Contemporary East Asian Typefaces — Authenticity, Heritage, and Globalization

Written in November 2018 for a course on East Asian Design History
Typeface design is a highly specialized field within the larger sphere of graphic design. Both globalization and the preservation of cultural identity have increased demand for quality digital fonts in non-Latin scripts, which is now possible: digital technology improved the tools for designing fonts, and the Internet further democratized that process. The chosen artifacts are examples of contemporary fonts in East Asian scripts, designed by East Asian designers, largely for an East Asian audience.

Japanese Type designers Mariko Takagi and Akira Kobayashi have written some introductory texts for westerners and in western terminology to help aid in cross- cultural communication about East Asian type design. Information ranges from ways to classify them along the lines of familiar latin type, how the languages/scripts are read, the anatomy of the characters, how they’re crafted, and so on. Writing such as this is especially important for westerners who design non-latin scripts.

Kreuzbauer and Keller (2017) articulated authenticity judgement as a truth- seeking process, where the judge interprets if a sign-vehicle represents a sign-object, braking down the process into three interwoven elements: goal and rule determination, inferred producer’s agency control, and inferred producer’s intention. Wong (2013) helps illustrate how that semiotic thinking can be applied to cultural interaction in a globalized world, specifically three ways that culture is approached through design: vernacular, cross-cultural, and transitional. To determine authenticity, my analysis focused on the following factors: letterform characteristics, interpretation of heritage or history, and positioning within a globalized world.

M Ying Hei (China)

M Ying Hei is family of fonts in the hanzi script, in a variety of weights two variations: HK for traditional and PRC for simplified Chinese. The characters themselves are in the monolinear Heiti style, the hanzi equivalent to a latin sans-serif. Strokes are minimal but sharp, described as “unfussy, stripped-down version of the more elaborate Kaishu typefaces that have defined the look of Chinese characters for 1,500 years” (Monotype, n.d.). A key design element of this font is its wider zhonggong, the centre part of the characters, equivalent to a large x-height in latin letterforms, making it more legible on screen and in print. Monotype argues that the wider zhonggong will make M Ying Hei work on digital devices better than its predecessors: since it allows for more whitespace inside the characters, it performs well in backlit situations.

M Ying Hei was designed by Kenneth Kwok and Robin Hui for Monotype HK, the Hong Kong branch of global typography company Monotype. A large company like Monotype would have the financial and quality design resources to dedicate to a project of this scale, as the Chinese character set is complex and intimidating in size, with around 60,000-80,000 named characters (Takagi, 2013). The typeface was designed for performance and legibility on screen and in print, and intended to be paired with corporate typefaces Univers, Frutiger, Neue Hevletica, Avenir Next.

When placing M Ying Hei in the context of a globalized world, Monotype emphasized the importance of Heiti style as the voice of contemporary life, appearing “calm and neutral, impressing on the reader an air of modernity without extraneous fuss,” in addition to their ability to work across language boundaries (Monotype, n.d.). M Ying Hei can be considered a transnational approach to type design, and is an authentic Chinese typeface: the characters are contemporary and thoughtful in their design, the corporate typefaces it is designed to work with were intended to be universal —the “international style”, which shares visual expressions with transnational design (Wong 2013)—and this is a contemporary Chinese extension of that attitude.

Jin Xuan (Taiwan)

Jin Xuan is a traditional Chinese font in the Min-Hei style, a sort of hybrid approach combining features from Mingti and Heiti character forms, not entirely unlike a slab serif in theory, but more like Takagi’s (2015) dual script classification of “semi serif”. The font itself has a light color and low contrast without being monolinear, giving it a youthful, friendly, sophisticated tone of voice.

Jin Xuan was designed by Justfont—stylized “justfont”—one of the largest Chinese webfont producers in Taipei, Taiwan. This typographic project was one of many that the Hanzi (2017) filmmakers focussed on in their documentary, largely because it was the first crowdfunded font in Taiwan. justfont is mostly comprised of young, entrepreneurial designers and the fact that they were able to develop Jin Xuan shows that there is a wider knowledge of typography and fonts in general. This could be due to the prevalence of mobile phones, computers, and navigation systems that use of fonts and when they’re bad or insufficient, it’s extremely noticeable even to untrained eyes.

