Award-winning Czech typographer takes on Gujarati

Type design is an ancient art enjoying a renaissance in the computer age. The specificities of writing systems that were once passed down from master to apprentice can now be worked with by designers anywhere in the world who have the patience and the talent to take on a foreign script. One such designer is David Březina, one of the founders of the Brno type foundry Rosetta. In 2008 his Skolar type family received international recognition and he is now working on a font for the Gujarati writing system, used by over 60 million people in the Indian subcontinent. When he came to our studio recently I asked him how he became interested in type design in the first place.

David BřezinaDavid Březina “It just came gradually. I think some ten, seven years ago I realised that there must be people designing these things, and I started looking into it and just started doing it – first in order to learn about it, and then I said ‘hey, I like doing this, let’s do it a little more’. I wasn’t fascinated by letter forms in my childhood or anything like that. It came a bit late I guess. I like playing with curves, because when you draw letters you need to draw really nice smooth curves, and it’s like a kind of meditation. I think that’s what I like most about type design.”

You also teach typography. It’s such a subtle art – a letter is a letter and it’s only these tiny differences that make all the difference – there is so much feeling in that, how do you teach it to other people?

“I guess you need to have a special mindset to become a type designer. You need to have attention to detail but also the ability to look at the thing from a distance, to see if what you have done actually matters – sort of keeping track of the bigger picture. And these things you cannot really teach. You can point the students towards this, but you cannot really teach it. What I try to do is to help students make it work, make the typefaces look consistent and have good functional qualities. Btu the rest is up to them.”

One thing that many people may not appreciate about your work is the amount of research – it’s not just sitting down and making something that is appealing to you and to your customer. You have already done several scripts for languages which I assume you don’t speak, like Greek.

SkolarSkolar “What you need to do is expose yourself to as much material as possible, including historical manuscripts, first editions and all the way up to contemporary stuff as well. So you need to look at newspapers, books, what typefaces they use, how they work, and so on. And then you need to learn a lot about the writing system itself, which in the case of Guajarati is quite a challenge, because it’s a syllabic system. So you need to learn how the syllables are formed, how they connect and so on.”

And there are many dozens of characters in Gujarati, and they have to fit together in every possible working order, so it seems like an almost impossible task when you don’t speak the language yourself.

“Well, that’s one advantage that you probably can’t get without knowing the language: being able to predict the combinations – which ones are meaningful and which are not. But it’s not so difficult to figure out without knowing the language. You can run some statistics, or you can ask people who can read the language, print some samples for them and they points out what works and what doesn’t.”

The Gujarati language is not the only language that uses the Gujarati script, so do you have to take them into consideration as well?

“Yes. But this is a more interesting question for Devanagari, which is used for Hindi, Marathi, Nepali and Sanskrit, where if you want to support, say, Marathi you have to add a few more characters in order to make it work, and also consider different combinations and so on.”

And so why Gujarati?

“I think, simply, at the very superficial level I just like it. It is much simpler than Devanagari, and it’s one of the easiest scripts from the Indian subcontinent. Bengali and Tamil are much more visually complex and seem too difficult to start with to me. So I thought Gujarati was nice, and then I realised I actually liked it very much, because it’s a really good script. It’s difficult to explain, but when you work with some other scripts – some other Indian scripts – you realise that they carry so much of a legacy and it seems like ‘this is so impractical, why don’t they do it another way?’ And then you realise that Gujarati is doing it another way and that the decision to write that way had been a good choice at some point in history.”

Is it not daunting to try to imagine what 60 million potential users of this script might like? Because even with all your research you can’t know everything that they are used to.

“There are two aspects of it: I try not to think about it too much. I’m not enforcing the font – if they like it they will come and buy it. So that’s good. The other aspect is that there are so few good Gujarati typefaces that doing anything new is a good step, and extends the typographic language of the script. So I think it’s really important to try at least. And there is not enough knowledge in Gujarat itself about the script. In a sense, they don’t know much about type design for their own script. This may sound a bit arrogant for me to say, but there really needs to be a discussion about it and maybe some government incentives towards the script, or otherwise it will look as bad as it looks today.”

What has such deep exploration of writing systems brought you personally? In Czech they say that the more languages you speak, the more of a man you are, this would be similar in a certain way I would expect.

“There is something about it. It has helped me to rethink my views of type design. I wouldn’t be so rigid about my Latin designs anymore. And the methodology is very helpful. It’s good inspiration. In fact I have borrowed something from Gujarati into my Italic – it’s very hidden, invisible, but there is something I took from playing with Gujarati. So in this sense it’s quite fun. And it is very useful when you are explaining aspects of type design to students and you can use more scripts and help them not to just be Latin designers, but easily transfer their skill to other scripts.”

Is there a kind of globalisation of typography occurring because of this kind of multicultural, multilingual designing?

“It’s very tricky. You need to be super careful. When you’re designing, say, for Devanagari, you have to be very careful about bringing your Latin preconceptions into it. But it can be done, you can educate yourself about the script and say okay, they don’t have a concept of serif, they don’t have this idea of some specific terminals and some other features, it aligns from top to bottom not from bottom to top and things like that. But you will still hear people saying hey, you’re a foreigner, you are influencing the script. But then you will notice, especially in India, that what is happening is that the dominant language, which is Hindi in Devanagari, is influencing the other scripts. So particularly in Gujarati you can see that Indian designers – maybe even Gujarati designers – are borrowing shapes from the other script. So there is sometimes a great mixture of things. So you need to be careful, but they are quite used to this blending of scripts. I don’t think it’s right, I think it shouldn’t happen. One designer can spoil everything, so it takes great responsibility. But it is happening.”

Do you feel the sky is the limit and you could even work on Japanese or Korean fonts, or are some things impossible?

“I’m not sure about Korean, but Japanese and Chinese are typically team projects. And I told myself just to do a few things right rather than exploring the whole world, so I think at some point I will either start collaborating with people – which I have already started doing with Devanagari – or I will just not go in to that area. The amount of work is crazy."