How did you get started in type design? Even though Unicode included the Khmer script in 1996, it took until 2009 for it to finally get accepted by the vast majority of Cambodian users. That was the time I began to learn about type design. I was amazed by how the Khmer Unicode could have implemented a new way to store the Khmer script in modern computing systems and avoid using other legacy font formats.
Even though new fonts were being created, published books were not following proper typographic rules. I frequently saw the same font used in larger sizes for text, misused font classifications and pairings, and unappealing letterform design. That intrigued me to learn more about typography and type design, as well as to seek ways to contribute to this field.
Tell us about your Phnom Penh–based practice Anagata Design. What do you do there in your role as type director and partner. and what is the design community in Phnom Penh like? Me and my cofounders—Both Bou and Angkearith Mao—started Anagata Design in 2019 when we met at a conference and connected over our shared interests in solving Cambodia’s graphic and type design issues. At Anagata Design, we offer brand identity design, custom typefaces and strategy development. I manage and facilitate all letterform design–related work, from custom typefaces to retail fonts to wordmark design. Besides all the hands-on work, we would take some time to share our insights and participate in events to share anything that could make Cambodian design better.
The design community in Phnom Penh has been improving in recent years. People from each industry have started forming their communities to discuss particular issues in their fields, like architecture, graphic design and fashion. Their input and discussion around what’s going on has helped the public understand the importance of having good, thoughtful design so that the clients don’t have to spend double to fix their mistakes. However, there is still a long way to go.
You previously worked at Bangkok-based foundry Cadson Demak. What kinds of projects have you taken part in while there? I worked with Cadson Demak’s team on the Khmer extension of its Sukhumvit Tadmai font family. The design was very contemporary and modern for Khmer script, and we had to find a suitable solution for that. We tried out many ideas and finally completed the first version during my last month there. You can read about the project in Slanted magazine.
What was the inspiration behind your fonts Kanlong and Niradei? How did you engage in research for these projects? It’s pretty hard these days to find multipurpose Khmer typefaces that are usable on different platforms and media rather than specific ones. It may sound too good to be true because it is not usually possible in type design for one font to fit all. But I think it’s alright to narrow it down to the most realistic applications based on the design decision.
Niradei is the second multiweight Khmer-Latin retail font family I have released. I wanted this typeface family to work in both the UI environment and in text, which eventually worked out. Nowadays, graphic designers and software developers use Niradei to produce artwork and applications. The continuous usage and purchase of Niradei gives us an indicator that the font has delivered its functions and features as expected.
One key part of Niradei is that it has a larger loop counter and good proportions. The loop size and base height have to be corresponding and continuously tested. These trial-and-error efforts were quite challenging initially, so it took me a few months to find an appropriate direction. From lighter to bolder weights, Niradei keeps the same intention from small print and UI.
For my display typeface Kanlong, I drew inspiration from a 1960s album cover. I thought its original letterform would look good in a bolder display weight. I was asked to design a custom Khmer typeface with a hand-printed effect, but the project was never commissioned. So, I decided to add some built-in effects to Kanlong, both to test the idea and to see if there was a market for it.
What are some of the design principles you consider when designing Khmer script, and where do you look for inspiration? There are not many resources available for Khmer typeface design, either online or offline. It’s hard to find documents that specifically describe the process of drawing and making Khmer typefaces, so it was tough for me when I started out. I had to learn most things on my own, like imitating existing typefaces, observing, trying out different ideas, researching and implementing approaches from other scripts.
The field of type design was introduced to Cambodia during the French Protectorate in the late 19th century, later than in our neighboring countries. You can read font developer Zachary Quinn Scheuren’s dissertation on this history here. Most printing was done then in Saigon or other countries like Hong Kong and Germany.
While designing Khmer typefaces, I always keep in mind the fundamental principle of maintaining the Khmer identity. I primarily focus on text fonts, which must be legible and readable at the highest level. While being inspired by modern typeface design approaches, I may use some traditional forms and techniques. This means that some glyphs will have a different structure, modulation and direction while remaining harmonious with other letters and also maintaining familiarity for native readers.
Like other type enthusiasts, I always take photos of calligraphy and sign paintings and collect old documents and books for reference. These were essential to my journey of learning how Cambodians read and write Khmer and which parts could be interpreted in digital typeface design. My references are my primary sources of inspiration. I also look at other script designs to see if I could try anything in future projects.
On I Love Typography, Anagata Type states its purpose as wanting to improve the state of type design in Cambodia and giving local business owners access to good typography. What influenced you to take on this mission? Back in 2013 when I finished high school, I questioned whether I could improve the quality of Khmer typefaces and bring them to international typeface design communities. When I started out, Cambodian users didn’t want to pay for new and better font designs. They always asked for free fonts or shared the retail fonts privately with their friends.
