Can a typeface reflect a culture

LindsayWillis's picture

Hi everyone

I'm new to this and unsure of how to explain what my question to you all is but i will try below and hopefully it not to long winded.

I am a forth year student working on my major project which revoles around the question, can many different cultures be reflected in a display typeface. Specifically in relation to New Zealand which is where i live, can the cultural diversity which contributes to New Zealands identity be expressed in a display typeface?

Does Anyone know of typefaces that were designed with a similar intent? Are there typefaces that were intended to reflect the cultural masses and were succeful or failed?

i dont know if i explained that very well but i would love some feedback.
Cheers

gohebrew's picture

I know little of New Zealand, and its multiple cultures.

I know that Arabic and Urdu are very similar technically except for a handful of characters unique to Urdu.

For this many non-Arab designers, and Arabic-specific designers too, created a very unsuccessful group of Urdu fonts. Although they were technically correct, many Persian customers complained. "When will true Urdu fonts become available reflecting Persian culture?"

I was surprized. I was told repeatedly that there is a sttylistic difference between Arabic and Urdu, reflecting not only in art, music, architecture, food, clothes, even in accent in speaking, choice of words, and of course language.

I saw that Urdu and other languages needed a lot of cultural reseach to produce successful type designs.

blank's picture

Various European modernists were convinced that certain sans-serif styles represented the culture of industrialized twentieth-century nations. The Nazis tried to establish blackletter designs as the national face of Germany (but weren’t especially consistent about it. Neither group ever really settled on any particular face, although the Swiss modernists did narrow things down to Akzidenz/Univers/Helvetica. And I don’t think that either one was especially successful at trying to reflect their culture with those styles.

Consider your own situation: how does one typeface reconcile traditionalist Maori, white New Zealanders, and the Maori that live in-between the two?

You should probably read Tschichold’s writing about sans type in The New Typography and his later attacks on modernist monoculture (some appear in the appendices of Ruari McLean’s books about Tschichold.).

eliason's picture

Here's the Metro Letters project, which asked whether a typeface could reflect the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota, USA), which might be useful.

As far as national identity in typeface design goes, there's some information on case studies from 1900-1960 at the companion website to the current Face the Nation exhibition. (I'm hoping to get more information from the exhibition added to the website soon.)

dezcom's picture

Outstanding young New Zealand type designer Kris Sowersby may be the best person to ask. His recent typeface "National" won a prestigious award this year but his Feijoa may be the face you want to look at.

http://www.klim.co.nz/index.php

ChrisL

Katharina's picture

Hi Lindsay, I am just back from a trip to NZ, so my post is late. Here is a typeface trying to imitate Maori carving - I am not convinced, however!

http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/churchward/maori/familytree.html

Nick Shinn's picture

Lindsay, this is a stupid project.
If the agenda is diversity and empowerment, just cut to the chase and get more ethnic variety in design schools, and get more agencies and publishers using Kiwi designers and Kiwi-designed typefaces. Mount a campaign against Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple fonts, not to mention Helvetica and all the rest of that old Euro stuff. And good luck with that.

If you get distracted by overt ethnic signifiers, such as those that appear in some of Joseph Churchward's faces, you will get embroiled in touchy debates over authenticity and appropriation. That kind of face lacks range and is marginal at best, so tying your agenda to its cute banality will fail to address the mainstream of typography.

To move forward, you will have to overcome internationalism at home, and rise on the international stage.
For instance, the Sunday Star Times (in which the article on Kris appeared) was designed by foreigners, using foreign typefaces. That's a frequent occurence in the newspaper business, everywhere.
But then, when New Zealand publishers have been persuaded that using their own art directors and designers, and Sowersby fonts, won't put them out of business, the question is, how much do his faces reflect or express local culture, and how much are they the product of an international type culture? It's irrelevant. More important, if you want to help your own culture express its individuality, support "indie" foundries everywhere, and in particular,

blank's picture

It occurred to me that this line of thinking would be far more interesting/worthwhile if you twist it around to “What makes typefaces relevant in the first place?” For example, why the hell won’t Helvetica go away? Why is Times New Roman, an aging newspaper face, being used for everything from office documents to books? Why is Franklin Gothic so popular all of a sudden? Why do foreign newspaper designers consider foreign typefaces relevant to New Zealanders? Would typefaces by a New Zealander really be any more relevant? Is Bringhurst full of shit when he claims that historically linking type to content is a good idea, given that most people would believe Didot was created the indian slave who did the punchcutting on board the Pinta’s return journey to Spain (or at least I suspect they would believe it given how little most people know about type)?

