TienMin Liao is not just any type designer. She occupies a unique space in the typographic sector, synthesising a systematic approach to the design of bi-scriptual logotypes and letterings. Currently based in New York, the established type designer with a number of dynamic bilingual alphabets under her belt, grew up in Taipei. After graduating from the Type@Cooper programme at Cooper Union, she went onto work for several branding agencies before going freelance. Now, she specialises in brand typography with Kanji lettering, working independently with agencies and studios on the refinement of custom logotypes and typefaces.
With an emphasis on creating bold and memorable logotypes for international Chinese and Japanese companies, TienMin’s career started out with a focus on logotypes rather than type. “Logotype design was a big part of my day-to-work,” she tells It’s Nice That, “but I realised that I wanted to pursue more knowledge on creating letterforms and gain further expertise in that area.” With this in mind, she enrolled in a type design course, studying the intricate discipline in the evenings while working full time in agencies during the day.
Combining her experience in logotype design with her new training in type design, TienMin began work on more type related projects, crafting a practice which – at its core – strengthens the design process behind bi-scriptual type and logotypes. It’s a tricky art to master, but one that is exemplified through the myriad of TienMin’s projects.
In Ribaasu for instance, she designs a multi-scriptural, reverse-contrast typeface which includes Latin, Kanji and Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) alphabets. By all means no easy feat to design such an extensive array of glyphs, first off, TienMin set out to create a set of rules to harmonise the scripts from different calligraphic traditions.
“In a Latin reverse-contrast typeface,” explains the designer, “the normal weight distribution is reversed. The result is that the weight becomes concentrated along the cap-height, x-height and baseline, creating a strong horizontal visual connection.” By contrast, the weight distribution of Kanji and Kana is much more complex. The weight is not just emphasised along verticals, as many strokes are diagonal or curbed. “The weight distribution varies on different strokes,” evaluates TienMin, and simply reversing the weight distribution does not produce the same visual results as it would in Latin alphabets. So instead of reversing the weight literally, her approach was to “create a typeface that captures the visual essence of the Latin reverse-contrast.” In essence, she maintains both the quirky personality and strong horizontal connection between the two writing systems, finding a way to make both alphabets work in a visually compatible way.
Elsewhere, while traveling to and from Asia and the US, TienMin realised that a lot of brand identities are not well translated in the visual sense. In turn, she started a project to explore bi-scriptual pairings that were complimentary for both Asian and Western audiences. The result is a bilingual lettering project, showcasing 50 pairings that commend both language systems. On top of this, TienMin continues, “I summarised the process and wrote my findings down in an essay.” The analytical piece of writing ended up as a personal thesis on “creating Latin and Kanji pairs that are visually consistent in form” while also usable as word marks. The substantial self-initiated project can be viewed at the custom website BilingualLettering.com, definitely something to check out for both its linguistic appreciations and typographic assessments.
In other work, TienMin finally goes on to tell us about another new project. She’s recently released a new typeface Min Sans (a Latin one) on Future Fonts. Available in both regular and bold, she hopes to build upon this type family further in the future. She just has to find the time alongside her many, many other interesting projects albeit.
TienMin Liao: Ribaasu
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.