin languages. Sensitivity to the history and culture of a country, its traditions and politics, and the main uses of its written output—to carry the word of God? to sell things? to advance knowledge and education?—is needed to design a beautiful, functional typeface in any language.
Internationally renowned typographer and Typotheque founder Peter Bil’ak says, “A typeface can be daring and experimental in its Latin version but conventional and subdued in the non-Latin one, as the localization designer was just trying not to make mistakes rather than capture the essence of the original idea. It’s the same as working with literary translations—knowing the rules and grammar doesn’t guarantee a unique artistic expression.”
Misha Beletsky, president of the Typophiles professional organization and art director of Abbeville Press, says, “In Hebrew, one tiny protrusion on the right makes a כ into a ב. A leg that is slightly taller makes a ה into a ח. A slightly shorter descender makes a ן into a ו. God is in the details!” Wael Morcos, principal of his own Brooklyn-based graphic design studio and co-creator of an Arabic version of Mike Abbink’s typeface Brando, is working on a soon-to-be-released Arabic version of Commercial Type’s Lyon family. Morcos used his knowledge of the Naskh letterforms to create the roman style and then borrowed from the Persian Nastaliq characters for the slant and proportions used in the italic—even though italics don’t exist in traditional Arabic. His thorough understanding of the language’s history enabled him to adapt existing styles to create new forms.
When nonnative designers develop scripts in other languages than their own, collaborating on a team with people from the appropriate demographic yields the most authentic results. In producing the Typotheque Hebrew program, a comprehensive selection of 21 full typeface families and more than 200 individual fonts that was launched in 2017, Bil’ak conferred with Israeli designers for guidance and feedback. Aaron Bell, principal of Seattle-based Saja Typeworks, says, “A native reader of a given script has an inherent eye for what looks ‘right’ and what is ‘readable’ and ‘appropriate.’ Depending on the availability of resources and opportunities, it can take a nonnative designer quite some time to develop a similar sensibility. To accelerate the process, I’ve found it beneficial to collaborate with native designers who can identify areas of improvement in my work and help train my eye.”
This is something that designers will need to keep in mind as the market for global scripts continues to grow at a steady clip. Cyrillic and Greek have been routinely available as companion fonts to many Latin typeface families for several years now, and much of the new demand for global typefaces centers around Southeast Asia, China, Japan and the Persian Gulf region, where cosmopolitan cities support flourishing design markets eager for better fonts. Corporations with a global presence, such as Uber, Airbnb and Bloomberg, also realize the importance of developing culturally specific fonts as part of their strategies to reach a wider, more sophisticated customer base.
Toshi Omagari, a typeface designer at Monotype, has developed four typefaces for Google and Monotype’s collaborative Noto project, which comprises open-source fonts supporting 800 languages and 100 scripts. He says, “Japan is one of the most vibrant and active markets, not only because there are big brands there, but also individual designers thirsty for new type designs and the means to license them. The country has a type community that is large and competitive enough to be called an industry, as well as a collection of small to large foundries.”
The legacy of colonialism—with its imposed viewpoint equating Western culture with desirable modernity and superiority, and degrading local cultures as backwards and inferior—plays a part in inhibiting global script development. Ksenya Samarskaya, a multi-lingual typeface designer and principal of Brooklyn-based design firm Samarskaya & Partners, says, “Type design has a Eurocentric problem that it’s been slow to shed. We should be listening to divergent opinions, experimenting and inviting more people from different regions and languages into the field as active collaborators.” Across India, where English is a universal spoken and written language, there has been little impetus to develop authentic, high-quality local typefaces. The country has 29 states, each with its own language, and 22 official scripts. Up till now, the few available fonts were poorly crafted, opening up the opportunity for designers to create typefaces for use in newspapers, where demand for local language editions remains strong.
Ramakrishna Saiteja, a type designer from India, created the Coorg Kannada Family for use in Indian newspapers and collaborated with Bil’ak on Telugu and Kannada companions to Typotheque’s Lava font. He says, “These two scripts are similar in their written structure, but there are many small di erences which can easily become lost in the details. For example, Kannada has a head stroke almost like Devanagari that connects every character. Telugu characters don’t connect; the head stroke is in the form of a tick mark. Their origins are from the same script, but they eventually evolved into two different languages and later into different scripts.”
Religion plays a part in the slow development of type systems for certain languages; for instance, Hebrew was confined to biblical and Talmudic scholarship for two thousand years. “Hebrew script has been employed for a variety of languages spoken by the Jewish diaspora, most notably by Yiddish and Ladino,” says Beletsky. “As a result, its various typographic styles carry a strong associative connection to a specific use: either religious and scholarly or contemporary secular Hebrew, or another language altogether such as Yiddish. A designer of Hebrew type needs to be mindful of and sensitive to the cultural baggage that each style carries.”
Similarly, there are relatively few Arabic typefaces in the world today because of Arabic calligraphy’s origins as divine communication. When the printing press was invented by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, people trying to import presses into the Middle East a couple of decades later were met with forceful resistance from the Ottoman Empire, which forbade this heretical mechanization of the holy script.
Adapting systems designed for creating type in modular, nonconnected Latin letterforms to the complex, flowing, connected Arabic script remains an obstacle in digital technology. “There’s a whole class of Arabic script styles that are practically impossible to render accurately in the layout model used by OpenType because of the complexity of contextual spatial relationships involved,” says John Hudson, type designer and cofounder of Canadian foundry Tiro Typeworks. According to Kristyan Sarkis, a Lebanese-born, Netherlands-based graphic and type designer (also a cofounder and managing partner at TPTQ Arabic type foundry), “Unlike Latin, Arabic cannot be written by drawing letters inside adjacent boxes. Nowadays, it’s not necessarily an obstacle because even in metal type—which is essentially letterforms occupying a series of individual boxes—it’s possible to create beautiful Arabic type by working around the box structure.” ACE, an advanced digital type composition engine developed by Dutch linguist and typeface designer Thomas Milo at DecoType, recombines Arabic letterforms into ligatures derived from the original calligraphy to work around systems originally designed to accommodate the nonlinked characters of Latin alphabets. Although the technology dates to 1982, it still isn’t widely available, and needs to be adopted by bigger organizations—think Adobe, Apple and Google—before designers can use it with Adobe InDesign and other Creative Suite applications.
“Corporations need to create intuitive software—the currency of our industry—to make multilingual support features readily available. At present, we still have to download a very specific version of InDesign that supports Arabic, and then dig into four or five levels of menus to use it,” says Morcos. There’s improvement, although things are happening slowly; for instance, the font-developing app Glyphs preloads the existing infrastructure of Arabic, so when a designer starts to build a character, the app automatically generates part of it. Education can be part of the solution too. Omagari says, “As an industry, we need to do a better job of sharing our type design knowledge and experience. We should be doing more type classes, lectures and workshops with a focus not only on type design, but also on helping designers appreciate the value of type.”
All designers can benefit from the unique learning opportunities encountered by multilingual type designers—for instance, by looking at their native writing systems more analytically as a matter of routine. Reflecting on design practice in multilingual contexts is not a luxury; it is a basic necessity in a field that so directly affects communication possibilities across the world. Despite the immediate visual impact of images, they will always be open to interpretation and manipulation; text is still the primary method for perpetuating civilization. Apart from the satisfaction for designers of launching a new era of multilingual typefaces, the social benefits of their work are even greater. Text is a unifying force across national and linguistic borders; in any language, it’s what holds the world together. ca