Ratbaggy's picture

"Outstanding young New Zealand type designer Kris Sowersby may be the best person to ask. His recent typeface “National” won a prestigious award this year but his Feijoa may be the face you want to look at."

BAM!

----------
Paul Ducco
Graphic Design Melbourne

begsini's picture

Lindsay, this is not a stupid project.

i had a vague recollection about norway having an official
typeface. a quick google search turned up a thesis around a
similar topic:

http://www.showsomeprogress.co.uk/henrik/Henrik%20Fjeldberg.pdf

also found a nice website about the official norwegiean typeface:

http://norway.designmanual.no/print/typography/

jarrod

Jan's picture

The Nazis tried to establish blackletter designs as the national face of Germany

They might have done so for some time, but eventually (they were very forward thinking) they figured that as soon as they would have conquered the world (!) they would want everybody (!) to be able to read their orders. Since most of the world wasn’t familiar with blackletter they switched to roman.

alanw's picture

@eliason: If I recall correctly from my reading of Metro Letters, sorry for the vagueness, this was a while ago, a participant claimed that the idea of designing a typeface for a 'city' was perhaps a silly endeavour, that it could not encapsulate the values of a place or culture but rather that it would complement it.

In an obvious manner you see the wide variety of 'Oriental' or 'Mexican' typefaces that are probably more representative of the Western appropriator than the culture it is attempting to resemble. That reversal might make for an interesting project as well:

http://www.dafont.com/theme.php?cat=201
http://www.dafont.com/theme.php?cat=203

tungsteno's picture

“Outstanding young New Zealand type designer Kris Sowersby may be the best person to ask. His recent typeface “National” won a prestigious award this year but his Feijoa may be the face you want to look at.”

http://www.stuff.co.nz/sundaystartimes/4639909a19799.html

daniele capo's picture

Consider this: in Italy we still have a lot of public buildings with fascist era lettering. I don't know if there is something inherently fascist in that style but for my mind the association is a real thing and when I see something similar I find it disgusting.

eliason's picture

@eliason: If I recall correctly from my reading of Metro Letters, sorry for the vagueness, this was a while ago, a participant claimed that the idea of designing a typeface for a ’city’ was perhaps a silly endeavour, that it could not encapsulate the values of a place or culture but rather that it would complement it.

That's how I remember it too, which is why I recommended the book as asking, rather than answering, the question. This review also reminds me that the winning typeface from the competition was one with randomizing stylistic features: "it is important to note that Minneapolis & St. Paul are no longer Garrison Keiller's white bread America, but a mixed community of Hmong, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalis and European-Americans. Thus Twin, the typeface with its morphing possibilities seems appropriate for the cities."

See also the synopsis at LettError (the winning design outfit).

Nick Shinn's picture

It's still a stupid project, because if the agenda is empowerment, it doesn't address that issue, but distracts.
Consider the Twin typeface, where here we are talking about morphing; now ask, if this is supposed to represent the city, wouldn't the obvious thing have been to commission a type from a local designer? Eric Olsen did in fact enter the competition with Locator, but didn't win. Message: the local talent isn't good enough to represent its home town--now there's a reflection of cultural values!

The issue is not what the thing looks like, but who gets paid for it.
You want culture? Follow the money.

Nicole Dotin's picture

> Eric Olsen did in fact enter the competition with Locator, but didn’t win. Message: the local talent isn’t good enough to represent its home town—now there’s a reflection of cultural values!

I don't think this is true, but perhaps I am biased as Eric (Olson's) partner. Judging is an entirely subjective act and so the winning entry is based on the judges' criteria - unless we know the criteria, there is no way to say why one design was chosen over another. And besides, wouldn't you have picked the typeface that changed with the weather, too?! :)

Ironically, Locator is being used to represent the city at this website: http://mspmoretolife.com and Bryant was used for the Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association to again represent Minneapolis. So, sometimes the local talent is good enough.

To get back to the original question, I would say a designer can try to create a typeface to represent a city/culture/etc., but that is only intention on the designer's part. The culture has to adopt the typeface as its own, and then it can be seen as a reflection, but it doesn't happen the other way around... as the Metro Letters contest clearly showed.

dezcom's picture

If a designer has grown up immersed in his or her culture and embodies that culture, he/she can reflect the culture in his/her work. He will simultaneously reflect his own individuality and be but a sample of one from his society. We cannot add on a mask that is truly representative of our society. It happens collectively as a body of work. You can look at Johnston, Gill and Tankard and begin to see an Englishness but what do you say of Caslon? In many years and many design attempts, a cultures look may develop, but that can morph into something else. In today's internet world, cultures overlap, mix, and breed quickly and there is more crossover than ever possible before. Today, you have a young New Zealander in Kris Sowersby, who works with an American in Christian Schwarts for a German named Erik Spiekermann to extend his Meta. At the same time, a Japanese named Akira Kobayashi draws an extension of Herman Zapf's typeface shortly after working on Adrian Frutiger's typeface.
Culture is no-longer tidy and compartmental. It has become a blur of colors mixing like liquid dies absorbed into the same sponge of global society.

