Huruf explores Malaysia’s visual culture and multilingual vernacular through type

Surrounded by multiple languages, dialects and scripts, the Kuala Lumpur-based type collective explores its rich typographic landscape and designs new fonts representing its translocal culture.

Date
18 February 2021
Reading Time
3 minute read

We’ve covered type foundries from all around the world here at It’s Nice That. But we’re pretty confident in saying that this is the first time we’ve featured a type foundry from Malaysia. Founded by Sueh Li, the Kuala-Lumpur based type foundry that we’re here to discuss today, started out as a broader design project. In 2017, Sueh – a graduate of the Type and Media program at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague – established a type collective to “inspire interest and encourage greater awareness in typography and type design in Malaysia,” she tells us. Titled huruf, the initiative conducts events, workshops and research to further its cause.

With time, the collective grew, adding researcher Tan Zi Hao, type enthusiasts Low Hsin Yin, David Ho Ming Aun and Fam Kai-Cong to the ensemble. And now, huruf has extended its reached to include the subsidiary hrftype, a type design studio working on custom type and branding projects, as well as font productions in multilingual type and non-Latin scripts. When Sueh returned to Malaysia after a couple of years of interning and working in European studios, she “started to appreciate Malaysian visual culture more and gradually developed an interest in exploring our unique identity in typography and type design.”

Drawing inspiration from the aspects of Malaysian daily life, she observed the beautiful sign culture that’s ubiquitous across Malaysia’s hawker centres and night markets, from the entrances of holy temples to the one-man food stalls and drinks cartons. Sueh adds on the matter, “I’m keen on exploring types in local contexts”, and given the rich multiculturalism of Malaysia, there was plenty of context to delve into. Surrounded by thousands of vernacular signages written in multiple languages, dialects and scripts, Malaysia is unique for its multiracial community spanning Malay, Indian, Chinese, Iban, Kadazan, Punjabi and many other communities. As an extremely divergent city, “there are many diverse layers to discover,” says Sueh.

She talks us through a few of huruf's latest projects. The first is Kedai-Kedai Merdeka: A Typographic Creolisation, a typeface which considers how the Latin alphabet can be inflected by the aesthetics of non-Latin alphabets. It’s a variant of the foundry’s older typeface Kedai-Kedai created in 2019, a name taken from the Malay term for the vernacular signage seen outside shophouses. This version, was influenced by condensed sans serifs from existing multilingual signs observed by Sueh and the team. Sueh adds on the unique design, “Kedai-Kedai Merdeka enables different glyphs to conjoin and form unusual ligatures in some letter combinations; as well as the modularity of Chinese characters.” In turn, this “creolised Latin alphabet” displays elements of Jawi, Chinese and Tamil morphology.

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huruf: Kedai-Kedai Merdeka: A Typographic Creolization, Research & Text: Tan Zi Hao, Type Design: Tan Sueh Li (Copyright © huruf, 2020)

Full of personality which reflects the melting pot of cultures that exists in on the South East Asian peninsula, the typeface was designed with the spirit of ‘Merdeka’. A term, Sueh explains, “which translates as independence from colonialism and narrow dogmatism.” The typeface, as a consequence, plays with the notion of coexistence through its expressive counters and shoulders, and importantly, acknowledges “the translocal flows of influence in Malaysia’s typographic landscape.” The typeface can be seen in the artwork for Solidarity Spores, an exhibition at the Asia Culture Centre which took place last year in Gwangju.

Elsewhere, the original Kedai-Kedai typeface can be seen in the Risograph printed zine Jalan-Jalan Typography #1 which details an essay Towards Vernacular Typography written by Tan Zi Hao. In this eassay, Hao shares his take on conceptualising vernacular typography with particular regard to the multilingual legacy in Malaysia. Using several case studies to support his argument, he additionally explores the epistemic and methodological potentials in vernacular typography.

In a new project, fresh from the oven, huruf developed a new form for the Lunar New Year. The lettering is inspired by giant joss sticks, otherwise known as 龍香, traditional incense burned as a form of offering or worship during Chinese rituals. Sueh adds on the significance of the cultural emblem, “When visiting religious goods stores with my family during the festive season, I am always fascinated by the overwhelming aesthetic of worship goods.” Visually enticed by the colourful paper offerings and pastries decorated with elaborate greetings, there is plenty more to explore down this abundant avenue. With that in mind, this is what Sueh and the rest of the hrftype foundry will continue to work on in the future; interrogating the crossover between Asian typography and its cultural substance.

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huruf: Towards Vernacular Typography (Copyright © huruf, 2021)

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huruf: Long Xiang Zi (龍香字) Type Direction: Tan Sueh Li, Lettering Design: Low Hsin Yin (Copyright © huruf, 2021)

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huruf: Multilingual numeral (Copyright © huruf, 2021)

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hrftype: Grab Community (Copyright © huruf, 2021)

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hrftype: Grab Community (Copyright © huruf, 2021)

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Inspiration: multilingual sign in Kuala Lumpur

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Inspiration: multilingual sign in Kuala Lumpur

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Inspiration: multilingual sign in Kuala Lumpur

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Inspiration: multilingual sign in Kuala Lumpur

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huruf: Towards Vernacular Typography (Copyright © huruf, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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