Grilli Type’s latest typeface GT Maru takes inspiration from Japan’s friendly and efficient signage

Grilli Type’s co-founder Theirry Blancpain drew on his observations in Japan, coupled with Switzerland’s more functional approach to signage, in a typeface that feels “fun but not funny”.

20 May 2021


For many newcomers to Japan, arriving in one of the country’s big cities can be an assault on the senses. Tokyo, in particular, can initially feel quite overwhelming – bright lights, thousands of tightly arranged streets, and huge movements of people coming and going. It’s easy to get lost, and it’s when you attempt to navigate this huge metropolis that another aspect of culture shock sets in: the sheer amount of signage. Japan loves signs. From the iconic neon signs on the streets of Shinjuku to the dense maps of the Tokyo subway system, signage adorns almost every building in the city.

For Theirry Blancpain, co-founder of Swiss type foundry Grilli Type, this was an exciting discovery. But it wasn’t just the more obvious, glitzy examples of signage that struck Thierry, it was the utilitarian, everyday ones too. “I was personally very impressed by what to me seemed like a more personable and casual tone of many signs intending to tell the public to do certain things,” he explains. “The construction site signage featuring animals around the barriers was just one example of that.” Clearly, Japan’s love of cartoon characters transcends traditional contexts such as anime and video games, and can even influence something as simple and workaday as warning signs near building sites.

Alongside signage bearing Japanese characters, Thierry was also interested in how Latin characters were used on Japan’s signs. Whereas the Japanese writing system is based on each character taking up one square block, Latin letters usually vary in width and height, so in Japan, Latin-alphabet characters — in an effort to make two different systems fit together — feature extremely short ascenders and descenders. This union of contrasts was hugely inspirational to Thierry and, following a trip to Japan in 2007, and then another in 2017, he spent four years working on a typeface that would use this idea as its foundation.


Grilli Type: GT Maru (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

Thus Grilli Type’s latest typeface was born: GT Maru (which means “circle” in Japanese). Drawing influence from East and West, Thierry has managed to strike the perfect balance between the two. His experience of Japan’s “more friendly, yet still effective way of communicating,” coupled with Switzerland’s (and the rest of Europe’s) purely functional public safety signage has resulted in a typeface that feels “fun but not funny”. GT Maru sits at a beautiful middle ground between Japan’s tradition of hand-painted signage (which is still very common today) and the machine-driven type that is typical of Latin-alphabet typefaces.

“It was important to me that GT Maru had a geometric nature to it with lots of small details that would move it towards a more casual and brush-painted look,” explains Thierry. “The tail of the lowercase ‘a’ is the most visible expression of this. All the rounded stroke endings are drawn to fit the context instead of being geometrically constructed. Especially in the heavier weights, the stroke endings become a little more exaggerated to help create a more analogue and casual look.”

Alongside the compact GT Maru, the other fonts in the family, GT Maru Mono and GT Maru Mega, also explore the quality of roundness. While Maru Mono “celebrates the square character frame used to compose Japanese characters by fully embracing the aesthetic quality of the grid”, Maru Mega takes things up a notch as a “delightful, stadium-sized typeface” that is “the fullest expression of roundness in the family”, with large, inflated strokes that feel both fun and funny.

The celebration of friendly communication that is evident throughout the GT Maru family finishes with an extensive collection of warm and welcoming emojis. Led by fellow Grilli Type co-founder Noël Leu, the team designed over 450 of them – including a dog emoji modelled on Thierry’s dog Barley – which are now available as free iOS stickers. “As emojis were originally invented in Japan, it seemed natural to add them to the typeface,” says Thierry. “They’re so much work but it was really fun to have them included.”

GalleryGrilli Type: GT Maru (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

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Grilli Type: GT Maru (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

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About the Author

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.

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