Synoptic Office’s Caspar Lam and YuJune Park invited leading type designers from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to discuss the present and future of Chinese type design. In a video call connecting four cities—New York, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Shanghai—the group shared a sense of excitement that Chinese type design is on the cusp of significant changes.
Our conversation with Joe Chang, Julius Hui, and Li Zhiqian began with laughter and a question: “Are we all gluttons for punishment?” A standard Chinese text font contains a minimum of seven thousand glyphs. An inverse relationship between the number of required glyphs and the number of available typefaces comes as no surprise. But new technologies and a global marketplace are profoundly impacting Chinese type design.
Synoptic Office, New York (SO): What have been the most significant changes in type design in your communities over the last decade?
Li Zhiqian, mainland China (LZ): Many Hei-style1 typefaces have been designed because of the rise of digital devices. Also, typeface families have grown.
Julius Hui, Hong Kong (JH): During the last ten years, I’ve been working on sans serifs, which I now find a bit boring. I think the market is very saturated. For Latin type, it’s still fine to design more sans serifs because the alphabets can look quite different. But for Chinese, the most important thing is the structure of the type. If we designed new sans serifs, they wouldn’t be easily noticed by the general public. The difference might be noticed by professionals, but it would still be hard even for them to tell the difference. In the past, people liked type with wider proportions (中宮)2, but now people are looking for type with the traditional beauty of calligraphy, which looks more familiar and is more legible. I also notice that people know more about text fonts rather than just display fonts.
Joe Chang, Taiwan (JC): I too have noticed that people like a smaller proportion (中宮)2, kind of like a retro style. Two years ago, the 康熙字典體 (type from the Kangxi Dictionary) became very popular.
SO: What do you think the Chinese type design scene will be like in five years?
LZ: I think there will be more independent designers and small foundries. Currently in mainland China, there are only two main type foundries.
JH: Hopefully there will be more serif designs to balance the amount of sans serifs. I also hope the problem of mass production of Chinese type can be solved, so more people will be able to design type in a smart and efficient way.
SO: What are the biggest challenges you face when drawing Chinese type?
JC: The hardest part is consistency between so many characters. They’re hard to balance visually because they range from one stroke to between thirty and forty strokes.
JH: I started by drawing Latin typefaces. But Chinese type places more importance on the legacy and aesthetics of calligraphy. I spent a long time practicing and learning the strokes, so native Chinese readers would find my work legible and comfortable to read.
LZ: The biggest challenge for me was that I didn’t have good tools for designing Chinese type. I finally started designing type last year when I found a software program called Glyphs.
SO: How much time does it take to design a full Chinese character set?
JH: My first experience with a full set was Xin Gothic by Sammy Or. It took more than a year for one weight—starting with two, then increasing to five people.
JC: I created Chinese typefaces for DynaComware aimed at the Japanese market, which didn’t demand the full set.
SO: Wait! Have any of us completed a full text typeface with all the weights?
JC, JH, LZ: No.
SO: What opportunities do you think new technologies could open up?
JC: Scripting definitely helps shorten the process. Maybe a new tool could help put all the needed combinations of radicals and components together. We would still have to adjust them, but the tedious work can be reduced. Variable fonts will also be a trend. I would also love to see more than just weight variations for variable fonts.
JH: Variable fonts should be very helpful to users. The complex structures of Chinese characters can create dark typographic color; with variable fonts, users can adjust this themselves. But it is still a huge investment of time to develop variable fonts, which may be unrealistic at the moment.
SO: How much international collaboration do you see in the Chinese type-design community?
LZ: Monotype recently announced they will enter the Chinese market through FounderType.
JC: There are small collaborations also happening organically. Many brands and companies are trying to enter the Chinese market, so there are requests for Latin type foundries to supply Chinese versions of their typefaces.
JH: I want to see more real collaborations of Chinese type designers from the West and China designing a font from the ground up.
SO: How would you define Chinese typography?
JH: Difficult. There is nothing called Chinese typography right now because we don’t have textbooks on it or even a definition of Chinese typography. Many people think they are doing Chinese typography. However, I would say they are just playing with type or making typographic design. Hopefully, type education will improve.
SO: Interesting. How is type design education where you are?
LZ: In mainland China, type design education so far is zero. There are no type-design classes at universities or type master’s programs. If you want to learn type design, you have nowhere to go. In five to ten years, I believe this will all change.
JC: I’m also concerned that there are people who are not well versed in type design teaching type design and typography.
“In mainland China, type design education so far is zero. If you want to learn type design, you have nowhere to go. In five to ten years, I believe this will all change.” —Li Zhiqian
SO: Then how did you get started with Chinese type design?
JH: I had no chance to study art at my secondary school. I knew some basic drawing, but what I was really passionate about was design. The only way to get into design was through the fonts on my computer. Then I found software that I could specialize in rather than using the pen. It’s something that is really form following function. I enjoyed that. I studied at Hong Kong Polytechnic, and then I met Sammy Or, a quite famous Chinese type designer. He eventually allowed me to do a type apprenticeship under him for three years. That’s how I started my career.
JC: Ten years ago I was getting into book design, and found out there were not many good Chinese typefaces to choose from. You had to buy fonts from type foundries, but there were only two major foundries in Taiwan. So I thought: “Why not design type myself?” Two years later, I joined DynaComware, one of the biggest type foundries in Taiwan. Since then, I’ve been working in type design.
LZ: I started from Latin typography—I contributed to Type is Beautiful. I studied Latin typography by myself, because I really did not know how to choose typefaces. I started a Douban3 group called 字體交換鑑賞 for type lovers to exchange our knowledge and our fonts. Through this group I met Chen Qirui (陳其瑞), and started to get to know him and his colleagues, as well as the history of Shanghai typography.
SO: What challenges and opportunities do you see facing Chinese type design?
LZ: There are many challenges. We need to build up foundational concepts around Chinese typography. We need better tools. We need to have a good market for designers to survive. We also need social awareness.
JH: We need good tools that can help us automatically paste the basic strokes in the right position. Then we can focus our efforts on proportion. Because we don’t have smart tools, the market is still limited to very large type foundries. We need tools to open the field to indie type designers.
JC: I agree. And with more independent type designers, there will also be more variety, and that will help Chinese typography and graphic design.
Note: this interview was edited for length and clarity.