Name: Jyut Sans
Designer: Wilson Leung
Release Date: Still in development
Back Story: While finishing school at the University of Technology in Sydney in Australia, Wilson Leung started to think more critically about something he’d been noticing his entire life. Though Sydney is supposed to be a melting pot of cultures, he found that representation of Asians in the media was sorely lacking. This was particularly the case in graphic design where “Asianness,” as he explains it, has been reduced and packaged into mimicry fonts that merely imitate the look of Asian fonts. “I wanted to call attention to a particular problem in the design world that produced these impoverished representations of Asian languages and offer an alternative to the status quo,” he says.
Leung’s alternative is Jyut Sans, an experimental typeface that pushes back on the simplification of Chinese scripts. Jyut Sans is part of his larger “Please Watch Your Tone” project and is designed to emulate the tonal qualities of Cantonese, a language that Leung says many people describe as “musical” for its use of pitch and rhythm. Leung explains that in Cantonese, different words are enunciated with a tone that has to be “sung” to a relative pitch. Mimicry fonts—the kinds of fonts you see on takeout boxes and chopsticks—ignore this tonal complexity and nuance for one-dimensionality.
What are its defining characteristics? The letterforms in Jyut Sans are designed to evoke the tonal contrast of spoken Cantonese. Cantonese, as Leung explains, is made up of six main tones that range from low to high. Words are placed on a chart that illustrates the tonal movements of words when they’re spoken. To design the system for Jyut Sans, Leung simplified the chart and created letterforms that mirror the rising, falling, or stability of a word.
Some of the letters in Jyut Sans, for example, have ligatures that slope upwards or downwards and act as a visual representation of how the word should be spoken. But it was in putting the letters together to form words that the system got tricky. “I had a lot of trouble working out rules for how the letters would connect together,” Leung says. “I wanted to have ligatures in my words to reflect the flow and rhythm of Cantonese words. But it was a challenge to design them when I had to think about the movement of Jyut Sans up and down the tonal grid.”
The final form is non-linear and shape shifts depending on the word that’s being expressed. Some letterforms are elegantly curved, while others have notched, slightly wonky shapes that allow for more fluid ligatures. “The typeface acts as a graphic representation of tonality to hopefully facilitate an easier Cantonese learning experience,” he says.
Why is it named Jyut Sans? According to Leung, Jyut Sans (it’s pronounced like ‘yoot’) is named after the Jyutping Romanization system developed by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong in 1993. The system translates Cantonese phonetics into English characters. “Other romanization systems have preceded it, but in my opinion the Jyutping system most accurately depicts spoken Cantonese,” Leung says. “I wanted to name it after the Jyutping system because there hasn’t been enough effort to implement it in Cantonese education. It is a crucial access point for non-native Cantonese speakers. In a way, I’m quietly advocating for it through this typeface.”
What should it be used for? The typeface is still in its infancy, but Leung says the he’d eventually like to see it used for educational purposes. “I’d love to develop the typeface further in the future and design a series of Cantonese education books using the font,” he says.
What other typeface do you like to pair it with?
“I’ve been pairing it with Value Serif from Colophon Foundry, but that’s because I wanted my project to have a retro, ’70s feel to it,” he says.