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?
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?