My initial motivation in learning lettering was to be able to create perfect, elaborate, admiration-inducing letters. In 2011 I completed a type design masters at EINA school in Barcelona, which also opened up the world of calligraphy and lettering in all sorts of styles for me. I ended up loving the brush. I wasn’t too good at first but after additional workshops, reference books —Brush Lettering: An Instructional Manual of Western Brush Lettering by Marilyn Reaves was particularly helpful— and hours of after-work practice, I finally tamed it. I even gave a brush lettering class. I felt pretty good about it. Then… I felt stuck. Most of what I was achieving was by the book but somehow felt bland and impersonal.
Reading time: 15min
Note: To avoid any confusion in word meaning, I will use the following contractions: Chinese as Chinese spoken language. Hanzi as Chinese written characters (汉字). Nüshu as Nüshu script. Nüshu script as it is sounds redundant, as Nü (where the ü is pronounced like a French [u]) means ‘woman’ (女), and shū (书 – meaning more commonly ‘book’ but also ‘script’) stands for script already. Tuhua as local dialects (explanations further below).
In these modern times, literacy is something that we take for granted, and for (almost) everyone across the globe. All throughout human history, writing systems play an essential role to its evolution. The knowledge of writing and reading is something that we imagine accessible to all in a utopic world, with no barriers, bringing societies further and better… But obviously and unfortunately, it hasn’t been this way. There must have been solutions through the ages, around the world, created and developed out of a practical need, but very few of them become general knowledge, reach our times, or are in the spotlight.
Last month I had the honor of creating the graphics for Designing without Borders, a three-part lecture series hosted by AIGA NY and the TDC. The design process was a collaboration between myself and the event organizers; Caspar Lam, Juan Villanueva, and Lynne Yun, which led to an ambitious undertaking of designing with a dozen languages. This experience was equally rewarding as it was challenging. It inspired me to continue pushing my understanding of typography by going beyond what is linguistically familiar.
There are designers and creatives who are capable of delving into many analog mediums at once (this maybe calligraphy, or origami, or whatever.) Their projects seem to have exciting new approaches, often narrated by nuances of the medium used. However, I have almost always been more of a digital designer. This post is a small window into my process of designing the signage for Royal Academy of Art’s (KABK) Library in The Hague.
Towards the end of last year as I was applying and looking for work, I tried keep myself busy by engaging in stone carving lessons at KABK. Sanne Bereen (the letterpress instructor at KABK) who was also taking these lessons, brought up that the school’s library could use a signage system. And without thinking much of it, I offered to help out and we began to discuss further. I thought this project would keep me busy until something more concrete turned up. At least I would be drawing letters. If it turned out well, it could certainly add to my portfolio since I had never explored material and letters this way. At the same time, Sanne had a lot of experience in the field and it would be an opportunity to learn.
Prior to this, I had had very minimal interaction with the librarians and while I was studying, used the library only a few times. It was under renovation at the time and I remember being terrified while I was exploring the upstairs type section, with scaffolding all around. I’d like to blame the scaffolding for never visiting again. Up until December 2018 – when I saw a small, well lit, and a neat space that was very loved by the people who used it regularly.
I really like trying to reverse engineer the ways people have taken type into their own hands. Often it’s something simple, like adding an outline to make it heavier, or adding flourishes that don’t exist in the original typeface. Sometimes it’s several things. It soothes me, like taking a simple machine apart, seeing how it works, then knowing how to put it back together. I also sometimes like to redraw logotypes and typefaces to see if I can improve upon them, for similarly cathartic reasons. I mostly keep quiet with this, because being like, “HERE’S how I would’ve drawn this BETTER THAN YOU,” while knowing next to nothing about the client, their vision, or any number of constraints that inevitably exist behind the scenes, almost always makes you sound like the biggest tool.
THAT SAID. I’ve gotta talk to someone about the logotype for the new Glossier brand, and I don’t have a therapist rn.
This week’s header started with a conundrum: to transliterate, or not to transliterate? In this case there were two main reasons not to. First of all, the word Alphabet is Greek, literally a portmanteau of άλφα and βήτα (alpha and beta) – like saying the ABCs. Given this, it felt wrong to use Greek letters but spell it according to how it sounds in English. Secondly, the Greek writing system does not have a letter to represent the Latin b sound. In fact, the word βήτα (beta) is actually pronounced VEE-ta in Greek. The b sound is not native to the Greek language and is most commonly found in words of foreign origin. In those cases the sound is created by putting two letters together – μ (m) and π (p). Alphabettes transliterated would therefore become Άλφαμπετς. Instead, and read aloud with me – our Greek header is pronounced Alpha-VEE-tess.
When I finally decided how to spell the word (half the battle!), I was ready to work on the design. This was my first attempt at digitizing Greek letters. Though I have an advantage as a native speaker, there was a challenge once I had to make basic decisions about proportions and spacing. The letters were digitized in Robofont but I first worked on paper, and the resulting design is based on brush pen strokes.
Since most typefaces out there that support Greek are large “workhorse” families, it is rare to see modern experimental Greek typefaces or lettering. A project like this gave me the freedom to try something that may never be used and experiment beyond function. Some of the movement in the forms mimics the way I would write these letters, but it is mostly just a weird design – and I enjoyed the exploration!