When looking at Jin Xuan through a wider lens, it reflects the accessibility and democratization of design process and tools that has been able to happen because of advancements in technology. Technology held back development of digital hanzi fonts, previously, the Chinese language files were too large to download directly and then upload online. Cloud-based webfont hosting services have made quality fonts accessible, and justfont is an example, having established their cloud service in 2012 (“justfont”, n.d.). As mentioned in Hanzi (2017), Taiwan doesn’t have an established typographic legacy like Hong Kong or Japan does. justfont wants to change that, offering online courses in typography, contributing to the dissemination of design education and inspiring a new generation. Jin Xuan is an authentic typeface and I would argue that it was designed through a vernacular approach; instead of taking inspiration from the past, justfont represented a hybrid contemporary spirit for Taiwan, by Taiwan.

A1 Gothic (Japan)

A1 Gothic is a font in Japanese scripts Kanji and Kana, comprised of Hiragana and Katakana, and Latin, which is called Romaji in Japanese and can be considered an additional fourth script (Takagi, 2015). As the name points out, it’s in the gothic style, the Japanese equivalent to a sans serif, and the core skeleton is based on old-style gothic A1 Morning (Morisawa, 2017). A warm tone is conveyed through rounded ends of strokes and ink spot expressions at intersections of strokes, a reference to retro technologies as such expression “are technically inevitable by phototypesetting machines” (Slanted #31, 2018). Furthermore, A1 Gothic is highly readable when set vertically—historically, Japanese was set vertically and read top to bottom, then right to left; more recently, they have adopted a western horizontal setting, where it is read from left to right (Kobayashi, 2002).

A1 Gothic was designed by Morisawa, one of the first type foundries in Japan, with a “commitment to undertaking leading-edge research and development on the field of typography” (Slanted #31, 2018). Morisawa has released a video (Morisawa, 2015) on their typographic process: the team determines its core characteristics, the chief designer designs the “fixed characters”—the 500 most frequently used characters—by hand, characters are scanned and digitized, and then they are reviewed and production continues. Kanji is developed first, then the Kana. Various alignment, density, and contextual tests are conducted, and adjustments are made.

In a global context, A1 Gothic’s production is indicative of a collectivism in Japanese culture, as individual designers are not named, but rather the team is considered as a whole, as “Morisawa.” Western culture is highly individualistic, and contributors to typeface designs are always mentioned on either the font’s websites or places where they can be purchased. While A1 Gothic has a Latin variant, it seems as if it is not marketed towards or intended for Western use, and more likely would be used in Japan as the Romaji component: “Like the kanji characters, which be borrowed from China a couple of thousand years ago, Latin letters are now a crucial part of our writing system. We use them in our text in Japanese, often to design a name of an organization,” (Kobayashi 2002). All of this considered, A1 Gothic is an authentic Japanese typeface, and likely a vernacular one, as Western cultural elements are not considered anywhere in the process.

Tazugane Gothic (Japan)

Tazugane Gothic is a ten-weight font family in the Japanese scripts and Latin. The typeface design is a take on the western Humanist sans serif style, where the “human” element is grounded in handwriting. Tazugane Gothic aims to balance “the look of traditional Japanese handwriting with a distinctly human flavor that supports stability and readability,” (Monotype, 2018).

Tazugane Gothic is the first original Japanese typeface produced by Monotype. Akira Kobayashi, who was shown giving lettering workshops in Hanzi (2017) and is the director of Monotype in Germany, oversaw the development of this typeface. Kazuhiro Yamada is the main person responsible for designing Japanese typefaces at Monotype, and Ryota Doi, who received his Masters in Typeface Design from Reading, also worked on this project.

When placed in a wider context, it seems unbelievable that it took this long for Monotype, one of the largest and most influential developers of typography, to design a unique Japanese typeface. However, since it was designed to compliment Frutiger, one can figure that the designers had those letterforms in mind when working on Tazugane Gothic, even though it has its own latin variant. However, it can still be perceived as an authentic cross-cultural or even transnational approach to Japanese type design, as it is an interpretation of Japanese handwriting, based on a western model of adapting handwriting to type. The construction of the typeface has a wide range of applications and incredible potential.

Tsukushi Q Mincho (Japan)

Tsukushi Q Mincho is a Kanji and Kana typeface that comes in two variations. As the name says it’s categorized in the mincho style, equivalent to a Latin serif, and to my American eyes looks incredibly interesting. However, when referencing Takagi’s (2013) multi-script classification matrix, it falls under the “dynamic analogue” category, where a western script-handwriting style would be. Slanted Magazine’s Japan issue described it as having a “dynamic and stretchy expression beyond the frame of the mincho style,” and can be cursive when set horizontally (Slanted #31, 2018), and is said to be the most innovative Mincho type. Tsukushi Q Mincho showcases the heritage of Japanese characters, in addition to their unity and rhythm (Fontworks, 2017).

