At the beginning of 2021, type designer and typographer Julius Hui launched a crowdfunding campaign for Ku Mincho, a Ming-style typeface he began concepting six years ago. The initial goal of four million NTD (a little under $150,000) was reached in only a few hours. To date, he’s raised more than five times that amount—indicating both an excitement and a clear need for the typeface. Yet behind this feat was a long, uneasy road. Ku Mincho sets out to be a typeface that revives the innate beauty of Chinese characters. But what exactly has been lost?
Ever since Hui was a student at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the late 2000s, he’s seen how the mood of a layout could be killed with setting Chinese typefaces. He remembers asking people how they feel about Chinese typefaces, to which many replied, they don’t. Instead, many designers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China will often use the Hanzi from Japanese typefaces in their work, since Japan’s font culture and aesthetics are considered the most refined and have had the most time to mature within East Asia. This habit formed overtime as an outcome of cultural imports and exports, but continues to pose practical problems as well as aesthetic ones.
Around the mid-19th century, when Chinese movable types were first exported to Japan, the Japanese kanji were changed to fit almost perfectly inside a square box, to serve as sturdy anchor points to complement the more free-spirited hiragana and katakana scripts. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China were primarily importing and printing with these Japanese metal types. By the mid-20th century, Japanese foundries occupied most of the phototypesetting businesses in these regions. The Chinese typefaces that developed thereafter have been largely dictated by Japanese tastes, and strayed further away from their visual ancestry.
If Japanese kanjis were designed to be stones that ground and guide a flowing stream of kanas, when they are used in Chinese text they feel stiff and rigid—blocking instead of guiding natural currents of the eye. But when looking back at ancient Chinese calligraphy sources and early movable type, there was a distinct heartbeat and spirit that has been forgotten over time.
Ku Mincho differentiates itself from existing Ming typefaces in design, structure, and proportion. First, it breaks free from the square box that had been imposed on Hanzi for decades. Its proportions follow more of a gently sloping triangle, a change that is slight but significant in changing the overall texture. The characters are narrower at the top and wider at the bottom, resembling the gestures of Chinese handwriting that have been second-nature for centuries. Each stroke is designed to be in conversation with the entirety of its character to feel like one complete image, and follow a contrast model that illustrates the pressure, warmth, and softness of the calligraphic brush.
The character for “Ku” means “air” and serves as a both guiding mantra and typographic principle. Hui intends for the design and its reading experience to feel as natural as air, as effortless as breathing. The spaces around each character become more organic and less predictable, creating room for a breeze to move in and out of each character to guide the eye from stroke to stroke, character to character. When added up to columns and rows, set vertically or horizontally, they start to form their own elegant compositions. There is a flow.
In the last decade and more, Hui has worked at Dalton Maag in London and several Monotype locations, where he designed over 10 typefaces and led the multilingual custom typeface project for one of China’s biggest tech companies, Tencent. Throughout his career, Ku Mincho was an idea that kept surfacing in his mind, but he was often told that Ming typefaces don’t have a market, or that not enough people like it because it feels old-fashioned.
Understandably a little defeated, Hui considered leaving the type design world for a bit to pursue communication design and moved to Munich, Germany in 2018. Then the pandemic brought a now-or-never ultimatum, causing many to question their own destinies. Hui returned home to Hong Kong, started his own foundry, and rekindled his faith in Ku Mincho.
When the idea for the typeface began six years ago, Hui could visualize what the typeface was meant to be, but he wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. The gaps between eye and hand, taste and technique needed time to meet and connect as one. Add in the complexity and intensity of Chinese type design, and the space-time continuum of a Chinese type designer can feel distorted when observing from the outside. But this was actually the right amount of time Hui needed for Ku Mincho to be confidently reborn. Through this process, Hui overhauled the design, working closely with other graphic designers, and was more prepared to articulate Ku Mincho’s thesis.
The timeline to complete Ku Mincho is aggressive. Hui’s assembled team includes his former colleagues at Monotype Hong Kong, Kin Cheung and Sammy Fung. For type designers with decades of experience, one character could be completed every 20 minutes. Others may take 30 minutes to one hour. 7,600 characters are set to be available by March 2022, and the full set of 15,000 characters will be available in July 2022. Ku Mincho specifically supports Traditional Chinese, used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and for languages like Taiwanese and Hakka. Since the project has also raised enough funds to commission Japanese and Latin, Oryzae Foundry and Klim Type Foundry will be responsible for each of those scripts respectively.
In the Latin type design world, the perennial question “Why do we need more typefaces?” has been answered with justifications from the philosophical to the practical. Latin type design has reached a level of maturity where type designers can continue to explore and experiment with the gaps, and graphic designers can be overwhelmed with choices. Chinese type design, on the other hand, has not yet reached a point where this question can even be asked jokingly. Instead, it’s a statement: We need more typefaces. In Hui’s eyes, the groundwork in the Chinese type design space is just beginning. The expedition is undeniably laborious, but one full of promise and prospect.
In a 2016 interview, Hui wished that there would come a day when designers could cheerfully use and be fond of Chinese typefaces. Now, he is actively shifting the conversation with Ku Mincho. After decades of being influenced by outside forces, it was about time for Chinese typefaces to reclaim their own visual identity and be dictated on their own terms. In Hui’s eyes, Ku Mincho is not meant to replace the old, but introduce a new contemporary atmosphere—one that shares an aura of ancient Chinese letterforms’ past, part of a collective cultural memory that just needed jogging.