If you are looking for a humanist sans-serif with a slight English flair, here are some less overused and ambivalent alternatives:
Agenda, Greg Thompson, Font Bureau
Apres, David Berlow, Font Bureau
Astoria, Alan Meeks, Alan Meeks Collection
Bliss, Jeremy Tankard, Jeremy Tankard Typography
Cronos, Robert Slimbach, Adobe Type
Documenta Sans, Frank Blokland, DTL
Dover Sans Text and Display, Robin Mientjes, Tiny Type Co
Edward, Hendrik Weber, formally Ourtype
Granby, Stephenson Blake, Elsner + Flake, Scangraphic
Halifax, Dieter Hofrichter, Hoftype
Johnston, Edward Johnston, David Farey, ITC
(Johnston) Underground, Edward Johnston, Richard Kegler, P22
London, Henrik Kubel, A2-Type
Mallory, Tobias Frere-Jones, Frere-Jones Type
Metro Office, Akira Kobayashi, Linotype
Mr. Eaves, Zuzana Licko, Emigre
New Atten, Miles Newlyn, Newlyn Type
Relay, Cyrus Highsmith, Occupant Fonts
Rowton Sans, Julien Priez, Hugo Dumont, Jérémie Hornus and Alisa Nowak, Font You
Seravek, Eric Olson, Process Type
Today Sans, Volker Küster, Elsner + Flake
Yoga Sans by Xavier Dupret, Monotype
Zeitung, Akiem Helmling, Bas Jacobs, Sami Kortemäki, Underware
Spurless humanist sans-serifs were all the rage in the early 2000s, but not anymore. If you still really have to use one, try one of these:
Aad, Aad van Dommelen, Font Font / Monotype
Aller Typo, Marc Weymann, Dalton Maag
Barmeno, Hans Reichel, Berthold
Branding, Alfonso García, Daniel Hernández, Luciano Vergara, Latinotype
Beau Sans, Panos Vassiliou, Parachute
Bega, Sabina Chipară, Diana Ovezea, Fontstore/ITF
Co, Bruno Maag, Ron Carpenter, Dalton Maag
Conto, Nils Thomsen, Type Mates
Dax, Hans Reichel, Font Font / Monotype
Daxline, Hans Reichel, Font Font / Monotype
Diodrum, Jérémie Hornus, Clara Jullien, Alisa Nowak, Indian Type Foundry
Etelka, František Štorm, Storm Type Foundry
Generis, Erik Faulhaber, Linotype
Karbon, Kris Sowersby, Klim
Kuro, Jonathan Hill, The Northern Block
Legal, Hellmut Bomm, Linotype
Netto, Daniel Utz, Font Font / Monotype
Phoenica, Ingo Preuss, Preuss Type
Ribera, Jörn Oelsner, URW
Ringo, Łukasz Dziedzic, Typoland
Sari, Hans Reichel, Font Font / Monotype
Signa, Ole Søndergaard, Font Font / Monotype
Oof, I think that’s more than you ever want to use in this century. Better try a less modisch humanist sans of which there are plenty of.
The typefaces of punchcutter Johann Michael Fleischmann have inspired many to design close and not so close revivals of classic Dutch old-style text faces. (A typeface of similar colour and sparkle is the one you are reading right now here on the blog – Dover Text by Robin Mientjes – although she took inspiration from Caslon’s typefaces more than from Fleischmann.)
Adobe Text, Robert Slimbach, Adobe
Berlingske Serif Text, Jonas Hecksher, Playtype
Ehrhardt, Adobe, Monotype
Equity, Matthew Butterick, MB Type
Eudald News, Mário Feliciano, Feliciano Type Foundry
Expresso, Mário Feliciano, Feliciano Type Foundry
Farnham, Christian Schwartz, Font Bureau
Fleischmann BT Pro, Johann Fleischmann, Charles Gibbons, Bitstream
Freight, Joshua Darden, Garage Fonts
Glosa, Dino dos Santos, DS Type
Garvis, James Todd, James Todd Design
Guyot, Ramiro Espinoza, ReType
Janson Text, Miklós Kis, from Adobe, Monotype, URW
Kis, Miklós Kis, Bitstream, ParaType, RMU
Kis Classico, Miklós Kis, Franko Luin, Linotype
Mercury, Tobias Frere-Jones, Jonathan Hoefler, Hoefler & Co
Pradell, Andres Balius, Typerepubic
Quercus, František Štorm, Storm Type Foundry
Rosart, Jacques-François Rosart, Katharina Köhler, Camelot
Tyrnavia, Miklós Kis, Gábor Kóthay, T-26
“The whole of man is in the alphabet.”
— Victor Hugo
“Letters have a mysterious and cabalistic quality that has been recognised at least since Roman times. As the building blocks of words, and thus of languages, their magic has inspired artists throughout the ages. The illuminated initials of medieval manuscripts, ranging from Romanesque exuberance to Gothic excess, paved the way. Here were not only biblical scenes but mythical beasts and human figures that were the direct precursors of the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic alphabets of the Renaissance and later. Ornamented letters presented historical and mythological events, romantic landscapes, trees, flowers, buildings, clowns, devils, naked figures, street cries, children and every kind of animal.”
— The Animated Alphabet, Hugues Demeude, 1996, New York