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Type around the World

Making tools for the dialog of civilizations

Illustration by Paul Czarnecki, Jr.

Despite the origins of movable type in China and Korea, it was most effectively developed in Europe, for European languages. It was, first of all, a tool for the Latin alphabet, but because of the proliferation of scholarly printing in the Italian Renaissance, types had to be made for other writing systems as well: Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Cyrillic, and other scripts of the international intellectual community.

As European influence and commerce extended far beyond the shores of western Europe, types were also needed for indig­enous languages of the Americas and Africa. But the typefaces were being created largely in Europe. Even eastern and southern Asia, with their highly developed written traditions, found their languages represented by European type.

From the beginning, technology has influenced the forms that those types could take. In the earliest days of European printing, a font of type might include a great variety of ligatures, to reflect the way copyists wrote in both Latin and Greek. In the late 19th cen­tury, the mechanical limitations of the Linotype machine constrained the forms of text type for the Arabic script—a constraint that fuels arguments about Arabic type design even today. The most recent technological limita­tion was imposed by pixels and screen resolution—especially for scripts like Chinese where glyphs may be composed of very complex combinations of individual strokes.

As more typefaces are designed and marketed for non-Latin writing systems, debates are raging over whether to go back to traditional written forms or create new modern, Westernized digital forms. This raises the question of the homogenization of culture and language.

Historically, there have been three major motivations for developing type­faces for non-­dominant languages:

Proselytizing. Christian missionaries have been responsible for creating both new type­faces for written languages that had no printing, and new writing systems for languages that hadn’t been written down before.

Preserving culture. Typography is one of the best ways to preserve marginalized languages and the cultures they reflect.

Doing business. Anyone who has driven down the airport access road in a multi­lingual city can see firsthand why there is a need for type designs that fit together in multiple writing systems.

So how does one go about “harmonizing” type designs among different writing systems, and then using them together? Often enough, harmonizing means making the non-Latin glyphs look more like Latin glyphs. But not always. One recent counter-example is the Qandus typeface developed by Laura Meseguer, Kristyan Sarkis, and Juan Luis Blanco, which applies a similar approach to a typeface for three writing systems: Latin, Maghribi Arabic, and Tifinagh.

In practical terms, designing with multiple languages and scripts means finding harmony among them that works visually as well as logically.

This doesn’t always mean treating them the same way: As Hong Kong brand designer Henry Steiner has shown, sometimes unequal treatment works better, such as setting Chinese text in a narrower column than English on a bilingual page.

It also means finding ways to differentiate one script from another, using contrast where appropriate to make the distinction clear. In some situations, type­faces that have similar visual qualities may fit seamlessly in multi­lingual paragraphs; in other situations, there may be a reason to make different elements, using different scripts, stand out dramatically from each other.


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