Typeface without borders

To develop a typeface with a deep understanding of vastly different fundamentals requires an appreciation of how a writing style is structured, read and written - and this takes time and dedication, writes Marcel Wijnen, creative director at Hulsbosch.

I find it astonishing that in a world that has been getting smaller for so long (excluding the past two years of COVID) and is getting more digitalised every day, that there is not a single typeface that can truly function globally, across all the main languages and cultures. No wonder IKEA avoids words.

From the usage instruction on COVID RAT tests to auto-captions on video, to targeted advertisements on socials – brands and businesses are increasingly needing to fluidly switch between not just languages, but whole different writing systems. This is true not just for global brands, but for all brands who want to embrace diverse cultures within their own borders – this should especially be true for Australia’s with its diverse multicultural mix.

Although the Roman alphabet has been adopted globally (largely due to the use of English for many international communications such as for travel) there are over 100 different writing systems used globally – the obvious big ones Chinese, Devanagari and Arabic.

This is not a peripheral phenomenon. In fact, over half the world consumes their daily communication using writing systems other than the Roman alphabet, with the next 9 most used writing systems after the Roman alphabet accounting for over 3.5 billion people.

For brands to demonstrate relevance and local empathy, it makes sense for them to switch languages and writing systems, but this is currently not that easy. For the last ten years or so, only Noto Sans (by Google) could be considered global. However, many of Noto scripts only come in a single weight – this may suffice for a web search, but it is not a workable solution for most brands.

Five years ago, Helvetica World was released as was SST by Monotype, both touting global solutions with 9 and 8 scripts respectively available in multiple weight and designed with much greater consideration. But with the like of Chinese and Devanagari missing in both, they fall far short of a comprehensive solution – and are certainly not ‘global.’ So, what is so hard?

These are not just different languages; they are different structures of writing. Designing these typefaces requires a deep understanding of vastly different fundamentals. For instance, the Roman alphabet is based totally on phonetics; Devanagari, which is based on Sanskrit, an ancient South Asia language, and contains 33 consonants and 14 vowels; Arabic abjad is only partially phonetic (only consonants) and written right to left; Thai script has consonants written horizontally with the following vowels written above, below, left, right or a combination of those; Chinese uses logograms with every word its own character – over 50,000 of them.

To develop a typeface to do this requires an appreciation of how a writing style is structured, read and written takes time and dedication. Doing this with a consistent look across multiple scripts is a massive task that requires localised expertise.

Brands want consistency in their look and feel, regardless of language or script. I’m hoping, and optimistic, that the major type foundries will continue their push to broaden their ‘global’ fonts such as Helvetica World and SST.

That typefaces stop being an obstacle for brands to localise, and anyone to communicate to a broader global audience in a language and script, makes the audience feel included and their diversity appreciated.

The alternative in an ever more globalised world, is a spiral down to a homogenising of languages, scripts and ultimately of culture. But I am betting on the prior.

Marcel Wijnen, creative director at Hulsbosch


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