Through the eyes of three FontFont Designers: The challenges of designing non-Latin typefaces
The Serebro Nabora type conference took place this past week in Moscow. In the spirit of the event and as part of our recent Cyrillic updates for FF Mister K, FF Mister K Informal, FF Profile and FF Tisa Sans we asked the designers of these typefaces, Mitja Miklavčič, Julia Sysmäläinen and Martin Wenzel, about their experience with non-Latin extensions, as well as the difficulties they faced in these design processes.
Creativity and communication is always at the FontFont forefront along with the aim to build typeface collections with different styles and purposes. Cyrillic is one of the most used writing systems in the world and the alphabet has been adapted to write more than 50 languages. Of the many scripts in use around the world today, Cyrillic is probably the closest in appearance and structure to Latin, particularly in the case of upright typefaces. For Mitja Miklavčič, the design process was not significantly different compared with his Latin designs, as in the case of FF Tisa or FF Tisa Sans. “The italics were a bit more demanding to draw, and personally I always find kerning in Cyrillic a bit more challenging, too.”
Mitja Miklavčič began the Cyrillic portion of FF Tisa while studying on the MA Type Design course at the University of Reading. “We had some Cyrillic specialists visiting the Department. My initial sketches there were done for the serif part of the FF Tisa family. Although they were over six years old, they were a helpful start for the FF Tisa Sans Cyrillic.”
In contrast to Cyrillic type, Cyrillic handwriting is more abundant in its form variety. Julia Sysmäläinen’s primary challenge while designing FF Mister K Cyrillic and FF Mister K Informal Cyrillic, was how to interpret handwriting typographically. “Like all kinds of handwriting, Cyrillic handwriting can be very expressive. I had to find solutions that suited Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, which were always written in German. For this I studied both historical and contemporary samples of Cyrillic handwriting, asked Russian friends and colleagues to produce samples – and of course, I made many myself. Before 1907, Kafka wrote in a German Kurrent script, and analyzing this was interesting, because some of the letterforms resemble Cyrillic characters. I also found a prominent Russian contemporary with a handwriting style that fits surprisingly well to Kafka’s.”
Julia Sysmäläinen had always planned to make a Cyrillic companion to FF Mister K. “Kafka was strongly attracted to Russia, and he admired Russian writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Kropotkin. Soon after the release by FontFont, I made a limited Cyrillic version of FF Mister K Regular to submit to the International Design competition “Modern Cyrillic”, where it received a Certificate of Typographic Excellence. Later, I went at the design more thoroughly, creating extended Cyrillic character sets for both FF Mister K Regular and FF Mister K Informal.”
FF Profile Cyrillic isn’t Martin Wenzel’s first endeavor into this writing system. “In 1992, FontFont asked me to draw a Cyrillic extension for my FF Marten typeface, which made me look closely at the script for the first time. The end result was no masterpiece, but still a good attempt to apply a simple modular concept to a different script. This was before I even studied Type and Communication Design at the Royal Academy in The Hague. With FF Profile’s Cyrillic, I talked with several designers about the script’s challenges in general, as well as specific letterforms. Over time I’ve consulted various books on the subject and completed my own calligraphic trials, which formed the basis for the structure of each glyph. If you can write it, you can draw it!”
Like Martin Wenzel, Mitja Miklavčič also had professional experience designing Cyrillic typefaces. He has previously worked with noted specialists, such as Maxim Zhukov. “I grew up in the former Yugoslavia, so I learned Cyrillic in primary school. Serbian and Macedonian both use Cyrillic. That might also explain why I’ve decided to draw language-specific forms for those two languages as well. I always consult with any other designers, no matter what type of type design project I work on. A few colleagues have become close friends in the process.”
FF Tisa Sans is unique in that it not only includes support for Balkan languages that use the Cyrillic script, but also many Central Asian languages, like Turkmen and Kazakh as well, which are not frequently a part of many Cyrillic typefaces.
While Martin Wenzel and Mitja Miklavčič are not native readers of the Cyrillic script, Russian is Julia Sysmäläinen’s mother-tongue. “I’m the child of a Russian mother and a Finnish father, so I learned both languages during childhood. As a native reader, you grew up with all kinds of Cyrillic texts accompanying your everyday life, everything from shopping lists to letters, notebooks and advertisements. You get a pretty clear feeling of how far and where you can move away from some kind of norm, without your result looking awkward. If the script is new to you, you run the risk of being overcautious, or making naive mistakes.”
In terms of OpenType features and character set size, the Cyrillics of FF Mister K are the most ambitious of FontFont’s new Cyrillic releases. “In Kafka’s manuscripts, readability was not a priority,” Julia Sysmäläinen mentions. “I carried this over into FF Mister K Regular as well. In its Cyrillic version, expressiveness and personality are paramount. Its style is easily readable for people who are at home in Russian and other languages with Cyrillic script, because context makes things clear, but it is not for learners of these languages. FF Mister K Informal Cyrillic is much easier to read, just like FF Mister K Informal’s Latin is. In Cyrillic handwriting some characters – especially д and т – can be written in various ways that do not really resemble one another; these forms can even be mixed within a single word.” This lively mixture is part of FF Mister K’s OpenType features, and it harmonizes well with Kafka’s turbulent manuscripts. FF Mister K Informal is more regularized, to stress readability.
As new communication methods continue to bring the world closer together, great typefaces have grown to speak for more languages and writing systems. FF Tisa Sans, FF Mister K and FF Profile join 30 other typeface families in the FontFont library with Cyrillic support, including FF Dax, FF DIN and FF Meta.