What is Bi-scriptual?
Bi-scriptual typography is a recent development in design stemming from the deconstruction of colonialism that has been so prominent in western design that so heavily influences cultures across the globe.
A brief history of colonial type
If you don’t already know, a good example of a colonial font would be Caslon and all of it’s derivatives. William Caslon created his Roman typeface, later to be called Caslon, in 1726. His Roman moveable type was used in the first high volume printed works including newspapers and novels and became the most widely used typeface in the western and northern hemisphere in the 1700s, distributed throughout the British Empire, including British North America, where it was used on the printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It is seen as the quintessential typeface of the early British Empire, making it the epitome of a colonial typeface.
What is a post colonial typeface?
By contrast, in 2008 the Iron Age Foundry created several African fonts with the intended purpose of reimaging what constitutes a character. One example is the Mapumgubwe typeface based on excavated sculptures discovered during the 1930s when the ancient African city of Mapungubwe was excavated in South Africa. Glaringly absent documentation in public and academic publications has led many to believe that the Apartheid state control was trying to silence the discovery of a highly developed metal and agricultural industry that existed well before the arrival of Europeans. This silencing of history to promote the narrative of European excellence and superiority is at the root of Apartheid and most instances of colonialism. At its roots, colonialism ethnocentricity, the belief that one culture is inherently superior to another.
Using Hanzi script
Knowing what I was designing against allowed me to explore creatively the concept of bi-scriptual typefaces and put this concept in practice. I began by researching the history and development of Chinese script. The myriad conflicts that exist in the field of Asian scripts would fill volumes, with the event being located in Hong Kong, I explored the differences between how type is displayed in Hong Kong versus the rest of China.
Much of this research was influenced by BI-SCRIPTUAL and the essay by Keith Tam regarding Hanzi script. As the editors of Bi-Scriptual write; “The book Bi-Scriptual documents and discusses sociocultural premises, technical requirements and practical considerations concerning multiscript design and typography.”
The main takeaways are:
- “Strokes are used to construct a total of 213 radicals”
- “These root characters can either exist as individual characters, or combined to form composite characters”
- “average word length of 1.5 characters”
- “There is no spatial separation between words; they can only be differentiated in context. “
My type system
The type system was developed based on a Hanzi typeface, using the Latin characters as a guide, I chose a Latin typeface that looked similar.
Research and references
In creating a logo for the Typographics festival in China I conducted some visual research on how Chinese and Latin characters are used together. The results were sparse, as bi-scriptual design is still burgeoning. It occurred to me, however, that the best way to see the two scripts in use is on commercial products, so I sought out movie posters and consumer goods produced in America but marketed in China.
The logos I discovered tended to have both languages interwoven. Upon further researching how American companies translate their branding into Chinese, I learned that translations are not direct, but rather Chinese characters are chosen that phonetically sound like the brand name. This is a precarious task because Chinese characters may sound like CHEVY in Chinese but the meaning may be non-sensical or at worst, negative. Coca Cola, for instance, translates into Kekoukele, meaning “tasty fun.” Give that marketing person a raise!
After several iterations, I had my logo, but I still had to learn more about the culture this poster would be existing in. I interviewed several students I had met at De Anza College in Cupertino years ago, who came to the U.S. for school. I wanted to get a sense of where to begin designing for a visual language I’ve never really seen before, and to avoid ethnocentric traps like stereotypes. The students helped me with translations, but as some were from Taiwan, and some from Hong Kong, I was getting a piecemeal account of Chinese culture through disparate lenses.
To simplify my task, I started looking into Chinese scrolls, albums, and Bamboo and wooden slips. Since most typographers love to play and break what type means in their pieces, I took visual cues from the bamboo slips, signatures on Chinese scrolls and the various orientations of Chinese characters (depending on if you’re in Hong Kong or Mainland China, you may read Chinese left to right or up and down more often.)
Red is a color you cannot get away from in Hong Kong. While red might seem like a cliche, upon researching other color alternatives, I found that designing for a foreign culture can be a quagmire. For instance, orange is the color of trash receptacles in hong kong. Upon learning I might accidentally choose a color that could have a bad impact on branding, let along be offensive or hurtful, I decided to continue with red and to keep my visual motif traditional. I was careful, as someone not fluent in the language, to not get too creative with the characters, simply because altering the context of Hanzi alters the meaning. I erred on the side of caution in this regard as well, avoiding anything stereotypical or ethnocentrically influenced.
Using a type system created by my partner, I set about creating a poster and mobile landing page for the Chinese version of the event.
The landing page was designed with a mobile first approach. I was careful to keep only the C2A gold. Upon hover it would stand out more as the state changes to white. I chose the text based version of the logo from my partners system because after studying designs from the Typographics festival of years past, they used the name inline as a heading or textual element with effects treatment and less like a wordmark. As a text based event, the festivals websites eschews a lot of web conventions such as heavy graphics, creating a challenging design solution where each iteration felt text heavy.
Bi-scriptual design isn’t going anywhere as the world continues to converge culturally. I have actually been seeking non colonial design references to impact my design before this project. There’s many perspectives and I was tired of recreating Swiss or European approaches. Explore the links below to learn more about Hanzi and how it can be utilized in design.
Tam, K (2018) ‘Hanzi’, in Wittner, B; Thoma, S; Hartmann, T, eds. Bi-scriptual: typography and graphic design with multiple script systems. Salenstein, Switzerland: Niggli, 204–211