Shigenobu Fujita is the lead designer for Fontworks Japan, the Japanese branch of an international type foundry, and designed this typeface and many of their other offerings. Like the artifacts mentioned previously, Tsukushi Q Mincho is available as a webfont through Fontworks’ cloud service. As a westerner who does not read or understand the Japanese, their website was difficult to navigate as the English site only has information about the company and designers, not the fonts themselves. 

When determining authenticity, one can consider Tsukushi Q Mincho in a global context: it refers specifically to Japanese calligraphic history, without any influence from or marketing towards the west or other cultures, and is a vernacular design.

Sandoll Gothic Neo1 (Korea)

Sandoll Gothic Neo1 is a multilingual font family, comprised of characters in Hangul, Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts, ranging in weight from light to bold. Since the Hangul script is the basis of the typeface, it can be considered gothic in style. It was designed for editorial use, with thinner-width characters and an emphasis on optical balance between Hangul and other scripts. Additionally, Sandoll Gothic Neo1 is licensed to match Guardian Sans from Commercial Type, the distinctive typeface used in British newspaper The Guardian (Slanted, 2018).

As the name indicates, Sandoll is the type foundry who designed this particular family of fonts. Sandoll was the first Korean type foundry and works with international type foundries and technology brands like Google, Apple, Adobe, and Microsoft on typographic products (Sandoll, n.d.). The font was designed by Kwon Kyungseok, senior type designer, and Do-kyung Lee, director of the custom fonts team and leader in executing large-scale global projects with multinational corporations.

When analyzed as a typeface in a globalized landscape, Sandoll Gothic Neo1 is an example of an authentic transnational approach to Korean type design. Wong defines transnational design as follows: “design embedded with non-coded iconic messages thatcan be communicated beyond national boundaries. The appearance of transnational design could be represented in abstract forms, and shapes.” (Wong, 2013). The abstract formal quality is represented here in the extreme geometric quality of the typeface. On a literal level, Sandoll Gothic Neo1 is transnational because of how Sandoll uses the Korean hangul script as a basis for the other scripts’ designs, the range of languages and cultures the four scripts cover, and its place in international news media.

Technological improvements in production tools and democratization of design has greatly impacted the quality and accessibly of fonts in non-Latin scripts. Languages with large character sets are finally able to be represented well in digital typefaces as webfonts hosted online. All six artifacts discussed in this essay are authentic, but vary in their approach to cultural interaction. Communication is the core of all typographic design, and more voices are being heard than ever before.

Fontworks. (2017). Tsukushi Q Mincho. Retrieved from fontsearch/item?TsukuQMinLStd-L&word=A%20%0Anew%20design% 20world%20where%20letters%20are%20arranged

Hanzi. (2017). Retrieved from

Justfont. (n.d.). Jin Xuan. Retrieved from

Kobayashi, Akira. (2002). How do the Japanese read?. In Berry, J.D., (Ed.), Language, culture, type: International type design in the age of Unicode (62-64). New York: ATypI.

Kreuzbauer, R., & Keller, J. (2017). The authenticity of cultural products: A psychological perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(5), 417-421.

Monotype. (n.d.). A digital-ready Chinese sans-serif is born. Retrieved from https://

Monotype. (2018). Tazugane® Gothic Font Family. Retrieved from https://

Morisawa, Inc. (2015, December 21). How Morisawa Font Products Are created. [Video file]. Retrieved from v=Mo0TXNAQ290

Morisawa, Inc. (2017). A1 Gothic. Retrieved from news/3603
Sandoll. (n.d.)

Sandoll Gothic Neo1. Retrieved from font/Sandoll/221.html

Slanted. (2018). Yearbook of Type III. Karlsruhe, Germany: Slanted Publishers

Slanted. (2018). Contemporary Typefaces. Slanted #31, insert booklet. Karlsruhe, Germany: Slanted Publishers

Takagi, Mariko. (2013). “Hanzi-Graphy: Typographic translation between Latin letters and Chinese characters.” Retrieved from Hanzi-Graphy_Typographic_translation_between_Latin_letters_and_ Chinese_characters

Takagi, Mariko. (2015). “Kanji Graphy: Visual translation between Latin letters and Japanese characters.” Retrieved from Kanji_Graphy_Visual_translation_between_Latin_letters_and_ Japanese_characters

Wong, Wendy Siuyi. (2000). Formulating the Creative Logic of Chinese Typography. Journal of Visual Literacy, Vol. 20(1): 79-88.

Wong, Wendy Siuyi. (2013). The Three Orders of Cultural Signification: A Proposed Design Thinking Theory Considering Cultures and Globalization. DesignEd Asia 2013 Conference Proceedings: Delimitation–Creating with Constraints. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong.