Designing a legible, stylish, and functional typeface in a foreign language whose very letterforms are unfamiliar to the designer seems like an impossible task. Not so for British type historian and designer Fiona Ross, PhD, who specializes in non-Latin typefaces and Indian paleography (the study of ancient writing systems). Dr. Ross worked for Linotype Limited (UK) for over a decade, and is now a consultant, author, lecturer, and type designer for clients including Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, and Harvard University Press. She’s an associate professor in Non-Latin Type Design at the University of Reading (UK) and curator of the department’s Non-Latin Type Collection. Her work during the 1980s on the Linotype Bengali typeface, in particular, is viewed as the beginning of a new era in Indian typography, and the introduction of her innovative Phonetic Keyboard for Indian scripts made possible the widespread use of desktop publishing in India. Linotype Bengali is still used in every available medium: in newspapers, in advertising on billboards and television, and in reproductions by sign painters.

We spoke with her about her experience designing script-based fonts in languages including Arabic, Hindi, Devanagari, Malayalam, Sinhala, and Thai.

When you’re creating alphabets for a language you don’t speak or read, how do you address typographic concerns around style, legibility, weights, glyphs, etc.?
All my work on original typeface designs is collaborative, and I don’t design for a script that I can’t read to some extent. You have to understand what factors are key to letterform identification—like if an open counter or particular finial is essential for readability at small sizes or if it’s simply a stylistic embellishment. And of course it’s useful to know about cultural conventions, regional variations, and modern trends, as well as the rationale behind them. For example, the stroke modulations and the weighting of an Indian script typeface differ greatly from Latin; if the typeface ignores this it can cause readability problems.

What’s your work process like?
The first step is establishing the intended readership and design environment, and determining the character sets of the language. Many Indian script fonts can have an almost indefinite number of glyphs depending on the number of consonantal clusters (conjuncts) required. Then I establish a glyph repertoire, including contextual alternates and stylistic variants. We always start with a small test set of characters in the bold weight, since it’s more challenging and needs to be resolved before extending the character set or completing the text weights.

Tim Holloway, a brilliant designer I worked with for over 30 years, would produce initial lettering trials inspired by models I supplied; he’d produce beautifully crafted final artwork and I’d focus on production aspects, like contextual look-ups and vowel sign positioning.

Do you see more demand lately for greater variety and more styles in non-Latin fonts?
There’s an increased awareness of non-Latin typography in general, including at some leading companies, which I hope is a sign of a more pluralistic society that embraces linguistic and cultural diversity, and means that more communities are better represented in the field of textual communication.

Incidentally, I find the term non-Latin unsatisfactory, though it’s better than many others I’ve heard. It’s a reminder how much is still left to be done to achieve parity with Latin fonts in terms of faithful language representation, the quality of font production, and the choice of styles.