Image by Nika Simovich Fisher.

Air raid sirens echoed through the streets of Belgrade. Olivera Stojadinović was designing fonts.

It was 1999, and the NATO-initiated bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War was underway. The decade was a turbulent period for the country which saw its dissolution under the presidency of Slobodan Milošević, who died in 2006 before the verdict of his trial for war crimes and genocide. Stojadinović, a type designer and Professor at the Faculty of Applied Arts, University of Arts in Belgrade, felt powerless. She knew that she couldn’t singlehandedly change the politics of her country, or even improve the dire living conditions from years of severe inflation and war. As a coping mechanism, she focused on work – staying at her office after hours to design typefaces and then heading home to read all night. She slept in the morning once the bombing was over.

As Yugoslavia fell apart, the digital revolution boomed. Both events rattled the usage of the Ćirilica, the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet whose roots date back over a thousand years. Stojadinović, who is now 67 and retired, was one of the first typographers to develop Serbian typefaces for the screen and is committed to preserving the alphabet. “For me, it doesn’t have anything to do with politics,” she said in a Zoom call this May, “Cyrillic is our cultural heritage. It’s my alphabet because I learned to read and write in it first.”

From 1918 to 1992, Yugoslavia was a unified country made up of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, with Belgrade as the capital city. Throughout history, language was part of a tug of war between national identity and unification politics – in its original form, the language between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia was the same; however, religious and political differences pushed the nations to advocate for their own official dialects. In 1954, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian linguists, writers, and intellectuals signed The Novi Sad Agreement, which declared Serbo-Croatian as a single language to be used between these regions, and that two alphabets—the Serbian Cyrillic and Gaj’s Latin—should be used equally. By the 1970s, this agreement began unraveling when Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro had their versions of the language officially recognized. In practice, Croatia opted to use the Latin alphabet exclusively.

If you visit Serbia, you’ll notice that both alphabets are used. Cyrillic is taught first in school and applied on all official materials, but Latin is more popular in public spaces. This trend has been contested overtime. In the ‘90s, extreme Serbian nationalists and right wing political groups encouraged their ideology through language by referring to minority groups as “Serbs,” questioning the legitimacy of their established dialects, and pushing for the exclusive usage of Cyrillic. Throughout the period’s conflict, language became a way of highlighting differences between ethnic groups, with the Cyrillic alphabet presented as the core of Serbian identity and Orthodox religion, positioning it as a division of identity rather than cultural heritage. “It became war vocabulary,” Stojadinović said of the traditional script. “I was for Cyrillic but I wasn’t for them.” Her own motivations for the alphabet were artistic and diplomatic – she wanted access to beautiful, well-drawn Serbian fonts that were technologically supported.

The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, whose current form was developed in 1818 by the linguist Vuk Karadžić, has the same 30 characters as the Latin counterpart. There were few digital typefaces that supported the unique Serbian characters, and computer encodings made it cumbersome to type in the native language. Personal computing was spreading and casual internet users began customizing existing typefaces by replacing less common punctuation marks with their language’s characters such as using ć in place of the right curly braces {. This solution became known as YUSCII character encoding. Because typing correctly required extra effort, many users opted to use the closest English letters in place of the Serbian ones, (c instead of ć, for example) altering the pronunciation and meaning of certain words. This style of the Serbian alphabet became known as “ošišana latinica,” or trimmed Latin text. Sometimes swapping letters was a close enough match, but other times the meaning could be misinterpreted. Because of these challenges, the Latin alphabet became more widespread digitally, and some even preferred to communicate in English.

Early computer users also used YUSCII character encodings to create solutions for the Cyrillic alphabet, but there were even fewer custom typefaces that had the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet in the font, and they were not optimized for a digital context. Most of the Cyrillic typefaces that existed were Russian, which has slightly different letters and italic styles.

