How Do You Localize a Font?
A conversation with Gerry Leonidas


Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.


Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

Everyone working in the localization industry thinks a lot about how to introduce new content into a new cultural context. But what about type designers? What about font creators? How do you create a font for a new, possibly a minority script, in such a way that it feels right? So its design doesn’t seem an intrusion or a fake, but is somehow part of the cultural landscape?

Few people have given the subject more thought than Gerry Leonidas, cofounder and director of the graduate program at the University of Reading in England, which has the additional advantage of encouraging its students to study and design non-Latin typefaces.

We discussed, among other things, the relationship between letterforms and their cultures of origin, the influence of printing, and the lost art of doodling.

Tim Brookes: Designing non-Latin fonts, as many of your students do, requires stepping outside one’s own traditions and assumptions and immersing oneself in an entirely different culture — its history, its traditions, even its economics. What kind of conversations do you have with them about the script they want to make the focus of their work? And when they go off to do their research, what questions do you encourage them to ask?

Gerry Leonidas: We ask them to build the fundamentals of the historical development of the script, but also understand a bit of the society that uses it. Let’s say somebody wants to do Thai. Well, who uses the Thai script? How long have they been using it for? Thailand is an interesting case, which about five years ago went over the 50% mark for urbanization, so from a primarily rural country, it became a primarily urban country.

If you look at the demographic pyramid of Thailand, you realize, oh, actually there’s a lot of younger people there. So what do they do? What’s the smartphone penetration, for example, in the market? To begin to get a sense of the users of the script in terms of concentration, geography, the technology they have access to, then to try to see what is it that people read?

If we were walking down a Thai street, or in a Thai bookshop, what would I see? And that matters, because in a lot of environments, which are transitioning toward a more urban, middle-class environment, you see quite a lot of activity in publications, both online and in print, that have to do with a discretionary spending lifestyle. Advertising. Choices. The introduction of new brands. So you might have a very rich typographic environment that creates a distinction between more traditional forms (which have been used for decades) and a display environment or lettering environment. So then you might go back and say, let’s look at the traditional forms. How did the script go from the written forms to typographic forms?

What’s the connection between the handwritten forms and the typographic forms that began to develop? To begin to build a sense of what might seem as the default form of the script for people who are native to the script, and then use this as building a foundational understanding of this script and looking at the newer, more display orientated uses as a way to understand what is permissible in the script.

TB: So what you are doing is trying to identify, in quite physical or analytic terms, the answer to the question, “What is it that makes this script feel Thai to a Thai person?” It’s not just a design question, it seems to me. It’s a history question, and it may also be tied in with other aesthetics, such as what else are they doing in their visual arts, for example.

GL: It’s interesting that what is permissible, or acceptable, or seen as a nice exploration of the beauty of the script, is something that has been shifting through time. And it shifts in parallel with the urbanization and mechanization of the environment in which people operate. People go to India and then take lots of pictures of the lettering on the decorated buses.

TB: Likewise, the Qu’ranic verses painted all over trucks in Pakistan.

GL: There’s also an insight into lay interpretations of the forms by people who may not be professional sign makers. But then if you go into a different environment — Singapore, for example — then you’ll see that there are almost no handmade signs. Everything is made with a vinyl cutter, and it’s typeset on a screen, and then a sign is made, because it’s a sign that is lit or it’s a sign that is made for a brand. So there, what we have is a shifting of the aesthetic of either the professional sign maker or a lay person who is doing things with real tools and by hand, to an aesthetic that is essentially typographic. So there’s this narrowing of what is acceptable in the script, because there’s an overemphasis on typefaces that were essentially text typefaces used for sign making, and they are replacing the handmade signs, which were more invented.

With Thai, we can see this because what you’ve mentioned is the slight curve that a hand does when you’re making a longer downstroke. You can never have a perfectly straight downstroke by hand. Maybe they were not exactly straight or parallel and so on. And that gives it a sense of movement. Whereas a sign that’s made with a typeface for text that’s just blown up, has a downstroke that is perfectly straight. Do a lot of it, and then people begin to assume that the downstrokes always need to be straight, and they forget that maybe 20 years ago you would see quite a lot of things that had more curve in it and so on.

TB: Yes. And interestingly enough, that also helps to a certain extent to perpetuate cultural varieties in things like handwriting. So I’m always fascinated that when you go to Paris and you see a blackboard outside a cafe that someone’s written on in chalk, that could only have been written that way in France. There’s no question about it whatsoever. When you are in an environment where there’s no handwriting, the likelihood of that cultural stamp, if you like, is much less, I think.

GL: Yes. I think that that’s correct. And we can begin to see, there are also generational changes, community changes, changes that also map onto the educational system in the northern hemisphere.

We have seen a big difference with young people who went in education and had access to computers from primary school, a generation who had been taken away from visualizing their thoughts, from doodling, from scribbling. Having a familiarity with form making and their idea of text was almost boiled down to the automatic typographic representation of the computer screen. So we have to work quite hard to almost undo that effect and build up, first of all, the sense of trust in a pencil, the confidence to sketch and write.

We see this across the world with different nuances. Scripts that have very large character sets and are difficult to accommodate in the screen of a phone seem to be going toward some sort of either phonetic keyboard, where essentially you are at once removed from the visual form of the script — Chinese works a lot like the good phonetic keyboards — or in some cases, even with dictation. Dictation’s becoming good enough for people to essentially dictate typography. And that creates a bigger distance from the form of the script.

The more this happens, the more important it is to go back to slowing people down, making them very reflective, and build in their thinking a sense of continuity of the script and how it is a product of interactions between community users. Also, what do documents mean for that community? Are they status symbols? Are they just transcriptions of notes? Are they things to attract attention on the street? Or are they documents that are read as if they were sacred?

TB: Yes. I am really interested in this thing that I call the spiritual practice of writing. The notion that you need to say a mantra before you make a correction, it’s very much [about] slowing it down. How do I make sure that I’m bringing the best of my attention to this piece of writing before I make a correction?

GL: That’s actually a very interesting point. And again, it ties into type and lettering being a lens through which we can see society. What you’re talking about — the devotional aspect of the script — would apply very much in medieval Europe, because all the texts you write are sacred texts. The act of writing is a tribute to your faith. And then we can map the loss of that connection to the use of the Latin script as a commercial tool, the influence of the Enlightenment, which also had influence on the typographic forms because of new tools, the gradual mechanization.

TB: Exactly.

GL: It’s quite irrational, it’s deconstructive in its approach to process, it is something is driven by the idea of growth and sort of the economy driving society. Whereas if you go east, especially India, philosophy is much more about continuity. It’s about relationships to previous texts and less so about new ideas, but more so about interpretation or reinterpretation of existing ideas and the demonstration that you are part of a continuum.

So perhaps our sense of loss of this connection with writing in the West is perfectly illustrative of our changing relationship to texts and seeing them as an extension of something technological, primarily — something that is very quickly mutating and reflecting the way our society is organized. In an environment where within 15 years, social media has become so important, maybe it’s entirely appropriate that the letterforms become something that feels more comfortable in the devices we are reading, rather something that connects us to literature.

People might think I’m some sort of old git who is talking about things that nobody cares anymore, but I think these things do matter, and they do to some degree reflect the society that we operate in. So looking at how these things apply in other societies helps us understand our own perspectives better.



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