Willie Liu is a type and graphic designer based in Shanghai working at 3type, a small type foundry in the city. Simultaneously, he is enrolled in a master’s program in media and communication design at Tongji University, as well as the extended program at Type@Cooper. Despite a clear love for typography now, Willie actually majored in urban and rural planning, his early interests being in architecture and the design of space. A self-taught graphic designer, “I’m interested in all kinds of visual media, with typography and motion graphics being my favourites,” he tells It’s Nice That.
“Doing graphic design or visual media means that your work will go directly into the viewers’ eyes. This idea is really thrilling to me,” he says of his choice of discipline. “It feels like a part of me or my work could be connected to tens and thousands of people in the blink of an eye.” A body of Willie’s work in particular consists of pixel art projects, creating tranquil scenes on a blown-up pixel grid. Though these grids work quite well for Latin characters with their limited strokes and relatively simple shapes, Willie found them often unsuitable Chinese characters when he wanted to incorporate text into his work.
“When I was working on a pixel art project, I realised that there were hardly any pixel Chinese fonts of small enough size, so I decided to make my own,” Willie recalls. Deciding to design his own typeface to tackle this issue, the designer has made Dinkie Bitmap, a pixel-style typeface that comes as a seven-by-seven pixel grid, as well as a slightly larger nine-pixel one. According to Willie, the seven-pixel version is the smallest bitmap Chinese font he’s found so far.
With many challenges to overcome in its creation, Willie admits the biggest “was the Chinese characters’’ immense complexity,” he says.“I had to be clever and inventive in simplifying the forms to keep their overall readability. The pixel grid is so nice for Latin letters but the Chinese ones might have to lose an arm or a leg to fit itself into the grid.” Bitmap fonts from the early years of China’s digital age, he notes, were still relatively large in comparison to Latin bitmap fonts that today could fit into a three-by-five pixel grid.
Besides tackling issues of size in Dinkie Bitmap, Willie is also interested in the broader trajectory of modern typography in China. “For the Chinese language, the modern typography ‘tradition’ has not been established yet and there are still a lot of possibilities that type designers can experiment with,” he says. One question the designer wants to tackle is one derived from cross-cultural translation that not only involves a literal translation but a typographical one too. In a recent talk, he highlighted the issue of italicising Chinese characters asking: “What does italics mean for Chinese? There isn’t a simple answer and no universal solution to italicising Chinese.”
Willie compares two genealogies of the italics in Latin script, what he calls the cursive gene and the slantic gene that form contemporary italicised fonts, drawing a parallel of corresponding types and script styles within the Chinese context. Although he did not find exact parallels, he found that the typefaces have experienced similar transformations. Drawing direct analogies between two technical systems derived from such divergent cultural and functional histories runs the risk of creating a reductionist comparison. “In the end, I argued that in the past hundred years, the way that Chinese has been read and written has changed a lot: simplified characters, change of reading directions, movable types and so on,” he explains. Though different, the transformations were still there, which also means that this can be a realm of experimentation for contemporary typographers.
In the future, Willie looks to continue this thread of cross-cultural translation. “I want to dive deeper into Latin type design, but the multi-script world also attracts me so much,” he says. “I admire the non-Hanzi scripts in China like Mongolian and Tibetan and look forward to seeing more gorgeous, native and rooted works.”
Willie Liu: Dinkie Bitmap (Copyright © Willie Liu, 2020)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.