ChrisL

guermantes's picture

I'd say it is certainly not a stupid or a futile quest. It's a difficult one though. Symbolism in society is very interesting but also very difficult to analyse. There is nothing objective about cultural identity, so it will be very difficult to isolate cultural markers, and unless you incorporate what Nick above refers to as ethnic signifiers - that is, already existing symbols of the groups in question, and build them into the typeface in some way - then the question boils down to if the attempt to associate a given typeface with one culture or a variety of cultures becomes successful or not. This does not depend on the typeface itself, but upon the arguments that human actors (politicians/designers/cultural representatives/etc) attach to that typeface. Unless you make it some kind of totem-pole style typeface, it's a social process based upon the acceptance of arguments alone.

Example: huge nation-wide campaign involving the design of a typeface that *is said to* express the nation's multiple cultures. If the public accepts this then the typeface takes on that role and *becomes* the expression of this multiplicity. Before this acceptance it wasn't the expression of the nation's cultural multiplicity. A table is not a table until people starts identifying that wooden structure (or other material) as such.

Nick Shinn's picture

Message: the local talent isn’t good enough to represent its home town

Nicole, I was commenting on the impression created by choosing an out-of-town winner, not on the quality of Eric's work, which I have long admired, and I'm happy to know it's getting face time representing Minneapolis. I also have great admiration for the typeface which changes with the weather, but I wouldn't have picked it--I don't judge (or enter) competitions.

as the Metro Letters contest clearly showed.

How? Do you mean that the winning Twin face is not being used locally to represent the city but Locator is?
In that case, it could be said that the competition, in prompting Eric to produce Locator, was instrumental in expressing the local culture!

Nick Shinn's picture

Pierre, your example smacks of the Big Lie.

hrant's picture

Lindsey, an interesting and pertinent question, one that anybody who thinks there's more to life than individuality would find worthwhile. Touchy debates? Bring 'em on!

The trick, as some others have pointed out, is to not expect any literality, and accommodate the necessarily hazy business of seeing the reflections of culture in concrete things. The degree of subtlety I'm talking about is referenced in my review of Lisboa here: http://typographica.org/001045.php

On the other hand, unlike Lisboa for example you're dealing with display typography, so you have a lot more room for cultural leveraging.

hhp

guermantes's picture

Nick,

To a certain extent it is (sociologically speaking). But once the lie is 'accepted' it becomes truth. After all (and please excuse me for getting a bit academic here, after all I am a social scientist by profession), social reality (e.g. interaction/communication between humans) is socially contructed. But once constructed there is no reason not to treat it as real. So if there is anyone currently typing an anti-post-modernist rebuttal against me, you can stop typing now... :)

But there is nothing manipulatory in what I mean is going on. Of course there can be, but it is not necessary. Typography is really a good example. Take the letter A. There is nothing about that shape of ink on a piece of what we call paper that forces humans to identify is as an A - were it not for the fact that humans by convention have agreed that it is an A and that it symbolises one of the sounds that humans utter when they try to communicate. Thus, giving that shape of ink the meaning of representing said sound (in its variations) enables humans to communicate without opening their mouths. That's what I mean by socially constructed. It's a collective understanding, it's shared knowledge. But it is so only by virtue of humans having 'agreed' upon it. The sound in question could just as easily have been represented by another symbol. Just as the meaning of words evolve over time.

Perhaps I am stating the obvious here, but I just kept on writing by pure habit. :)

PS. I ignore whether 'the Big Lie' refers to any historical lie in particular.

eliason's picture

For what it's worth, some of these arguments also got hashed out on this thread.

Nicole Dotin's picture

Nick, I understood you meant no offense and I wasn't trying to jump to Eric's defense. I think maybe we're hinting at the same thing, that competitions in their make-up, execution or otherwise can be flawed and the results won't necessarily reflect the intentions, in this case to represent a city.

> How? Do you mean that the winning Twin face is not being used locally to represent the city but Locator is?

