There are good typefaces, and there are excellent typefaces. What’s the difference? On the occasion of the twenty-fifth annual TDC Typeface Design Competition, an international group of judges representing Arabic, Indic, and CJK scripts convened to discuss this question. Together, the panelists arrived at a practical framework for identifying good—and excellent—type.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the annual typeface design competition organized by the Type Directors Club in New York. It also marks a historic expansion of the competition with the addition of three new categories dedicated to Arabic, Indic, and CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) scripts, each with its own expert judges. As part of Judges Day, which featured back-to-back panels with the nine judges, we discussed two questions that lie at the heart of type design: What constitutes a good typeface, and what constitutes an excellent one?
For many years now, design discourse has assumed that there are universal principles of type design. While this may well be the case for most of what we know about type design, we need to open our understanding to accommodate a more nuanced approach to our discipline—one that takes into account the varying requirements, histories, and specificities of world scripts. A Latin-centric understanding of type design can only take us so far; more needs to be investigated. This realization nudged the panels toward a third question: What qualities specific to your own script contribute to the excellence of a typeface?
This article, the first of two parts, focuses on the first two questions, with answers drawn from all nine judges.
Khajag Apelian Lettering artist, type designer, graphic designer (Beirut/Yerevan)
Borna Izadpanah Graphic and typeface designer, researcher (London)
Mamoun Sakkal Founder and principal, Sakkal Design (Seattle)
Kimya Gandhi Typeface designer, partner, Mota Italic (Berlin/Mumbai).
Neelakash Kshetrimayum Creative director, Brand New Type (Goa)
Anagha Narayanan Independent type designer (Hyderabad)
Minjoo Ham Type designer, typographer, graphic designer (Berlin)
Lisa Huang Independent type designer (Paris)
Kazuhiro Yamada Senior type designer, Monotype (Tokyo)
What makes a good typeface?
“A good typeface answers the demands of its time and maximizes the joy of the reader.” Kazuhiro Yamada’s straightforward description of what makes a good typeface offers a balanced view of type that takes into account the ability to meet a design brief and satisfy readers’ expectations. Almost all of the judges brought up the first part of Yamada’s definition as a starting point for assessing a typeface: Does the typeface fulfill its intended function?
For South Korean judge Minjoo Ham, the functional requirement of a text face is “to be easy and comfortable to read,” while display type allows for “more room to express originality.” In the case of Hangul type, Ham said, “it is very important to have a consistent texture and color.” Lisa Huang agreed with the need for a typeface to “respond to a demand, whatever the demand is,” but added that there are certain technical requirements for Chinese typefaces because of the need to display characters that can have up to thirty strokes at small sizes. Therefore, she emphasized, the legibility of Chinese type is crucial.
The judges on the Indic panel all agreed with the need to meet the demands of the brief as a starting point. “If it’s fulfilling the brief,” said Anagha Narayanan, “then that makes a good typeface for me.” Neelakash Kshetrimayum expanded on why that is such a significant measure of design: “Aesthetics is an important part, but it could lead to some sort of a subjectivity, right?” he wondered. “I would always look at the purpose for the design, then you can frame that sort of conversation in a fairer way.” He added that originality, functionality, spacing, legibility, and innovation also need to be considered when assessing a typeface. Kimya Gandhi pointed to the importance of how well the shapes render when combined: if they don’t work well together, then that negatively affects the overall typography, she said. This is critical in Indic scripts, she added, given the abundance of conjuncts and the many ways they can combine with one another.
The Arabic panel brought up other characteristics of a good typeface. “A good typeface should be well-executed and, even more importantly, it should be relevant,” said Borna Izadpanah. “It should consider the reading habits or preferences of its intended user groups.” Mamoun Sakkal agreed, adding that a good typeface “has to maintain connection to the history of typography in that culture.” Khajag Apelian stressed the importance of technical execution, control over the quality of the curves, and the quality of drawing. He also brought up the need to make “the craft designer’s life easier.”
“A good typeface should be well-executed and, even more importantly, it should be relevant. It should consider the reading habits or preferences of its intended user groups.” —Borna Izadpanah
By batting these ideas back and forth over the course of several hours, the panelists gradually managed to identify a trifecta of good type design: a good typeface meets all of the criteria mentioned so far, is easy to work with, and produces text that is comfortable to read and brings joy to the reader. But what about excellence?
What makes an excellent typeface?
When considering what constitutes an excellent typeface, the judges’ answers started to diverge. Together, they started to draw a bigger picture of what excellence means. Lisa Huang stated that “excellence would be something that follows the [demands of the brief] and [shows] high quality in terms of curves, good design, and proper rendering on every display.”
