Thoughts on a brief

Our first full week in the department has been lots of fun. I’m definitely seeing why Reading University is so highly regarded. Our teachers are really top class: enthusiastic, knowledgeable and fascinating. And it’s a sign of how fun the department is that there are so many ex-students still hanging around, doing research and working on projects, clearly showing no sign of getting bored even after such an intense year of study. There’s always going to be more to learn.

We’re starting to think about our practical projects — the bit where we have to design our typefaces based on a brief we write ourselves. In many ways studying type design is different to designing type professionally, and having to decide our own brief is one example of this. In the workplace, the designer has the client’s brief to stick to; here we are given the opportunity to try anything we fancy.

So how do we settle on a project that’s big enough to give us a broad and interesting learning experience, but small enough to submit by next June? Luckily, I’d heard from previous students it was a good idea to think about the project over the summer. For my project, I wanted to develop areas I’m already interested in, and learn new skills that will be valued in the workplace. That means I needed to pick something that has real-world applicability. The course encourages us to explore non-Latin scripts, so that was a starting point.

From living in Thailand and travelling extensively across Southeast Asia, I’ve become very interested in how the old Brahmi script sprang from northern India in the third century BC, and travelled with trade and religion to so many other parts of Asia, slowly evolving different letterforms as it settled into new cultures. It’s always a source of wonder to me to see commonalities between writing systems that superficially seem so different, and trace back their roots to a common ancestor.

For example, look how the ma is represented in these modern day Brahmic scripts:

Ma consonant

The consonant ma in different Indic scripts.

The first five are clearly recognisable as the same letter, with the loop at the bottom left. Devanagari has a head-line, which is sort of vestigial in the Gujarati and Tibetan, and possibly in the looped head of the Thai form. The last two, Burmese and Khmer, flip the bottom left loop to the inside of the shape, but the two upward arms are still telltale signs of a common origin.

(An interesting side question is why these forms diverged at all. For the answer, we need to look at where the letters were written, as the environment of each script over time contributed to the conventional forms of letters. Burmese is often cited as being so circular because it was written on palm leaves, which are easily torn by straight lines. One can also imagine that a culture’s visual environment builds a repertoire of shapes that can then be reappropriated into its written language. The jagged peaks of the Tibetan landscape must have played a significant part in the styling of the alphabet.)

Although I can’t yet read it, I’m especially curious about the Burmese script, with its unique, circular forms. I’ve started learning how the writing system works and have found a serious lack of useable Burmese fonts available. So I’ve found an overlap of interest and specific need. My aim then is to create a Unicode font with Burmese and Latin scripts, something that can be used in dictionaries and/or textbooks.

From travelling in Burma, which is probably my favourite country, and meeting some of the different ethnic groups there, I was struck by how welcoming, cheerful and playful people living there are. I hope to be able to infuse some of their liveliness into my design. Keeping things light and fun is also probably a good idea to counteract my tendency to overanalyse and be too serious with things. Of course a dictionary typeface doesn’t want to be comical or silly, but it does want to be alive, so I’m keen to prevent the thing from being too restrained and dull. I’m keeping the words ‘bounce’ and ‘fluid’ (dictionaries tend to feel rather disjointed and staccato) on my sketchpad.

A dictionary also requires special variant styles: not just roman and italic, but usually a sans serif companion, light and black weights, and possibly IPA support. These possibilities should allow a great enough freedom to hold my interest for the next eight months.

I’m very much seeing this year as an opportunity to gain skills that are valuable in the workplace. One such skill is to develop a methodology for approaching unfamiliar scripts. On the other hand, much as I love the idea, Burmese fonts are not something that international type designers are going to find too many requests for. Career-wise, it would make much more sense to create in-demand fonts for Devanagari, Bengali or Arabic. Fiona Ross, our non-Latin expert, reminds me that the dearth of Bengali typefaces has resulted in a dozen Bengali newspapers using the same fonts, and they’re now queueing up to get their hands on new ones.

It’s at this point that I find another way that studying typeface design is different to designing typefaces professionally. Students would be well advised to try their hands at very different writing systems. Armenian, with its upright stems and squarish forms, would be a perfect counterbalance to Sinhala, with its extravagant florid swirls. Designing both scripts would be almost the broadest experience imaginable. However in the real world, what need is there for a font that can cover both languages? Is there likely to be an Armenian-Sinhala dictionary?

To resolve this question, I’m keeping my options open. Bengali or Tamil might be nice options as there is some logic to combining these with Burmese (there are significant populations of Bengalis and Tamils in Burma). Through the year, we’ll be looking at plenty of other scripts, and finding out new areas of interest. I’ll sample these and then decide which other script to work on.