Not really that Locator is being used (because I don't think Locator represents the Twin Cities any better than Twin), but, yes, that the Twin typeface wasn't locally adopted. And, it may never have been intended for wide release in the first place which would have hampered its use across the city. My only point is that one can attempt to create a typeface to express a culture, but cultural resonance is, in part, created through a long association with something and you can't create that overnight nor can you always predict what will stick.

Jem's picture

One of the ways culture is expressed is language. Typography is the visualization of language, it is informed by the culture it represents.

As most countries are a soup of different cultural influences and expressions, the difficultly you may have is finding a single accurate cultural representation. This is why designing a national flag is so difficult and potentially divisive.

Interesting problem.

begsini's picture

It’s still a stupid project, because if the agenda is empowerment, it doesn’t address that issue, but distracts.

Nick, who said anything about the "agenda" being "empowerment?" Certainly not Lindsay in her original post.

Furthermore, Lindsay is a STUDENT, and call me crazy, but I'm certain one could learn a lot by researching this, and isn't that the point of studying?

I know you're a respected member of the Typophile community, but it seems you're projecting some personal baggage onto the idea of this project, and I think you're being a bit of a jerk in the process.

With all due respect.

jarrod

Allison_J's picture

Here's something that may be relevant: the typeface created by Auckland, New Zealand-based Alt Group for the Pacific Contemporary group Black Grace. The Pacific tattoo-like shapes are contained within "forms based on the geometric faces of the early twentieth century". So we've got multiple periods and cultures referenced in this typeface, which is certainly appropriate for a Pacific Contemporary dance group.

Vladimir Tamari's picture

can many different cultures be reflected in a display typeface

Not a stupid project. Any human activity such as typeface design reflects something of the culture in which it occurs. In the case of several different cultures interacting one approach is to find the common denominator between them i.e. simplification. The typography of El Lissitzky and the Bauhaus reflects a wish to distill new design concepts out of the old Europe, transcending cultural differences.

The hybrid approach is another way of going about it. Mix design elements from different cultures existing in a given society. I guess that is what you have in mind? Roman letters with Maori-inspired spirals for serifs is one obvious example (I do not know if this has been done). The trouble with this approach is that it often - but not always - leads to kitsch- there are innumerable examples of Latin alphabets twisted and tweaked to look like Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew or other scripts. You see those in some movie or book titles and travel posters to provide a cheap exotic look.

A more subtle approach may be possible, and it requires sensitivity and creativity, but this has to be worked out carefully: people are very conservative when it comes to changes in type design, and the basics of legibility have to be always considered. Also there will always be those who will try to view such a project in terms of their own political agenda, but that is unavoidable.

Nick Shinn's picture

My apologies, "stupid" is too strong.

I said "if" empowerment is the agenda.
So yes, I was reading between the lines, cutting to the chase and assuming that Lindsay feels local culture is under-expressed in design, and that perhaps a display type can be created to remedy that. Social conscience is a virtue, and is encouraged in design students.

A lot can be learned by studying anything. There will be differences of opinion about "subtle" and "interesting" questions. But is this relevant?

Learning how to communicate with different audiences is a part of design. Representing diversity is a part of that, and it's laudable. Certainly, minorities are more represented now in mainstream media than they were in the past, here, and I expect in New Zealand too. That's progress, but what comes next? How do we get more of the diversity representing themselves?

With respect to type, what bearing does studying whether a typeface can reflect national culture have on whether the type designs of a nation are used in its own media, which, by any measure, is the most direct way that type can represent culture?

So Lindsay, why not ask, Can a Kiwi student design a typeface for a New Zealand publication/ad campaign/corporate identity?-- because you are the culture, not them, the "cultural masses".

A company identity, like that for Black Grace, shows that narrowing the focus to specific documents for a specific client can work very well, providing a solid raison d'être and functional environment for a typeface. But it's only one facet of the mosaic; can it represent the whole?

Jem's picture

"I know you’re a respected member of the Typophile community, but it seems you’re projecting some personal baggage onto the idea of this project, and I think you’re being a bit of a jerk in the process."

Bravo Jarrod!

hrant's picture

> you are the culture

No, no individual can be that.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

What baggage? I'm trying to relate to where this student is coming from, and his/her attitude of social conscience.

OK, my first post was a bit indie-foundry-centric, but I was thinking more of the study part of the project, not the type design part of it.

If Lindsay is to make real progress, it won't be by getting bogged down in something where many people have commented on "the difficulty ... finding a single accurate cultural representation."

I'm suggesting an alternative.
Instead of working on refining the appropriation of ethnic signifiers, so one can do a really professional job of nailing the "cultural masses", like Alt Group, why not represent oneself? Everyone is a product of their own culture, so if you're true to yourself, your work will be an authentic representation of your culture.