Minjoo Ham focused on user perception: “An excellent font needs to have a very concrete concept and, in CJK, consistency in a large family,” she said. “What makes a good font excellent is how [well] users accept it. We can draw a good typeface that, for example, type designers love. But a typeface is the kind of product that is worth more when users use it well.”
“What makes a good font excellent is how [well] users accept it.” —Minjoo Ham
Kazu Yamada defined an excellent typeface as “one that can be used for a long time, long after the designer is gone. Japan has around 150 years of metal type and the other oldest designs are still being used today. That’s what I love about Japanese typography, that all these old traditions are kept fresh. And that’s something I aspire to do as well.”
Neelakash Kshetrimayum offered valuable insight: “An excellent typeface is one that is versatile and can provide solutions on a large scale,” he said. “In order to achieve excellence in type design, the main part would be to research and develop an understanding of how the users use the typeface. And then to inform the users of the purpose of your design. That sort of dialogue has to be continuous. We cannot sit in isolation and produce excellence. That is, I think, almost impossible.”
“We cannot sit in isolation and produce excellence.” —Neelakash Kshetrimayum
Anagha Narayanan focused on the design’s staying power: “Excellence is the longevity of the typeface itself, how relevant and how new it can be even a few years from now. It can be basic, it can be simple, but [what is important is] how well you understand the brief, how are you tackling the brief, the new solutions that you’re dealing with within the script.” An excellent typeface “stands the test of time,” she insisted. “Maybe something that lives on for years together, even beyond the lifespan of the designer or the purpose that it’s meant to serve.”
For Kimya Gandhi, excellence involves how well one can take advantage of new technology. She said that she focuses on these questions when she is designing: “How can the current technology and current features be used in the context of Indian design, and what is it about the typefaces and the shapes that you want to draw? How can you harness this newness? How can you use the means that we have and the medium to speak about cultural issues?”
Khajag Apelian stated that excellence is about the ability to meet all of the criteria for a good typeface: “If the face has all of the above, it would be an excellent typeface. But if it has a few little bumps here and there, maybe there is some lack of research, or it’s not really working the way it should.” Such “bumps” undermine a typeface’s excellence.
Mamoun Sakkal agreed, adding that an excellent typeface offers “a new addition to the history of typography, a new quality that is innovative. Some people say there isn’t anything new under the sun. Everything has been done before, one way or another. But I think the way something is reinterpreted and the way it affects the viewer provides a fresh understanding of typography, moving the font from good to excellent.” The typeface should not have “any minor defects,” he continued. “Sometimes minor defects can be overlooked in many uses or in certain applications, but for me, I like to have everything done right whether or not it is necessary. So I think that the ambition of the type designer should be to provide excellent work. That has to be a starting point because if you don’t intend to provide excellent work, quite often you won’t.”
Addressing the new versus revival question of originality, Borna Izadpanah said that an excellent typeface “needs to be innovative, it needs to be creative, and in several cases, it should be informed by sound research.” He continued: “As much as we enjoy seeing something that is new, experimental, fresh, and pushes the boundaries, excellence can be achieved in a revival project as well, which doesn’t necessarily bring about something new, but it reintroduces some of the exceptional qualities that we can find in historical models, which might have been lost or lesser known for the modern users of a given writing system. This is the area that I particularly enjoy, and I would add that excellence can also be defined through the contribution of the typeface, not necessarily by these measurable design and skill-related factors. But if you design a typeface for a language group that has [historically] been excluded from textual communication in a digital environment, that’s also an excellent quality that deserves some sort of recognition, and in this case I would be interested to see more typefaces that are basically addressing those limitations and issues.”
From good to excellent
Clearly, there are many ways to understand excellence in type design. As a starting point, a typeface needs to meet all of the criteria for what constitutes a good typeface. It should satisfy the design brief; it should have a sound technical implementation and rendering, whether in glyph representation or shaping. It should be informed by what is true to its script tradition, one that is acceptable to its readers. It should be well drawn, well spaced, and, to a certain extent, original. It needs to be easy for designers to use. It needs to be versatile. It should have staying power and should contribute something new to the discipline.
So many needs, so many criteria—it can be daunting. But the design process is one where we whisper into the void thoughts about how to draw and communicate. It’s a conversation that gets richer the more we engage with it, so that one day we might hear echoes of these thoughts reflected back to us when we finally see our typefaces come to life.
“The design process is one where we whisper into the void thoughts about how to draw and communicate. It’s a conversation that gets richer the more we engage with it, so that one day we might hear echoes of these thoughts reflected back to us when we finally see our typefaces come to life.” —Nadine Chahine
This article has focused on the general characteristics of good and excellent typefaces. Part Two will focus on script-specific qualities that will help guide us toward a more global understanding of excellence in type design.