Ben Mitchell's typo blog charting the excitement, activities and challenges of my 12 months' studying the MA in Typeface Design at Reading University.

Now with occasional ramblings about type-related things I find interesting.

Opinions are all my own.

Designing type is an exercise in parallel thinking. On one level, it’s about coming up with interesting ways to inject each letter with some visual interest and simultaneously respond to the brief chosen. But on another level, it’s about ‘designing the design’, as we’ve seen before. What is it about the letters that hangs them all together? How can a set of ideas be applied consistently and logically so that it can be called a design rather than just a set of shapes? The answer to that is one reason why to me, designing a text face is so sublime: it’s necessarily about eliminating everything that doesn’t gel with everything else, refining and reducing the idea behind it to its clearest, most elegant expression.

Getting everything to gel together means everything has to be considered in light of everything else, or at least in light of the parts of everything-else that are related by the application of the design rules. (This of course also implies a certain circularity, which is why type design is a recursive process). For example, my design rules might prefer the /c/ and the /f/ to have similar terminals at their tops, but that terminal may or may not be related to the /r/ or the /j/, depending on my idea of the design. So this is what ‘designing the design’ actually means.

Some of these parallel considerations spill over between scripts too, when we attempt to harmonise different kinds of writing systems. The links may be explicit, with shared formal attributes, or more subtle, with an intangible link that makes the styles belong together without copy-pasting outlines between scripts.

With my brain now used to thinking in parallel (or at least getting a bit more comfortable with it), it’s naturally started to wonder about the parallel histories of the Brahmi scripts that I’m interested in.

The Thai, Khmer, Lao and Burmese scripts are related through their Brahmi origins, and I’m starting to see why piecing together that history is a useful exercise.


(Schematic of Brahmic scripts. There is no universal consensus and mistakes are mine alone. Larger image can be found here.)

I’ve always noted similarities and discrepancies between Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese. Some of the forms have clearly evolved from common roots: Lao ຈ and Thai จ are unmistakable cognates, as are ດ with ด and ຕ with ต. Pairs like ທ and ท may be less obvious, with different proportions but the same topology. Burmese and Khmer are less readily matched up, mainly because the different styling imposed repeatedly through history has now become part of the letterforms. Burmese is mainly circular, while Khmer prefers zigzags. But Burmese ခ and Khmer ខ match up, as do ဃ with ឃ and ဍ with ឌ. (Depending what font your browser chooses, these may or may not look similar) The story gets more interesting when you also notice parallels creeping in between Old Burmese and Old Thai, or even more distant cousins Rakhawanna, Chakma, Lao and Khmer.


(Ordering the writing systems in the traditional Brahmi articulatory fashion shows common threads between them.)


As well as these similarities, there are also large discrepancies between scripts. Undoubtedly the tools and substrates in different areas had a great influence. But also the differentiation of these scripts took place through a gradual alphabetic Chinese Whispers, with stonecarvers and manuscript writers preserving aspects of each character that they thought were essential, but inevitably leading to a gradual morphosis. Getting to grips with that long slow game leads to useful insights for the type designer:

1    Although the different scripts have their own look, the differences are often quite superficial, to do with styling rather than architecture. The underlying topological structures are often very similar. Even when they don’t initially look very similar, considering them together shows unexpected links, for example where disconnected strokes have become joined using a point of inflection or a knot. Understanding how the individual letters have evolved to be the way they are today gives us the design space available for taking our own designs in unconventional directions.

2    If the underlying architecture of the letters (or the writing tool’s ductus) is so similar, the look of each script is very largely determined by proportion and the way strokes are modulated. Old Burmese and Khmer may not look very similar, but focussing on the track of the tool rather than the modulation reveals their shared history. Writing Burmese with a broad-nibbed pen makes it look almost like a different alphabet. While it’s perfectly possibly to play with these conventions, the results are too far outside the normal expectations to be suitable for text typography, instead making an impact that can be useful in display settings:


(Top, Burmese styled with a broad-nib pen. Bottom, Thai styled to look Japanese.)