There are no easy answers, because all the cultural groups we're member of overlap. If the Euro kids have tribal tats...

Nick Shinn's picture

>> you are the culture

>No, no individual can be that.

Right. But surely a culture that is the sum of individuals being themselves is more authentic than one where a few represent eveybody.

hrant's picture

> Instead of working on refining the appropriation of ...

This seems highly contrived to serve a private agenda.

> ... one where a few represent eveybody.

Not a few; everybody represents everybody, if only as best as possible.

Yes, be yourself, but don't ignore that groups of people are things too, even if you can't be sure of who's exactly what.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

...private agenda...

Perhaps we need some clarification on the agenda, if I haven't scared Lindsay off...

Jem's picture

"why not represent oneself? Everyone is a product of their own culture, so if you’re true to yourself, your work will be an authentic representation of your culture."

Personally I am tired of 'me culture'.
My Space, Big Brother, Survivor, it's all so vain and shallow.

hrant's picture

And just when I was getting ready to unleash my Killer Product on
the masses: the MeMyselfAndIPhone. Its entire surface is a mirror,
and the built-in camera only takes pictures of its owner.* Plus it
comes with a new messaging system called iYak: subscribers get to
send one of 9 factory-preset text messages to everybody in their
address book all at once, and subscribers see all such text messages
displayed simultaneously (without information about who sent it,
coz it doesn't really matter, girlfriend). iYak text messages are set
in a point size proportional to how many text messages that user
has sent in the past billing cycle.

* If you mistakenly hit the button while the camera is pointed away,
it plays a recorded "I Miss You!" (in your voice) at full volume.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

Personally I am tired of ’me culture’.

Well, there's always practising smiling three hours a day to the strains of Enya.

piccic's picture

Consider this: in Italy we still have a lot of public buildings with fascist era lettering. I don’t know if there is something inherently fascist in that style but for my mind the association is a real thing and when I see something similar I find it disgusting.
…while I find it thoroughly wonderful. Fascism, for better or worse, has been part of our culture, and you should be able to discern what gives value and what vilifies it. Especially as an Italian.

Since most of the world wasn’t familiar with blackletter they switched to roman.
I seem to recall they substituted it with Futura (see the book "Blackletter and National Identity" by Peter Bain and Paul Shaw), whose part of inherent legibility as a text face is highly disputable (especially its lowercase). I suspect many blackletter styles would actually be more usable, especially the more simplified.
An example of what I was saying about Fascism, applied to Nazism: in many ways, Italian Fascism left good building blocks of heritage, as it may happen with dictatorial regimes. Nazism did some good things, but the choice over lettering was esasperated by the ever-repeating idea of Hebrew prosecution. I seem to recall they dropped blackletter styles by saying they were of "jewish heritage" or something like that, after they have been part of their culture for ages.

Yes, definitely culture is not "individual", but it neither appears to me "determined by the mass"…
I found a book about Louis Dollot which spoke of this juxtaposition: individual culture and mass culture. I don't know if in English exists. It should be titled "Culture individuelle et culture de masse", and it's from 1974 (my Italian edition is from 1976).

gohebrew's picture

piccic,

...in Italy...

Claudio,

Are you familiar with reprints of Hebrew type designs in Italy. As you may know, many Hebrew type designs were created in Italy in the early nineteenth centur and even earlier.

In fact, in the famous American type designer, Frederick Goudy's book of type design, he describe how the owners of the Lithuanian printing press came to Italy, to a school of type design of some of Giambattista Bodoni's students in order to have drawings of ancient Hebrew type designs cut into cold typefaces for their ambitious project to publish a new standard edition of the Talmud.

Since World War Two, originals from the third edition of this version of the Talmud have been photographed, and the photographs have been photographed, and so on, until this very day.

I am working on a project to recreate electronically and interactively this edition, plus to add many new and useful features that will appeal to most educated readers worldide.

Find out more at www.gotalmud.org.

piccic's picture

Are you familiar with reprints of Hebrew type designs in Italy. As you may know, many Hebrew type designs were created in Italy in the early nineteenth centur and even earlier.

I have seen the ones which are in the "Manuale Tipografico" (I own a copy of the Octavo excellent digital edition gracefully given to me as a gift by Alan Dague-Greene).
The Hebrew looks good, the Greek is often "Latinized", as they would say…

I guess they are the ones used in that Talmud. Bodoni was the no. 1 referring figure in Italy at the time… Keep me informed, it's a great work and I'm very ignorant.

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