A World of Typography: Creating Typefaces for Multiple Writing Systems

Industrious and ambitious type designers are creating fonts for not only their own cultures, but those in nearby countries—or ones thousands of miles away.

Today we have access to thousands and thousands of fonts, especially when it comes to Latin scripts. Writing systems across the Americas and Europe, including English, French and Spanish, among others, make up a majority of the typefaces in existence. But the world needs more non-Latin scripts.

Some cultures have only a few digital typefaces to choose from—or none whatsoever. Because non-Latin scripts are in demand, type designers have taken on the challenge of creating fonts not only for their native writing system, but also foreign ones. Whether it’s done for your own culture or another one, type design takes more than just attention to the visual details and knowing how to make the software do what you need. It takes research—a lot of research. And above all else, it takes an insatiable curiosity on the part of the designer.

GLOBAL TYPOGRAPHY

Mark Jamra and Neil Patel have been working together since January 2015, focusing on non-Latin scripts for what Patel calls “hot” or “emerging” markets: the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and also Chinese, Japanese and Korean (often abbreviated CJK).

[Related: Tazugane: A Japanese Font Designed for Multilingual Harmony | Designing for Translation: 5 Tips to Get Your Projects Global-Ready]

Jamra and Patel met during the final production of Phoreus Cherokee, a project that marked the beginning of a new design journey. As Jamra recalls, “At TypeCon 2011, I saw a presentation by three guys from the Language Technology office of the Cherokee Nation in which they told their story of lobbying Apple to install a Cherokee font and keyboard on the iPhone and the iPad. They ended their presentation by asking type designers to design Cherokee fonts, because so few existed. I realized that this would be a particularly meaningful project, and so I immediately responded to their request.”

Phoreus Cherokee by JamraPatel

With Phoreus Cherokee, Jamra and Patel realized that they worked well as a team and formed
JamraPatel, specializing in non-Latin scripts. The projects are “technologically complicated” according to Patel, “because of massive character sets or complex shaping.” For their work and the expansive size of the fonts they create, Patel finds that OpenType “has made it easier to develop and implement typefaces for these scripts.”

OpenType, unlike other font formats, can include over 60,000 glyphs. In addition to Phoreus Cherokee, JamraPatel has designed other typefaces, including the N’ko script used throughout West Africa for the Manding language. N’ko has 20–40 million speakers, Patel says. The studio designed N’ko for use in a range of devices, including smartphones.

iPhone keyboard with N’ko by JamraPatel.

 

With every design project, Patel says that he and Jamra must “cross a threshold.” Hours of research take place as they build up a network of trusted resources and subject matter experts. The entire process requires preparation, care and working with authorities. As Patel says, “It is not until after we feel like we have a sensibility for the culture and have studied enough manuscripts that we can start to actually design the glyphs.”

They take on the research together and, according to Patel, “scour more resources this way.” Their different perspectives enable them to get different insights, and they work with linguists more and more frequently. According to Jamra, “not only are they experts in the languages behind the writing system we’re working on, but our conversations with them provide us with a sense of the relationship of languages to each other and the political, ethnic and social landscapes that languages create and exist in.”

Pen exercises by Neil Patel done at the early stages of designing N’ko.

BEYOND FORM

Jamra believes that if you want to get into designing non-Latin, then you need to do that at least on the graduate level. He cites the University of Reading’s Master of Arts in Typeface Design (MATD) program in the United Kingdom as “the most active” in doing this kind of work. At Reading, applicants who want to learn about scripts other than their own take on the challenge of designing type for global needs.

Associate professor Gerry Leonidas (foreground) and type design student Dot Georgoulas critique a design at the University of Reading.

University of Reading students Mariko Takagi (foreground) and Teja Smrekar write in Arabic.

Associate professor of typography Gerry Leonidas, who teaches at Reading, suggests that not everyone is cut out to become the kind of type designer who takes on research-intensive work. “Serious multi-script typeface design is an entirely different world from the display market graphic designers usually associate with typeface design. Not everybody can do this well. It’s a demanding, time-consuming process that requires guidance to navigate primary and secondary resources (when they exist) and to provide guidance through targeted questioning. There is no easy way, no shortcuts.”

Reading’s program is unique and has an exceptional reputation. Its graduates go on to work for large companies. Reading alum Antonio Cavedoni worked on Apple’s San Francisco typeface, used across Apple’s operating systems. Other Reading graduates start their own foundries, something Veronika Burian and José Scaglione did, teaming up to form TypeTogether.


“Typeface design is an enabling discipline: It only has value through the communication it makes possible.”

– Gary Leonidas


Leonidas says Reading attracts people who are intellectually curious. They take on the research and analysis necessary to design, but it’s more than the typefaces. “What we need to do is raise awareness of the wider typographic environment and conditions for visual communication in other cultures: the way typography and design interact with the history of a community, and the meaning of texts that look and behave in specific ways. Then the need for typefaces emerges from an understanding of the communication requirements of real people, not a gap in somebody’s type specimen. Typeface design is an enabling discipline: It only has value through the communication it makes possible.”

Adelle Sans Devanagari by TypeTogether.

TypeTogeher’s Bree was chosen as main typeface for body and titles in Deco, an ethical and ecologically aware French interior magazine.

