Typography in China

caligraphy

Editor’s Note: The global marketplace is real. Some brands are as familiar to consumers in Rio de Janeiro and London as they are to shoppers in New York City and Mumbai. That does not mean that the world now speaks a common design language nor approaches design in a universal way. What resonates in one culture may be rejected as odd, irrelevant or ignorantly offensive in another. In some cases, consumers may find the product appropriate, but the sales pitch tone-deaf and riddled with cultural clichés. Designers working across cultures confront the challenge of understanding differences in business and social customs, technologies, and typical design assignments as well as aesthetic preferences.

In the interest of broadening our knowledge, we are launching a “foreign correspondents” feature, beginning with our dear friends, Anita Luu and Sing Lin, two American designers who opened their Affiche International Asia office in Shanghai two years ago. An innocent question about the availability of Chinese typefaces led to a fascinating discussion, which is presented here.

Foreign Correspondents: Affiche International

Why aren’t there as many typestyles available in Chinese as there are in English?
The English alphabet only has 26 letters. The Chinese language has over 8,000 individual characters, of which about 3,500 are most commonly used. So as a Chinese typographer, you not only need to design 26 alpha characters, you need to craft at least 3,500 Chinese characters and their traditional/simplified equivalent. There are some very handsome Chinese typefaces available, and we’re grateful for the few at our disposal, but it is still frustrating.

When working on English language assignments, were you really using that many different typefaces?
Like most designers, we always reverted to our top five (okay, three) favorites, but we were spoiled by the seemingly limitless choices of typefaces. It was nice to know that there were so many other options, in case we decide we wanted a change. It is not just the lack of Chinese font choices that is so annoying, working with Chinese type poses very different sets of challenges such as inputting text that we had not anticipated.

Both of you are proficient in Chinese, especially Sing who is fluent in four Chinese dialects. Why would inputting text be a problem? How does the keyboard differ?
The keyboard design is based on an alpha system, which is very convenient until you deal with pictographic text like Chinese. It’s like using a screw driver to hammer a nail. Wrong tool, but somehow, people manage to do it. How? By using a phonetic-based system called PinYin, where the writer types a Chinese word by how it sounds. The computer then pulls up a list of character choices that match that sound. That may seem easy enough until you realize that a simple word like “ni” (which means “you”) pulls up 75 different options. This is partly due to the fact that Mandarin has four tones for each word, and each of the tones can have multiple homonyms. Of course, to the proficient PinYin writer or teenage instant-text-messenger, this poses no problem at all. So, in theory, practice does make it easier, although we have yet to find this true.

Didn’t the government of the People’s Republic of China simplify the written language sometime back in the 1950s or ‘60s?
Yes, it did modify the written language in an effort to increase literacy. Simplified Chinese eventually became popular and was implemented throughout China, but many Chinese intellectuals and purists still prefer the traditional written form of Chinese. Recently, there was talk of reverting back to the “more elegant” traditional Chinese, but the outpouring of anger from the general populace pretty much ended that movement.

From a design standpoint, simplified Chinese is really not that simple. One reason is that simplified Chinese is only used within China. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, traditional Chinese is used exclusively. So, working on projects that cross political borders brings up all sorts of issues. Example: Should a Hong Kong company operating in Hong Kong and China have a simplified or traditional Chinese logotype? Socially, do traditional characters convey and represent a more “sophisticated” brand image?

characters3

Another problem is that the letterforms of simplified characters are very different from traditional ones. In our opinion, the simplified letterforms were never thought out quite as well. They look visually awkward and unbalanced. Here are examples of the graphic problems with simplified text: (top shows traditional Chinese characters, and below, the simplified characters). The negative space created by the second character is further aggravated by the extra spaces between it and the next character. Over a large block of text, this problem is even more visible because it results in lots of empty holes.

Do all type foundries in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan offer both traditional and simplified characters?
Many typefaces are designed and published by Hong Kong and Taiwan type
foundries. Since they use traditional faces that is what they design. But some of the foundries also offer a simplified Chinese version or partial simplified selection – maybe 2,000 characters or so. What’s really bad is that some typefaces offer simplified Chinese versions with a few characters missing. You’re out of luck if you choose such a typeface only to realize later that it is missing some of the characters that make up the CEO’s name.

Do you see the state of typography changing in China?
Until designers demand more and better designed typefaces and challenge the existing inputting tools, we are stuck. But we are forever hopeful that things will turn around. After all, China was able to move through four decades of development within ten years, so what are a few letterforms?

www.afficheinternational.com

10 thoughts on “Typography in China

  1. We'd like to know too. We'll try to find out, but if anyone knows, please comment. — Delphine, the editor

  2. This article is particularly interesting to me, as I just returned from 10 days in China, where one of our interpreters is an award-winning calligrapher. I learned a lot from her about the various styles of calligraphy, piquing my interest to know more about this amazing script. I found myself taking shot after shot of signage and posters, seeing them as graphic art rather than advertising — not just because I can't read them, but because the characters are so visually compelling. I look forward to taking lessons in calligraphy to be able to paint the characters, though I am sure it will be a painstaking process. So, thanks for the enlightening and timely article. And BTW, congratulations on continuing with @Issue by bringing its publication to the electronic world– I have been reading the printed version and loving it for decades. (Delphine, you worked on several projects with my company, Ideas For Advertising & Design way long ago, and I have always appreciated your work.)