It is essential to educate local users and business owners on the importance of typography and fonts. This is the first step in improving the state of type design in Cambodia. We also need to understand font usage behavior and perception of fonts among Cambodian users. Once we have a good understanding of these, we can find a solution to effectively communicate the importance of typography and fonts to them.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to teach Khmer typeface design with Ben Mitchell of type design company The Fontpad and other type designers in Bangkok. I also attended one of my first typeface design conferences in Hua Hin, Thailand. These experiences broadened my perspective on the type design industry and helped me connect with and learn from other seniors and professionals in the field. With my three-month experience as a designer in residence at Cadson Demak in 2019, I learned another important lesson: how to differentiate myself in the market and explain my work through case studies.
Upon returning to Cambodia, I initiated my first strategy: “outside-in.” This strategy aims to raise awareness of the importance of good typography through working on projects with international brands, like Carlsberg Group and Grab Taxi. Thanks to the Anagata team, we have created mockups and use cases to connect typography and brand identity, particularly using Khmer script fonts. These have received plenty of acknowledgement and encouragement, and this gave us an opportunity to work with local property development company Peng Huoth Group to design its first custom Khmer-Latin typeface.
In 2022, we released the Niradei font family in response to the ongoing discussion and sharing about font licensing and good typeface design on our social media pages and networks. The design was not top notch, but we wanted to try some ideas and use them as reference to show people what it means to have a good font that better suits their design.
Although there is no way to quantify how much the understanding of good type design has improved, we hear people talking about font licensing and how to use better typography within our circles. This is a positive development.
You’ve previously been named a country delegate for the Association Typographique Internationale and have traveled around the world to educate people on Khmer script. What was this experience like for you? As a self-taught type designer, I learned to design type the hard way, using whatever means I could and tailoring them to my learning style and approach. However, these methods may only be suitable for some. By participating in other typeface design workshops and conferences, I discovered many new teaching methods I had yet to be aware of. This was one of the most surprising things for me.
When I teach Khmer script, I’m always amazed by the fresh ways that other designers from different parts of the world interpret Khmer script through their own styles and approaches. This has shown me new things and given me ideas about the possibility of designing digital Khmer typefaces.
Which type designers do you most admire? Four typeface designers have directly influenced me. Their work has also impacted my understanding of the industry and helped me build my journey over the years.
The work of Dan Hong, particularly the Khmer OS family of thirteen typefaces, has been a great source of inspiration and learning for me. These free fonts are widely used in Cambodia. Hong’s work has provided a fundamental design inspiration and a solid guideline for us, the new Khmer type designers.
I met Xavier Dupré in 2016 when he launched his book Xavier Dupré - Typographical Itinerary in Phnom Penh. I was inspired by his journey of living in Cambodia since 2001 and his contribution to Khmer typeface design. I was a bit starstruck meeting him, as he was the designer of a Khmer font that I had read from when I was a child. Since then, I have kept in touch with him, and we worked together on the Open Khmer School font family in 2018, which is used in reading and writing books for Cambodian children.
I first met Ben Mitchell in 2017 when he was visiting Phnom Penh. We talked about type design, and he showed me one of his Khmer typefaces he had designed for an international company. He emphasized the importance of thorough research and exploration in the initial phase of a typeface design project. Ben also gave me the opportunity to teach Khmer script in his Southeast Asian Font Workshop from 2017 to 2019.
In 2013, I first learned about type foundries and type design businesses. I found one prominent type foundry in Southeast Asia, Cadson Demak, and followed its work closely. I met Anuthin Wongsunkakon, the founder of Cadson Demak, at his old office during my first typeface design workshop in Bangkok. Later, I joined Cadson Demak as a designer in residence from September to December 2019. He taught me some skills and about the thought process behind running a type foundry as well as new ways of looking at the Southeast Asian type design industry.
I’ve also read about other famous typeface designers, such as Matthew Carter, Erik Spiekermann and Gerard Unger, and how they have changed typography and the landscape of typeface design, especially during the digital era.
What’s something that people misunderstand about typeface design? In Cambodia, typeface design was not considered a profession, and people did not believe that it could be a source of income. They were confused when I told them that I designed the Khmer alphabet. I believe that this is a common question for typeface designers.
People sometimes ask me, “Why are you profiting from your own script? Aren’t fonts supposed to be free?” Because of the many free fonts available on the internet, people have come to see fonts as free and optional. It took me and the Anagata team a few years to establish a discussion within the design community about the importance of connecting typography and brand identity design. We want to make it clear that typography is not trivial.
Where do you think the field of typography is going? With our fellow Cambodian designers, we have started discussions on typography at local and international events such as BITS10, TEDxPhnomPenh and Typographics 2021. We have seen new designers create unique, interesting letterforms and extend some of their designs into functional fonts for public use. They have also started to take typography more seriously and make it more structured. One group of young students published a book, Pteah Akarak: Khmer Typography Tribute, which focuses on the brief history of Khmer script and the fundamental Khmer typography in the digital era. I believe that the field of typography is heading in the right direction, even if it is not fast. We hope to see more initiatives and changes in the future. ca