Like others working in this area, TypeTogether, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, designs typefaces for a range of communication applications including Latin scripts as well as non-Latin. In addition to creating fonts for multiple writing systems for cultures all over the world, the team is also multicultural. Scaglione lives in Argentina and Burian in Spain, with other team members in Europe, the U.S. and China.

TypeTogether maintains communication among the group and works with clients from all over the world. Burian believes that “a good non-native type designer who has researched the writing system, exposed themselves to it and used the advice of excellent typographic consultants in the given script, is perfectly capable of designing a successful typeface for a script they don’t write/read.”

AwanZaman typeface in Arabic and Latin by Juliet Shen & Mamoun Sakkal, distributed by TypeTogether.

The Annual Report for The Savola Group, a major Saudi company, produced in Arabic and English editions using AwanZaman.

NEW TYPOGRAPHIC TERRITORIES

Like TypeTogether, Typotheque also designs multi-script typefaces. Based in the Netherlands, Typotheque designs not only Latin, but also Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Cyrillic, Devanagari, Greek,
Hebrew, Inuktikut and Tamil, among others.

Typotheque’s Peter Biľak is quick to point out that living in Europe, if you travel a few hours in any direction, you’ll need to speak a different language. It’s a culturally diverse environment, especially when it comes to typography, unlike the U.S., where English is dominant. In 2002 Typotheque started working on Cyrillic, concurrent with advances brought about by the OpenType format.

The Cyrillic work gave Biľak confidence to work on Greek next, and in 2005 he took on Arabic, “which opened completely new territories,” Biľak says. He estimates that research was 90% of the work, with the actual production “fairly fast.” Since most of the font tools Biľak was using at the time were made primarily for designing the Latin-based fonts that read from left to right, Typotheque innovated. “When we got into Arabic, we developed our own tools, scripts and workflows that allowed right-to-left font production.”

In 2009 Biľak co-founded Indian Type Foundry (ITF) with Satya Rajpurohit. Biľak ran the company for four years, resigning in 2013. Biľak started TPTQ Arabic in 2015 with Kristyan Sarkis, a Lebanese-born designer in The Netherlands. A Typotheque sister company, TPTQ Arabic specializes in “high-quality Arabic typefaces and systems for bilingual typography.”


“Type design is more than a commercial enterprise—it is a cultural service.”

– Peter Biľak


As part of his ongoing research over the last five to six years, Biľak has taken on Hebrew. He sees the value in working on non-Latin scripts because of the possibility to make “a longer-lasting impact in communities, and to design something that hasn’t been done before.”

Typotheque’s Parmigiano in Hebrew

Making an impact and designing something new can happen with Latin or non-Latin typefaces, but the non-Latin domain can provide the most opportunity since so few fonts exist there. Biľak estimates that 200,000 commercial fonts are available for Latin but if you need to work with Latin and Hebrew and Arabic, there are “just a handful.” Biľak and his associates put in a lot of time to create the fonts. Like other type designers, he recognizes the importance of the work done. “Type design is more than a commercial enterprise—it is a cultural service.” Biľak’s other endeavor, Fontstand, could also be seen as a cultural service, a promoter of internationalization. Fonstand includes Korean, Russian and Arabic type foundries among its many offerings. You can rent or purchase fonts from all over the world, and Biľak plans to introduce Israeli, Japanese and others, expanding its global community.

RHYTHM AND RESEARCH

Plenty of designers have created typefaces or are creating fonts for writing systems other than their own. But the question remains: Do natives have an advantage?

This is a question at the core of typographies.fr’s Colvert project, according to Jonathan Fabreguettes. “Colvert is comprised of four families: Colvert Arabic, Colvert Cyrillic, Colvert Greek and Colvert Latin. And I decided that each family would be made by a native speaker of the concerned writing system.”

The Colvert project from typographies.fr includes four families: Colvert Arabic, Colvert Cyrillic, Colvert Greek and Colvert Latin.

The multilingual family was designed by Natalia Chuvatin (Cyrillic), Fabreguettes (Latin), Sarkis (Arabic), and Irene Vlachou (Greek). Colvert, an award-winning typeface, brought together a group of designers for a common cause, and the result deserves merit. It’s a coherent and robust typographic family for publishing and print uses with extended support for more than 100 languages.

Designing a typeface for your own language and writing system may come more naturally, but there is a hidden benefi t when designing non-native scripts. At the Type & Media program at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, Biľak teaches type designers who work with Latin, as well as Arabic and Greek. When tackling non-native writing systems they begin to see things differently, and the eye-opening experience helps them bring new things to their native script designs.

Seeing is instrumental to the design process, whether or not you know the writing system, whether or not you can read it. Consider Eudald Pradell, an 18th-century punchcutter in Spain, whom Biľak cites
as proof “that reading and seeing are two separate activities.” Pradell was illiterate, but produced what Biľak calls “one of the most admired typefaces ever cut in Spain.” Type design, whether for your native writing system or another, is about learning “the rhythm, flow and relationship of shapes,” Biľak says.

No matter how you see the shapes or what shapes you’re making, you have to be curious, always learning, seeing and making, always conducting research—lots and lots of research.


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