The typographic tradition in non-Latin scripts

In Europe, the various strands of typography came together over centuries. Even before the arrival of printing, there were many styles (and sub-styles) of writing: the Greek and Roman inscriptional capitals and everyday ‘rustic’ letters, the Carolingian and insular uncials, and the textura and rotunda gothics to name only a few key elements. Printing types started in the fifteenth century by mimicking the forms of handwritten letters, and thenceforth, developments in type included bicameralism (including upper- and lowercase versions of letters in one typeface), the integration of uprights with italics, and the gradual movement away from humanist models to the elegant swelling lines of the “modern’ types. Later we see the introduction of sans-serif faces, and the invention of the fat, poster faces that gave us our bolds.

The result has been that Western typography now has a huge repertoire of type styles. In turn, each new development has allowed new ways of presenting text on the page. Thus, ‘typography’ was born from the union and interplay of type design and printing.

Compare this to the historical context for non-Latin scripts. Burmese, for example, was first made into type in Rome for the Vatican’s printing arm Propaganda Fide in the 1770s. The church of course needed to print bibles in ‘exotic’ types for their missionary activities, but the interesting point for designers is that such text is very ‘flat’ — that is the text is very simply structured. It just starts and goes on until it ends. Aside from section headings, there’s no typographic hierarchy, no different kinds of information that need signalling, no different voices on the page. The functions the typeface was required to perform were therefore not complex enough to spur the production of different styles, and even by 1833, when France’s Imprimerie Royale cut their Burmese, only two sizes of the same style were made.

Fast forward to the twentieth century (my dissertation will explore the story of the in-between), and we’ll see that Burmese type still doesn’t offer an exciting repertoire of styles. Yes, there’s a vibrant sign-painting scene and a bunch of funky display fonts made by graphic designers, but Burmese type for reading has not really moved since the days of Monotype, and one finds only this same monoline, rigid style (essentially one type design) used in every imaginable typographic context: advertisements, newspaper articles and editorial, hotel receipts, novels, grade one children’s schoolbooks, Buddhist books, technology magazines, arts magazines, maps, business cards…the list goes on.

I had the chance to talk to Dan Rhatigan, Monotype’s Senior Type Designer, about these issues recently. He recalls discussions with clients who commissioned him to design new Bengali typefaces. These clients had very specific views of how their script should look, and seemed to have conflated the idea of a design with the idea of an alphabet so when they were presented with functional, slightly different typefaces, they thought he was trying to change the alphabet.

So where does all this leave the type designer? There’s little point in perpetuating the same old design — imagine being a newspaper editor condemned to only ever have the choice of Helvetica or Arial (and only two weights of each). The point is that type designers are there to offer a multi-purpose toolbox to people who use type: book publishers, newspaper editors, web designers, graphic designers and end users. The text they set has complexities which cannot be represented by the limits of the current typographic palette. Monoline, geometric forms (even with bold companions) don’t work in every situation and don’t articulate to the reader the differences in the kinds of information presented. Information or communication design should be a response to the content of the work, so a one-type-fits-all approach leaves the work of deciphering the content to the reader, a fundamentally anti-design stance.

This does not mean turning the conventions on their heads, westernising the Burmese script or taking wild liberties with letterforms. Luckily, and although it sounds slightly paradoxical, there’s a way to design an authentically Burmese typeface in an original way.

In her article ‘Translating non-Latin scripts into type’ (Typography Papers 3, 1998), Fiona Ross berates the Imprimerie Royale’s Bengali typeface of 1819. Why? Because those bits of metal were cut by people far away from Bengal who had little appreciation of the language, heritage or current practices in how the script was written. She encourages the designer to look beyond the typographic precedents of a script and get familiar with the calligraphy, inscriptions, handwriting and roots of a culture’s writing system.

To this end, I’ve been studying palm-leaf manuscripts, folding paper parabaik books, children’s writing primers, the evolution of letterforms and people’s handwriting today. Thus it should be possible to gently draw the Burmese script away from its 20th century incarnation in mechanical type and into the 21st century where new doors can be opened.