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,.

In Europe, the various strands of typography came together over centuries. Even before the arrival of printing, there were many styles (and sub-styles) of writing: the Greek and Roman inscriptional capitals and everyday ‘rustic’ letters, the Carolingian and insular uncials, and the textura and rotunda gothics to name only a few key elements. Printing types started in the fifteenth century by mimicking the forms of handwritten letters, and thenceforth, developments in type included bicameralism (including upper- and lowercase versions of letters in one typeface), the integration of uprights with italics, and the gradual movement away from humanist models to the elegant swelling lines of the “modern’ types. Later we see the introduction of sans-serif faces, and the invention of the fat, poster faces that gave us our bolds.

The result has been that Western typography now has a huge repertoire of type styles. In turn, each new development has allowed new ways of presenting text on the page. Thus, ‘typography’ was born from the union and interplay of type design and printing.

Compare this to the historical context for non-Latin scripts. Burmese, for example, was first made into type in Rome for the Vatican’s printing arm Propaganda Fide in the 1770s. The church of course needed to print bibles in ‘exotic’ types for their missionary activities, but the interesting point for designers is that such text is very ‘flat’ — that is the text is very simply structured. It just starts and goes on until it ends. Aside from section headings, there’s no typographic hierarchy, no different kinds of information that need signalling, no different voices on the page. The functions the typeface was required to perform were therefore not complex enough to spur the production of different styles, and even by 1833, when France’s Imprimerie Royale cut their Burmese, only two sizes of the same style were made.

Fast forward to the twentieth century (my dissertation will explore the story of the in-between), and we’ll see that Burmese type still doesn’t offer an exciting repertoire of styles. Yes, there’s a vibrant sign-painting scene and a bunch of funky display fonts made by graphic designers, but Burmese type for reading has not really moved since the days of Monotype, and one finds only this same monoline, rigid style (essentially one type design) used in every imaginable typographic context: advertisements, newspaper articles and editorial, hotel receipts, novels, grade one children’s schoolbooks, Buddhist books, technology magazines, arts magazines, maps, business cards…the list goes on.

I had the chance to talk to Dan Rhatigan, Monotype’s Senior Type Designer, about these issues recently. He recalls discussions with clients who commissioned him to design new Bengali typefaces. These clients had very specific views of how their script should look, and seemed to have conflated the idea of a design with the idea of an alphabet so when they were presented with functional, slightly different typefaces, they thought he was trying to change the alphabet.

So where does all this leave the type designer? There’s little point in perpetuating the same old design — imagine being a newspaper editor condemned to only ever have the choice of Helvetica or Arial (and only two weights of each). The point is that type designers are there to offer a multi-purpose toolbox to people who use type: book publishers, newspaper editors, web designers, graphic designers and end users. The text they set has complexities which cannot be represented by the limits of the current typographic palette. Monoline, geometric forms (even with bold companions) don’t work in every situation and don’t articulate to the reader the differences in the kinds of information presented. Information or communication design should be a response to the content of the work, so a one-type-fits-all approach leaves the work of deciphering the content to the reader, a fundamentally anti-design stance.

This does not mean turning the conventions on their heads, westernising the Burmese script or taking wild liberties with letterforms. Luckily, and although it sounds slightly paradoxical, there’s a way to design an authentically Burmese typeface in an original way.

In her article ‘Translating non-Latin scripts into type’ (Typography Papers 3, 1998), Fiona Ross berates the Imprimerie Royale’s Bengali typeface of 1819. Why? Because those bits of metal were cut by people far away from Bengal who had little appreciation of the language, heritage or current practices in how the script was written. She encourages the designer to look beyond the typographic precedents of a script and get familiar with the calligraphy, inscriptions, handwriting and roots of a culture’s writing system.

To this end, I’ve been studying palm-leaf manuscripts, folding paper parabaik books, children’s writing primers, the evolution of letterforms and people’s handwriting today. Thus it should be possible to gently draw the Burmese script away from its 20th century incarnation in mechanical type and into the 21st century where new doors can be opened.

Posted at 7:45pm and tagged with: Burmese, type design, font, typeface, history, printing, metal type, non-Latin,.

Gerard said something along the lines of the above back in July when I was studying the TDI course here. Back then, I understood it to mean that aesthetic fashions and art movements through the ages have governed the stylistic proclivities of type designers — as a general overarching principle rather than a traceable set of technological, political and national variables evidenced in every work of typography and type design. Modern Typography: An essay in critical history (Robin Kinross) certainly added a new depth to my understanding.

   It hasn’t been an easy read, due to its scope, depth and unfamiliarity (at least to a few of us incoming MATD students). The narrative stretches back to 1700, when printers began to articulate their design processes and print books about printing. It was also around that time when typography (composition) began to branch away from print production.

   Kinross suggests that typecasting, typesetting and printing technologies co-evolved in a stone-paper-scissors triangle, each being defined (and confined) by the others, but also prompting new technical developments in each other. Every technology has shaped the design and typography of typefaces; the history of type gives a surprisingly sensitive account of the history not just of Art, but of the broader cultural world.

   A good example of the interplay of history, technology and type design took place in the latter half of the 18th century. Stepping away from Kinross’s narrative to consider the historical context, we can see a great number of factors at play. At that time, the Age of Enlightenment was blossoming: new continents were being discovered, science was being revolutionised and new academic disciplines sought to disseminate their discoveries. Culture was producing more printed matter than ever before: music, literature and newspapers for example. Printed works suddenly had to include mathematical journals, encyclopedias, detailed scientific diagrams, and music. Maps needed to faithfully reproduce details in the precise craftsmanship of both illustrations and typography. In this context, Kinross explains that printers had to develop better ways to compose and produce work. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of better printing presses and papermaking machines. Engraving emerged as a means to achieve greater levels of refinement than had previously been possible with letterpress and woodcut illustrations. In turn, the new scope for high fidelity reproduction and finesse, along with new, smoother kinds of papers, offered type designers new opportunities to experiment with letterforms. So the ‘Modern’ typefaces of the era, such as Didot and Bodoni, took on flatter serifs, thinner hairlines and sharpened contrast, to give a new typography suitable for a new, forward-looking age.

   In another illustration of the circumstantial nature of type design and typography, Kinross considers how the origins of Swiss typography (or International Typographic Style) are specifically a product of socio-cultural conditions around the middle of the 20th century. Whilst most of Europe was fully gripped by the social and economic hardships of the Second World War, designers in neutral Switzerland were able to continue developing a graphic style. Kinross sees Swiss culture as rather stable, regulated (in the sense of ordered or moderated) and objective. The typographic style reflected these values in its rational, structured approach to page layout using grids, photographic images rather than illustrations, and an preference for clean, modern typefaces to convey information in a functional rather than expressive way. Typefaces like Univers and Helvetica originated in this period.

   From these two examples we can conclude all typographic design has to attend to the provenance and connotations of the typeface(s) and typography used.

   Helvetica is still a reasonable choice (in small quantities) for advertising, by virtue of its overtones of cool, neutral (or perhaps slightly optimistic) rationality.

   By way of contrast, the use of the oldstyle book face Jenson in use for wayfinding in Reading’s Oracle shopping centre is problematic at best, suggesting the designer was ill equipped to choose a signage font.

Posted at 10:56pm and tagged with: one column, typography, type design, history, culture,.