At the heart of typography, beyond its history, craft, and creative uses, is communication. If we step back and consider the world around us, we’ll notice that it’s rapidly changing—more interconnected and globalized every day. With this in mind, I chose to explore what’s outside the familiar ABC bubble and found many things of interest and came up with a few questions.
First, some history. Writing – marking a surface to record and share thoughts permanently – is arguably the most important invention of all time. All writing systems can be classified as alphabets, ideographic, or syllabaries. Alphabets follow the principle that one written symbol represents one sound in the language. Although Latin is not in use anymore, most European countries and their former colonies have adapted the Latin alphabet to represent their spoken language in writing, like ours.
While the English alphabet uses a few letters to spell out the sound of a word, ideographic systems use a picture or symbol to represent an entire thing, idea, or word. That’s why languages like Chinese are so mind-boggling to Westerners; they work differently. Compared to the 26 letters of the English alphabet, there are thousands of characters in ideographic systems that each represent an idea. [Source = Language in Society notes]
The way ideographic languages work pose unique benefits and challenges to designers. Audiences can read both horizontally and vertically, so designers can lay out content to better convey its message / character. For example, vertical tends to be used for humanist / traditional things like novels, and horizontal resonates better for modern things like business and scientific documents. It also makes it possible to use space efficiently, like in complex publications and information design. [Source]
On the other hand, there are not as many typefaces available to choose from, because of how time-consuming it is to design so many unique characters in a consistent style. Asked about what makes Chinese typography unique, typographer Archer Zuo replied, “Many things. There are 3000 commonly used characters, a national standard of 6763 and characters commonly seen in newspapers and magazines number in the tens of thousands. Every character is different such that you need to design each one in isolation. This may at first seem a weakness in terms of standardizing or forming a coherent pattern. But each character has to be unified within the system, to be in harmony with one another.” [Source]
In her book, Cultural Connectives, Rana Abou Rjeily used a typeface family she designed to bridge the Arabic and Latin alphabets. Comparing the two systems in minimal, imaginative spreads, Rjeily aims to foster cultural understanding in the reader. [Source]
Food for Thought
In his essay, Peter Biľak makes a good case for how academics and practitioners in the field seem to overlook the part of typography that’s not Latin. “Even today, typography as a discipline continues to be plagued by a Euro-centric bias. If any of the major typography reference books are to be believed, the development of typography has generally been limited to Western Europe,” he says, going on to discuss how the bias shows in how we describe certain fonts as roman or italic.
Is typography as a discipline biased towards the West? Should students and professionals be more aware of the history and issues of non-Latin typography? Is it important, being in a globalized world, or does it not really matter for people who don’t work abroad or deal with international clients?