Steve Jobs was often quoted as crediting his success to a seemingly irrelevant source: a course on calligraphy that he took as an undergraduate at Reed College, where Jobs enrolled in 1972, then after six months dropped out.
"I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great," Jobs said about the calligraphy class in his famous speech at Stanford University in 2005. "It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating."
Anuthin Wongsunkakon designed the official Thai version of Helvetica, one of the most popular fonts of all time.
Calligraphy, traditionally handwritten, has given way to more contemporary digital typefaces and fonts, which have become entrenched in our lives. Today, for major corporates, it serves as a signature, as something that automatically reminds people of a brand and its character. More and more designers are turning to type design, and companies today are investing big budgets into making sure they have their own distinctive font that delivers messages beyond the literal meaning of the text.
"When it comes to graphic design, there are two key elements - pictures and text. However, the text itself can do more than just convey a message literally. Font design can evoke feelings that words sometimes don't suffice to induce," said Anuthin Wongsunkakon, one of Thailand's leading type designers who recently designed the official Thai version of Helvetica - one of the most popular typefaces of all time.
Starting out as a graphic designer, Anuthin became interested in what fonts could do. While typography was not a foreign term to Thai graphic designers, type design was a relatively new discipline.
The above text is in Helvetica typeface, one of the world’s most popular fonts that now has a Thai version.
"It is actually not a new profession. The moment we had printing, this job existed. It's just been taken for granted and overlooked, and this profession was pushed into the corner labelled 'hobby'," explained Anuthin, who is now a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University, alongside his job at Cadson Demak, a typographic design company that he set up in 2002.
He said it makes no sense, in a marketing aspect, for 10 companies to use the same font just because it is available for free, readily installed on the computer.
"When you are marketing a product, you have to embed communication in every element, including the font used. If you walk down to the BTS station, where hundreds of ads can be seen, you might notice that one single font is used to advertise everything from dog food to a condominium. It doesn't add uniqueness to the advertisement and the brand," he explained. Anuthin said type design helps solidify communication in a way that text or image alone might not be able to. A font used in a wedding invitation and in a business letter is not the same.
"But for convenience, we often use whatever we see on the computer. In personal use, it is fine, but for corporate use, a customised font has a bigger impact," he said.
The self-taught type designer said he learned from practising, and by trial and error. He said the most important thing is to be observant and pay attention to smallest the details. "Every millimetre counts. It is a job where art meets engineering. The font needs to communicate clearly, look good and perform its job well."
Regarding attention to detail, he said it is crucial to design even the letters and symbols that are no longer used today.
"You just never know when it will come back, maybe in a new role. Decades ago, the @ sign and the # sign were not relevant and not commonly used, but since the internet boom, they have been given new meaning," he said. "When I design a new typeface, I include every letter and every sign. Better safe than sorry."
He feels there is a lot of room for more type designers in Thailand, as only Thai speakers can really understand Thai fonts. However, new Thai fonts are often met with resistance, as a lot of people hold on to "original" look of each letter. "Sometimes people would say it's a wrong way to write Thai letters, but as a designer, we look at it from a different perspective. Besides, what's really the right way? If you give today's newspaper to a person from 1,000 years ago to read, I don't think the person would be able to read it. Our writing standard has evolved so much, along with our writing tools," said Anuthin. Compared to other alphabets, he thinks the Thai alphabet is quite simple to design. Nonetheless, there aren't that many type designers. He is trying to build awareness through his job as a type designer, through his teaching at the university, through his blog (anuthin.org) and through contributing to magazines.
"Thailand's type design is actually quite advanced, and I believe that when the AEC arrives in 2016, there will be more demand from our neighbouring countries. It is important for Thai type designers to step up the game, both to attract clients from other countries, and to make sure that it's us, Thais, who design the Thai script," he said.
Anuthin Wongsunkakon will give a talk on "The missing handbook for designing Thai script: 10 useful things you might want to know before designing Thai" on Friday at Thailand Creative and Design Centre as part of Granshan 2013 Thailand.
Not your usual type
As you are reading this, you are probably more focused on what the text has to say, instead of what kind of font has been chosen to convey the message. But come to think of it, what drew you to this article in the first place?
Mainly, it was the headline that captured your attention (and often the images and the overall layout, of course). Would you have flipped through this article had the headline been in a smaller, plainer font?
German researchers at Humboldt University of Berlin found that people have more of an emotional brain response to words in larger fonts than to those in smaller ones. However, that does not mean we should make headlines as large as possible, and size is not the only aspect of fonts that can be varied in order to make an impact. Typography or font design can help convey emotions and messages at a deeper level than plain, boring text, and sometimes hook the reader's attention more effectively than images.
Today, in a world where most of the things we read are printed instead of handwritten, fonts have become a large part of our lives. Yet, most of those recently developed are Latin, although there are hundreds of different alphabets and scripts used all over the world.
Realising the need to encourage the development of non-Latin typefaces, the Armenian Ministry of Culture together with the Typographic Society Munich (tgm, abbreviated in lowercase to show the impact of playing with fonts, probably), initiated Granshan, a yearly conference and festival that aims to emphasise the importance of understanding cultural specificity, especially its local varieties, when reading different sets of cultural characters.
This year, the event is taking place in Thailand in partnership with many local entities such as TCDC, Goethe-Institut Bangkok, Thai Graphic Designers Association and local universities. The event is running until Aug 18, and is divided into numerous mini events scattered around Bangkok.
The pre-conference, which kicked off yesterday and runs until Aug 18 at Goethe Institut Bangkok, showcases the history and current results of Granshan, from its inception in 2008, to featuring award-winning non-Latin typefaces. Coinciding with that exhibition is TypoLyrics by Lars Harmsen/slanted/Prof Amrit Chusuwan at Brown Sugar, in which the art of type design and music collide and interact, resulting in a new artistic experience.
Another exhibition will take place from July 27 to Aug 18 at the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University, titled "From Hot Metal to Open Type - University of Reading". The Institute of Typography from the University of Reading, UK, will showcase its extensive non-Latin typeface archive, normally available exclusively to its typography students and researchers. Another exhibition, at the same venue and during the same period, is "Letter.2 of Atypl", featuring the evolution of fonts around the world in the past decade.
On top of these five exhibitions, the event also brings together renowned type designers from around the world in a conference titled "A seismograph for typographic trends and interdisciplinary dialogue", as well as in a symposium that serves as a platform for type designers, academics, marketers and typographic students to exchange views and experience, focusing on Southeast Asian scripts. The conference, which runs from Wednesday to July 27 at various venues, includes top-notch designers such as Stefan Sagmeister, who has won Grammy awards for his design.
Students and anyone else interested can also join the workshops with experts such as typography and graphic communication professor Gerard Unger from the University of Reading. All workshops are happening on Wednesday at either Chulalongkorn University or Silpakorn University.
About the author
- Writer: Napamon Roongwitoo
Position: Outlook Writer