Back Story: Just over five years ago, Caspar Lam was working at NYC-based studio Li, Inc when a client, Vogue China, requested a romantic Chinese font—something in the spirit of Bodoni or another Didone. As Lam found, such a typeface in Chinese characters didn’t really exist; rather, experimentation in Chinese type tends to lean more toward illustration, relying heavily on the pictogram origins of some Chinese characters. “With a Bodoni,”—or other Latin faces, says Lam—“it’s okay to treat the characters as a formal expression. But in Chinese culture, I think there’s more reservation about that.”
“There’s not a lot of Chinese typography in general. We wanted to work with a new palate, and create new forms.”
But it did bring up a question for Lam and designer YuJune Park, now his partner at their research-based design studio Synoptic Office. If they started to manipulate the shapes of Chinese characters—sharpening them up, thickening the verticals, thinning the horizontals—much like what you see in a modern typeface, could they create a completely new kind of Chinese type? If so, what would it look like? And how could it break with the pre-existing traditions of Chinese type?
“It came from our very deep desire to understand the space and try to find a way to break through what we perceived as a stagnation, and some of the conventions we saw in existing Chinese type,” says Park. “There’s not a lot of Chinese typography in general. We wanted to work with a new palate, and create new forms.”
Launched on the first of this month by Lam and Park—with help from Gabriela Carnabuci, Jonathan Lee, Abby Chen, and Dustin Tong—Ming Romantic is the result of half a decade of research, design, and a complete re-thinking of type design for Chinese characters.
Why’s it called Ming Romantic? Within Chinese typography, three commonly used type styles are Regular (a regularized version of calligraphic script), Song/Ming, and Fang/Song. The Song/Ming style is named for the Song and Ming dynasties, respectively (the font is commonly referred to in China as Song, and in Japan as Ming), the latter of which saw the popularization of ceramic, wood, and bronze movable type. With these mechanical processes, the characters in the Ming typefaces shifted away from the brush strokes of the hand—straightening the line, and introducing “fish scales,” or angled slashes, onto the end to indicate a stroke. “It’s fascinating because you’re taking a brush and translating it, so it’s one step removed from the hand,” says Lam about the printed type of the Ming dynasty period. “So we said, ‘with Ming Romantic, why don’t we continue that?’ We can use Song/Ming as a starting point and then push it further, and make it more extreme.”
What are its distinguishing characteristics? “Recent Chinese fonts are either very calligraphic—or adaptations of calligraphy—or else something that is ultra-modern, kind of like a character translation of a sans serif,” says Park. “Our question was, ‘What if we took a whole new approach and pushed the characters more formally, so that it’s neither of those things, but also isn’t an illustration?’”
With Ming Romantic, the designers took many of the defining characteristics of Bodoni and applied them: thick verticals and then horizontals result in a striking, elegant font. The Song/Ming “fish scales” that mimic the pools of ink at the end of a brushstroke are rendered here as straight lines, indicating a move away from the skeuomorphism of calligraphic-based styles. The typeface is embellished with tear-shaped dots. “These are flourishes you would never write by brush for every day use,” says Lam. “We‘re interested in that tension between hand and machine that shows how the tools of production influence the form.”
According to the Chinese government, there are 2,500 commonly used characters, but there are also around 85,000 variants and rarities.
How is it different than other contemporary Chinese typefaces? Besides the way that it looks, one major difference is how Ming Romantic will be released—piecemeal, over the course of several years. One significant challenge to designing a Chinese typeface is the sheer volume of Chinese characters that exist. According to the Chinese government, there are 2,500 commonly used characters, but there are also around 85,000 variants and rarities. In a book that Synoptic Office released along with the typeface, it put it this way:
“Let’s assume a minimum Western typeface uses the Adobe Latin 2 set of 250 glyphs. For a Chinese typeface, we will assume a minimum set of 2-3,000 glyphs for a display face, or 7-8,000 glyphs for a text face. For completeness, a number ten times the number of glyphs in a text face would be required for a font encompassing the entire Chinese character set. However, even that number wold still be a subset of the ‘total’ number of characters.”
In other words, the scale is massive, which also makes it cost-prohibitive for a small studio or individual designer to attempt to design a Chinese typeface on their own. To solve for this problem, Lam and Park looked toward the world of software development, where iteration is king, and new versions are continually being released or existing versions updated. Applied to a Chinese typeface, this means incrementally releasing new characters. Ming Romantic starts with those characters most frequently used, and will only grow from there.