3    Over the course of time, the letters of a script begin to develop a coherence. Practical needs, such as the use of a particular tool, or the expediency of writing at a constant speed, the methods of punchcutting or casting type, or even the ease of reading, ensure that letters that are used together tend to end up looking uniform. For example, the ancestor script to all these writing systems is Brahmi, a script that uses elemental shapes like crosses, semicircles and diagonals. The letterforms have different degrees of complexity and angularity, and different amounts of whitespace. But as Brahmi evolved into different writing systems in different places, and with typography playing a significant role, all these aspects are evened out. (There are of course exceptions, such as Tamil with its very disparate letterforms.)

4    There are aspects of the letterforms that are not determined by the three previous factors, and which can be played with…

5    Scripts like to have their own identity. Repeated stylistic features are a way to bring cohesion to a script as well as introduce new ideas. The knots and loops of Thai, the zigzagged heads in Khmer, the notched instrokes of Pallava or Pyu, the circular forms of Burmese or the tick-shaped head in Telugu are now so embedded that they are the distinguishing features of those scripts. Often these features can be reinterpreted, simplified or exaggerated in different styles of writing (and type) but cannot usually be omitted altogether.


(Showing how stylistic details have become identifiers of different scripts. Excuse my lack of finesse with these unfamiliar scripts!)

Posted at 3:40pm and tagged with: one column, Brahmic, Brahmi, writing systems, Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, evolution, history, writing, alphabets, scripts, Southeast Asia,.

Whoops! Contours in multiple master Mint are in the wrong order!

Posted at 3:05pm.

Whoops! Contours in multiple master Mint are in the wrong order!

Some of my favourite architectural lettering found in Brighton. More of my typewalk photos over on Flickr.

Posted at 1:29am.

The Ampersand Conference is always great because it brings many of my friends from the type community around the world to my hometown. This year was extra special because I coordinated the first ever exhibition of student typeface work from around the world.


The exhibition included 111 entries from around 40 design schools worldwide, with students from as far apart as Chile and Japan. This meant a great deal of diversity in students’ aspirations, abilities and approaches, some designing heavy-duty text typefaces, others designing illustrative lettering for graphic design purposes, and one or two icon fonts. For this reason, we were not inviting people to compare or judge the entries, more to see how students get to grips with type projects, to demonstrate the many faces of type design and the enthusiasm and new ideas that design education is all about.


Along with the A3 posters, I also produced a substantial catalogue for delegates to take home, and used my MATD typeface, Lumen, in its first real-life setting to see how well it would perform.


Thanks to the teachers and students who helped get this project off the ground, I had a lot of positive feedback at the conference, and may be able to take the exhibition to other conferences later in the year. Watch this space.


Web specimen by Mercedes Jauregui


Nomad by Florian Runge


Emelia by Sandra Adler

More photos of the conference over on Flickr.

Posted at 12:32pm.

So gratifying to see all the hard work paying off. I’m directing the first ever international student typeface exhibition at this year’s Ampersand conference, and have been busy mustering together all the entries, editing the descriptions, sorting out PDF colour profiles, writing press releases and generally learning what putting on an exhibition involves. Good experience!

Photos to follow, watch this space :-)

Posted at 6:40pm.

Posted at 1:00am.

Book covers from 1960s. These are from the American Geographical Society’s Around the World Program of children’s educational books. More on Flickr.

Posted at 1:45pm.

This is a question I’m often asked by people who haven’t come across type design before.

Letters are unique in their use and quite unlike any other representational form. A seasoned type designer realises that one is not exactly focusing on the individual shape of each letter, though that does come into it, but more closely scrutinising how the letters set together. Each letter has to fit with every other letter in a regular rhythm to enable the reader to parse the wordshapes into meaningful semantic content. At the same time, the type designer has the difficult job of balancing the opposing goals of unique characteristics (to attract people to the typeface) and readability (which requires the letterforms to be unintrusive and to facilitate the most direct reading experience without catching the reader’s eye on unexpected details).