  3. I have a blog where I post pictures of characters shot in China, http://hanzillion.com. Many of the characters there are probably hand-drawn or created for specific reasons (a shop sign, publicity, etc.) and not part of a typeset, but I find them fascinating. It's also a great way to learn chinese 🙂

  4. As a native speaker of Japanese, it was interesting to compare Chinese and Japanese typographic environments.

    It seems like the Chinese input system is similar to Japanese. But in Japanese, there are three writing system; Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. So conversion from the alfa system to correct Japanese seems more complicated. Keyboards in Japan are based on alfa system, but some keys are in different places, because of needs for more keys to select different systems.

    Regarding typefaces, there are two basic groups in Japanese as well. Serif and San serif. But in addition to these, there are many typefaces. Some fonts are available only for Kana and Hiragana, because there are only 50 plus letters. There are more than 3000 characters in Kanji, just like Chinese, it is labor intensive to complete a set.

    There are more and more English words in Japanese, in ads and magazines…but I often see strange word spacing or punctuation. Seems like there is a space for improvement in this area.

    On a side note, I just came back from Japan and noticed Aflac in Japan uses the same goose, but the feeling of the ad is so different. Very soft, funny but completely different kind of humor. It will be interesting to compare marketing of the same product or company in different countries?

    t

    takayo

  5. Very interesting article. I have been studying Chinese for about a year now and–as an outsider–I've always wondered about the various fonts for Chinese. I have had various writing assignments and I always felt that their typefaces were more so trying to emulate handwritten Chinese and calligraphy rather than make something that was more design-oriented. Granted, there are typefaces that are design-oriented and seem to be the Chinese equivalent of Helvetica, but it seems like most are just trying to emulate handwriting and calligraphy. I sincerely hope the Chinese come up with even more great typefaces that do their language justice, because writing and reading Chinese characters is quite a treat!

    P.S. Love the website Ana (hanzillion.com). Maybe the future of Chinese typography is “personal” typography rather than adhering to pre-made fonts made by foundries.

  6. It is important not to mix typographical issues with font-design problems. To my point of view, any good graphic designer should be able to create great typography with limited usage of fonts. See Weingart mixing over and over “Akzidenz Grotesk” and “Times”, let's follow Vignelli and “his” Bodoni, or watch at the Swiss, Jeker, playing to the infinite only with “Helvetica”. Chinese characters also have the privilege to be used at least in two directions ( horizontal and vertical ).
    But do the Chinese letter really need to be redesigned for example into a Garamond or a Meta ? By their nature, Chinese characters are stylized ideograms coming originally from a brush stroke and their visual complexity is nice by it's nature, which is a great difference with our less flexible western characters which original design are resulting of the usage of more firm material, such as feather and stone carving. By reading the article we can understand the problems of the quantity of signs within a font, and we can allow us to dream of an Adrian Frutiger or a Zuzana Licko revisiting the next Chinese characters family… or why not, hoping of a upcoming software constructing automatically each sign on demand… that should not be that complicate with the new technologies.

  7. It is important not to mix typographical issues with font-design problems. To my point of view, any good graphic designer should be able to create great typography with limited usage of fonts. See Weingart mixing over and over “Akzidenz Grotesk” and “Times”, let's follow Vignelli and “his” Bodoni, or watch at the Swiss, Jeker, playing to the infinite only with “Helvetica”. Chinese characters also have the privilege to be used at least in two directions ( horizontal and vertical ).
    But do the Chinese letter really need to be redesigned for example into a Garamond or a Meta ? By their nature, Chinese characters are stylized ideograms coming originally from a brush stroke and their visual complexity is nice by it's nature, which is a great difference with our less flexible western characters which original design are resulting of the usage of more firm material, such as feather and stone carving. By reading the article we can understand the problems of the quantity of signs within a font, and we can allow us to dream of an Adrian Frutiger or a Zuzana Licko revisiting the next Chinese characters family… or why not, hoping of a upcoming software constructing automatically each sign on demand… that should not be that complicate with the new technologies.

  8. JBL, you are right that one should be able to use limited typefaces. However, I disagree that there is no need for a Chinese “Garamond” or “Meta”.

    The Chinese brush calligraphy that most of us associate as “Chinese” is only one style. Chinese calligraphy has its own version of “serif”, “sans-serifs” and even “scripts” (I’m loosely making a comparison, but there are indeed many distinct styles in line weight and curve). There are characters that are actually quite structures and rigid. Using the very loose, brush typefaces poses all sorts of problems–too personal, too hand-written. Is it really appropriate for the design? Most often not. The problem is multiplied when we have to incorporate English (roman) text next to the Chinese. The default roman alphabet included in Chinese fonts are notoriously horrible (I cringe thinking about it).

    So imagine the difficulty of finding two typefaces to look consistent in weights and design. There are just a few (okay three) combination that I’ve found so far–most of which involve sans-serifs and MHei. I wish there were more. If anyone has suggestions, please let me know! And if there are any typographers/type designers who have a great understanding of Chinese characters, I think you have a formidable challenge of creating a typeface that combines East and West seamlessly. If you do, you would most definitely make it in the annals of Chinese graphic design–and a few hundred thousand designers very grateful.
    Anita

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