In 1995, Vuk’s Foundation and The Center for Artistic and Scientific Research at the University of Arts in Belgrade saw this as an opportunity to create well drawn official sets of digital typefaces, and Stojadinović was selected to design “Serbian Times,” an edit of Times New Roman that included a full set of Serbian characters in both alphabets. She was not compensated for her work until a few years later when a state textbook publisher purchased it for a smaller amount than agreed upon initially. The project was a wake up call for Stojadinović, who in hindsight, felt remorseful after completing the typeface. “It’s not all right to convert another author’s property,” she said, “We have to make our own regional fonts.”

Emboldened by the shifting political climate, Stojadinović created her own typefaces, and later the website Tipometar where she publishes typefaces and articles about typographic history and theory. During the 1999 bombings, she developed the expressive scripts Aspera, Rastko, and Hedera, which she later published with ITC in the early 2000s. On Tipometar, she began a project called “Ćirilica Na Poklon,” or “Cyrillic as a gift.” Funded by grants, this project distributes high quality typefaces designed by herself, her colleagues, and her students. The first typeface from this project was called “Resavska,” named after the street she lived on during the war. Interestingly, the street was named after the Resava School which was a 15th century scriptorium, part of the Manasija Monastery.

In Serbia, the usage of the Cyrillic alphabet continues to be debated. In 2018, the Ministry of Culture and Information proposed legal amendments to counter the alphabet’s decline. These changes would encourage all communication to be in Cyrllic and for publishing to be more regulated.

Serbia is unique in that it has two official scripts, and the ability to use either is part of the nation’s contemporary cultural identity. “I never wanted to persuade people to only use Cyrillic.” Stojadinović said, “I felt it was my professional duty to provide fonts that everyone could use if they want.” All of her typefaces include both character sets, and she designs them in a Cyrillic-first way. Feminism was also a motivator, she notes. “Many designers are men, and I wanted to prove that women can design type, as well.”

Technological challenges slowed the development of the Cyrillic online, and while CSS helped with this, the war slowed widespread internet usage compared to Western countries. Today, the functionality is there, but the alphabet is not used as often. The Serbian National Internet Domain Registry, RNIDS, is a non-profit organization that helps improve functionality for the internet in Serbia. They manage the country’s two domains: .rs and .СРБ, which is the second Cyrillic domain name in the world. 

Dijana Milutinović, a senior marketing and communications associate at RNIDS, feels that because we have the technology to do so now, the internet provides an opportunity for languages to be presented and preserved. Milutinović sees global language support as an apolitical concern, “Letters can’t hurt someone. Words can.” she said in Serbian.

In addition to managing Serbia’s domains, RNIDS commissioned Stojadinović and Ana Prodanović, a type designer, to create two custom web typefaces. “We want to give people the hands and tools they need to use their language,” Milutinović said. The organization distributes the typefaces, hosts discussions about the Cyrillic alphabet online, and provides the fonts as a free download.

Stojadinović created the slab-serif Areal, released in 2020, and Prodanović published Orto, a sans-serif humanist in 2021. Both typefaces are contemporary depictions of the Cyrillic alphabet, include a full Serbian character set in both alphabets, and are optimized for online usage on browsers and mobile devices alike.

Prodanović, who studied under Stojadinović and is now a professor at the Faculty of Applied Art at the University of Arts in Belgrade, believes that Cyrillic is not used enough today. On a recent walk through Belgrade, she observed English signs that read “CrossFit Training Center,”  “Foody!,” “Coffee Room,” and “Funk & Soul Pub.” She feels that the use of Latin letters and English online are responsible, as well as the increased interest in foreign culture.

“One of the good things about making fonts is that we contribute to the popularization of Cyrillic,” Prodanović said. After Stojadinović retired, Prodanović wanted to continue her goals of educating students about the history of the national alphabet and to contribute to its future. At the university, she encourages her students to include Cyrillic characters in their typefaces and to publish them in Serbia and beyond. “If we give people an opportunity to see and use contemporary Cyrillic styles they might choose to use them.”