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The Long, Incredibly Tortuous, and Fascinating Process of Creating a Chinese Font

(Photo: Smile Always)

There are 26 characters in the English alphabet. But Chinese has a radically different writing system. If you want to be able to read a newspaper, you need to know about 2,000 characters. If you want be able to read a novel successfully, you'll need another 1,000 or so. And some comprehensive dictionaries have over 85,000 characters.

One practical result of this writing system is that creating a new font is an extraordinary feat of labor. A typographer can't whip up the next Helvetica in a week. Nikhil Sonnad describes this character building process in Quartz:

“It all starts with research,” says Winston Su, co-founder of Justfont, a Taiwanese startup that focuses on delivering fonts through the web. In most cases, the research phase lasts an entire year.

The goal of this year-long process is to take a fuzzy idea for a hypothetical new typeface, and develop it into a set of a few hundred “representative characters.” These set the tone for the thousands of characters to follow. Latin typefaces are designed in a similar way, but the scale is entirely different. In an interview with Fast Company, venerable designer Steve Matteson said he always starts a new Latin typeface with just a handful of glyphs—capital H, O, and V, and lowercase n, o, and d.

The research phase is part design, part calligraphy, part grammatology, part market research.

Everything may begin with some vague notion of the feel a typeface should have. In his interview, Matteson adds that a typeface generally starts with an adjective, like “approachable, friendly, feminine, masculine. All of these adjectives play into the detailing that we would do to the letter forms to help emphasize those attributes.”

Similarly for Chinese; “modern but not boring” is how Su described the idea behind JinXuan, Justfont’s first font designed in-house, still in development. The difference is that, because of the vast amount of work involved, a Chinese typeface cannot be created by a single designer with a singular vision, as is often the case for Latin scripts. Instead a collaborative team has to start with this fuzzy notion and then settle on a uniform design. That’s what the research stage is all about.

-via Nag on the Lake

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