After learning how sexist the Chinese language is, designers Tan Sueh Li and Karmen Hui put their typography skills to use. The two Malaysian women, better known as TypoKaki, designed new Chinese characters incorporating the radical for woman (女, pronounced “nu”) to redefine the traditional patriarchal language for the country’s modern women.
Take, for instance, the typical Chinese character for peace (安), which depicts a woman (女) who stays within the house by covering it with a top radical (宀). To express how women in Malaysia are often segregated in public spaces because of Islam, the duo hacked the Chinese character for space (间) to insert the radical for a woman instead. This is just one of 30 characters Li and Hui designed for Women’s Words, a tiny red dictionary created with fellow Malaysian writer and researcher Tan Zi Hao. Created for a feminist art event in Malaysia, it’s just one example of how TypoKaki has been using typography and design to explore Malaysian culture since 2012.
Li and Hui first met in the early 2000s in design school at Kuala Lumpur’s The One Academy, but it was only after studying in Europe—Li at the Royal Academy of Art in The Netherlands and Hui at The Basel School of Design in Switzerland—and returning to Malaysia that they discovered a common love for typography. Both were also itching to develop a type scene in their home country, so they founded TypoKaki, or “type geek” in Malay.
While it’s still an uphill battle to convince Malaysian clients who still prefer image-based designs, the duo has had some success with branding the 2013 arts festival Kakiseni, and recently, a custom type project for the snack food Walla Walla. They’ve also worked overseas, designing the seventh edition of Projects Projects’ ongoing typographic system Kraliçe for the Istanbul cultural institution, SALT.
At the same time, they’ve continued to nurture a design culture in Malaysia by organizing talks and workshops that use design to explore their Malaysian identity. In the first of a new series of workshops that go beyond the technical side of type, the duo brought small groups of participants to Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, where they studied the disappearing streetscape. “We didn’t want to just share the techniques of type design, because we think if you’re smart enough you can do it by yourself,” says Hui. “We think the origin of an idea is very important, so we hope people who come to our workshop will be able to generate more authentic research.”
Now they’re developing new workshops inspired by a cultural approach they learnt from their time in Europe. For their latest, they worked with researcher Tan to explore multilingualism as a key characteristic of Malaysia, a former British colony made up of Malays, Indians, and Chinese. To explore how people in a multilingual society communicate, TypoKaki designed a workshop in which participants use masking tape to “write” in different scripts, resulting in a multi-script typographic poster. This simple mechanism has generated some intriguing results that play with form and translation, as well as phonetics.
“Since you have to think about language and translation, we thought it will be very boring for them,” says Hui. “But to our surprise this was the part that they enjoyed a lot.”