The challenges of non-Latin type

Creating non-Latin alphabets poses specific challenges for designers, says Simon Loxley, but the growth of international markets means that an increasing number are taking on Mandarin, Cyrillic, Arabic and Hindi typographies

IF YOU CONFINED your perceptions of the non-English speaking world to impressions gleaned from the news, you might be convinced that nothing but trouble could result from international design.

But the creative industries in the UK will always reach out for new contacts and new markets. This has been particularly noticeable with recent news of the expansion of marketing services group WPP into the Middle East, and the creation of what The Independent has described as an ‘English-language media hub’ in the Gulf region, with the setting up of TV and radio networks, newspapers and magazines, including Virgin Radio Dubai and the Abu Dhabi edition of Time Out.

This vibrant market has called upon British or British-based design talent to work in non-Latin typography, a demand that has been both spearheaded and supported by leading type designers. It is an expanding field. The rapidly developing economies of India and China offer opportunities as well as competition, while closer to home, the Cyrillic alphabet – used in Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia, Serbia and Belarus – is a strong growth area for type designers. Indeed, Bulgaria’s membership of the European Union means that the European Community now has three official alphabets, including that of longstanding partner Greece, with its specialist Greek fonts.

Some of this design work can be patched in with typographic translators. For example, Design Bridge used native-speaking lettering artists to help create an Arabic logo for Nobo pasta, a product for the Sudanese market. It used a similar process to design the Mandarin characters for Wen Jun, a Chinese spirit. But for a wider, continued application of an identity, a whole font may be required – and then, grafting in local expertise can fall short.

Bruno Maag of Dalton Maag, whose Devanagari (Hindi) font for Vodafone won a Certificate of Excellence in Type Design at the Type Directors Club, explains that it requires more than mere conversion. ‘To compete with the West, it is not enough to be simply cheap,’ he says. ‘You must also be brand savvy. And companies from the developed world, wanting to establish themselves in these new economies, must not only communicate in the language of that country, but to offer the same brand quality as we expect.’

Phil Garnham of Fontsmith agrees. ‘There’s a growing sense of the need for typographical unity throughout global identities,’ he says. ‘For example, Fontsmith recently undertook its biggest non-Latin project to date, working with Interbrand on a Xerox rebrand that required the development of Cyrillic and Greek alphabets.’ The experience of Nick Cooke of G-Type further supports the globalisation of non-Latin type/ ‘I produced a customised version of my Gizmo script face for Bushmills Irish Whiskey, which needed Cyrillic for a worldwide advertising campaign.’

The design process may involve debuting non-Latin fonts on the international stage. ‘The Middle East has a lot of local design talent,’ says Maag. ‘But the industry lacks the experience to convert its skills into a functional corporate product. When Gutenberg created movable type the Latin alphabet became industrialised and rationalised, but many other scripts, such as Arabic, never experienced this.’

There may also be technical drawbacks to consider. ‘A lot of groups still work with font technologies from ten years ago, namely PostScript Type 1,’ says Maag. ‘This has the great disadvantage that fonts can only hold a maximum of 256 characters. Often US- and UK-based programs and systems don’t support local script systems. Design consultancies need to stay up to date to ensure that their documents are created with the future in mind.’ Cooke warns of another downside: piracy. ‘I’ve seen my work on a number of Russian websites,’ he says.

It also raises the question: how easy is it to design an unfamiliar alphabet? ‘It’s difficult at first,’ says Cooke. ‘When I was asked to produce Cyrillic forms, I opened up existing fonts in Fontlab and studied the data, comparing shapes and proportions. There are Latin characters in Cyrillic that can be used as a starting point for creating the non-Latin characters in the style of the font you’re working on. The main problem, as I see it, is the kerning.’

Some specialist help may be needed at first. ‘The DNA of a typeface can be extracted from a very few glyphs, and with this you can create balanced shapes,’ adds Garnham. ‘Being less familiar with the formal limitations of a non-Latin letter allows a certain freedom in terms of design.

‘But I’m also a strong believer in knowing the rules before I break them. When we designed for Xerox we consulted Cyrillic typographer Maxim Zhukov, Greek type designer Gerry Leonidas and graphic designers native to Greece and Russia, to ensure we weren’t stepping into any grey areas of readability and legibility.’ Maag, meanwhile, stresses the importance of understanding non-Latin calligraphy – how the strokes are created, the direction in which they move.

This is a growth area in design, and Cooke says that his mind has been broadened by the experience. ‘And, as I’ve now designed Cyrillic, I’ve incorporated it into my new family, Houschka Rounded’.

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  • Carlo November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    That’s Russian not Greek.

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