“Chinese character design systems are totally different to Western character design systems because we have such a large number of characters”, says graphic designer, Mak Kai Hang. In Chinese typography, “each character has a unique personality” resulting in tens of thousands of logograms, though most of them are minor graphic variations exclusively seen in historical texts. The written language is the oldest, continuously used system of writing in the world dating back to the second millennium BC, and presents wholly different design challenges for those designing for a Chinese demographic.
For these designers, such as Mak, the creative role differs significantly to those working with Latin script, as many characters have multiple meanings. Mak tells It’s Nice That how, “we have to carefully process and adjust each stroke”, if one stroke is out of place, the definition of a word or phrase completely changes. Consequently, designers draw on the specificities of the typographic language as “the main visual element” of a design to ensure there are no misunderstandings.
Mak specialises in book and type design and is currently working at one of the main publishers in Hong Kong, Joint Publishing, bringing his niche knowledge to the mainstream publishing industry. This year, Mak designed the book Classic Colour: Screenplay by Kong-Kin Yau, a celebrated screenwriter in Hong Kong. The book contains the original scripts from three of the writer’s best-known films and features much of Yau’s handwriting throughout the book to add a touch of personalisation. The cover design came about through discussions with the book’s editor as, during the production of the book, the desk was always filled with notes from the scripts as well as notes about the script that were always “messing up the desk.”
To recreate this ad-hoc way of working, Mak utilised different sizes of paper, adding an eclectic touch to the design, also seen through the delicate Coptic bookbinding. The book is subtle through its grey tonalities and gentle embossing which features throughout the bespoke cover design. Additionally, the design of the spine strikes diagonally, spilling onto the front cover, adding a quirk to the otherwise strictly-perpendicular grid.
Working with Chinese characters as the body copy was a “really difficult time” for the designer, as each detail of each stroke requires precise typesetting. Before books are mass produced, there is a much longer process of editing and refinement than with Latin glyphs, but through this experience, Mak gained quintessential “knowledge on the true value of Chinese characters.” Since then, Mak now “loves to cooperate with individual Chinese type designers” on book projects, as it’s a process that “creates a strong sense of uniqueness for each book”; highlighting the typography as well as the graphic design.
Mak is currently bringing this experience to an ongoing type design project titled Mechanical Mincho. The typeface is influenced by the traditional engraved signage peppered throughout Hong Kong’s streets. The designer explains: “every morning when I’m on my way to the studio, I constantly notice a lot of signage which was created in the last century by an old factory.” Mak’s typeface pays tribute to this aesthetic in a display font that follows various features of the historic signage while also incorporating the structure of “mincho”.
Mincho, also known as “snug” by the Chinese people, is one of the main categories of Chinese type, similar to the serif family in Western typography. The type attempts to bring a sense of modernity to Chinese typography while simultaneously adhering to the “traditional emotion” of mincho. In the same way that Western serifs feature a distinguished addition of ears and brackets that frame the letterforms with a sense of formality, mincho similarly possesses its own version of serifs that hint to its traditional roots in the written language.
All in all, Mak’s design practice provides a rudimentary understanding of the differences that creatives designing for a Chinese demographic face. Where Western designers contemplate the forms of ascenders, x-heights and so on, Chinese typographers consider calligraphic concepts and the pictorial significance of a character. Asian characters do not distinguish between upper and lower case and, consequently, operate entirely differently to Western type designers with entirely different design discussions.
About the Author
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.