What this means is that designing type (at least text type) is about seeing how shapes fit together in a consistent pattern with a degree of visual interest that is necessarily subtle. The design brief will certainly define other characteristics, such as the typeface’s intended usage size, mood and tone, set width, length of extenders and more.

In the title question, of course, there’s the hidden problem in the conflation of language with writing system, which is a common mistake, though it should not be difficult to see that the Latin writing system is used for many language families across Europe from Finland to Portugal. There are language-specific writing systems like Armenian or Thai; also there are language-specific variations of a writing system, like Bulgarian variant forms in Cyrillic.

And this is where the next level of detail arises in designing scripts for other languages. A language and a writing system are closely related. Although they use the same script, Finnish sentences and Portuguese sentences look very different on the page. Finnish has a high proportion of double letters (geminates), a lot of diagonal letters (kvwxy), and a grammar which means words can be very long (agglutination). Portuguese, like other Romance languages, favours the round letters (acdegopsu) and uses accents like the acute, cedilla, circumflex and tilde. If writing systems are musical instruments, the languages they play are different genres of music, with different rhythms and chords. But the music they play cannot sound harmonious if the instruments are badly designed.

The job of the type designer, then, is like the job of the violin maker. The craftsperson carefully assembles the instrument from components that have been designed to work together to resound with a pleasant tone, and to allow violinists to play the notes and chords they expect when bowing the strings. The maker does not need to know all the pieces of music that are going to be played on the violin, but does need tacit knowledge (one would assume) of timbre, harmonics, resonance and ergonomics. In the same way, the type designer needs to gain a familiarity with the writing system, to recognise how the language makes the letters look together, to learn to see the letters as letters rather than just as shapes, and to see whether every letter sings with the same voice.

This means keeping a keen eye on the way the letters compose typographically into words and paragraphs, staying focused on achieving even colour and spacing, and implementing consistent forms and styling. The group of letters needs to follow clear gestures that make each letter what it is. (‘Gestures’ is not quite an ideal word, since constructed typefaces, not based on handwriting, are a worthwhile genre to explore. What I mean is that each letter has identifiable stems, arches, bowls, loops, junctions, counters or apertures that makes it different to the other letters.) In my view, the difference between a mediocre typeface and an excellent one is the amount of time the designer has put into regularising and unifying all these disparate shapes into smooth conformity. Notice that none of these factors directly requires knowing any vocabulary.

People learning exotic languages need to learn the new alphabet before they can start reading. What this means is that on some level, we learn to recognise the letters separately from the words they build. It’s also true for languages that use our mother writing system: a language like Basque may be unknown to most outside Spain even though many people are familiar with the Latin writing system it uses. This is exactly the same familarity type designers need: recognising the letters as letters, and maybe ‘reading’ the letters without necessarily attributing semantic content to the words.

Of course, the designer obtains markedly more convincing results when informed about relative letter frequencies, common letter combinations, and the relative importance of marks. It certainly takes time to thoroughly research a script and build this knowledge. The designer needs to study handwriting from different hands, fully understand and internalise the ‘gestures’ of each letter or component, and explore a wide range of existing typefaces to see how the essentials and idiosyncrasies of written forms have been conventionally converted into typographic forms.

Posted at 12:12pm.

Filling out the character set of Lumen Sans Heavy.

Posted at 4:18pm.

Filling out the character set of Lumen Sans Heavy.


Ten Things I Wish I Knew Sooner Rather Than Later — timeless life-wisdom from the brilliant Debbie Millman, who is wise.


Posted at 11:59pm.


Ten Things I Wish I Knew Sooner Rather Than Later — timeless life-wisdom from the brilliant Debbie Millman, who is wise.