Leaving [stereo]types behind: The case for modern Asian fonts

by Claudia Yuen

4 min read


May is Asian Heritage Month. It has been a chance to celebrate the diversity and contributions of our many leaders, colleagues, and friends of Asian descent. It is also an opportune time for designers to take a look at what stereotypes they are perpetuating in their work, including in their choice of fonts. Yes, fonts! 

Fonts are not just the nerdy domain of designers. They carry history and meaning. And when it comes to their selection, it cannot just be about catching the eye. The goal of a good font is to be silently useful. It should also be free from historical underlying meaning and negative stereotypes. 

Chop suey fonts, for example, have been a typographical shortcut for “Asianness” for decades. The font’s origins have been traced back to the Cleveland Type Foundry. In 1833, this calligraphy-style printing type was known as “Mandarin.”  

To move forward, designers must leave behind bygone eras of font representation and worn-out tropes to make room for authentic typographic languages. 

Unlike most Western languages that have a relatively small number of letters, Asian languages use ideograms or characters to represent syllables. The digital landscape was initially designed for Latin fonts, but there have been recent efforts to catch up to ensure that everyone has equal access to online features. 

With over 170 million Arab users on the web, there is also a growing catalog of high-quality Arabic type. TPTQ Arabic, a new type foundry, is behind many custom Arabic typefaces. In 2013, they were commissioned to create a custom font for the identity, wayfinding and museography of the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The letters were opened up for more clarity to accommodate signage and small text settings. Some design decisions such as the font’s weight were dictated by applications, such as LED lights reaching into tight corners. 

In 2015, a Taiwan-based company called JustFont utilized crowdfunding sites to raise money for a new traditional character font called “Jin Xuan.” The typeface is inspired by the tea leaves of Jin Xiuan, an oolong tea. Within 80 minutes of launching their crowdfunding campaign, they raised NT$1.5 million (USD$48,300).

With good typography, the web can become a faster, more beautiful, and accessible place. This must include bilingual, trilingual, even multilingual typography that support multiple scripts and languages. 

In 2014, Adobe and Google partnered to create Noto Sans and Source Han Sans, an open-source font for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages. The font has more than 65,000 glyphs and seven weights.

In 2018, Google Fonts piloted open-source Korean fonts created through machine learning. By analyzing a large number of Korean documents on the web, Google found patterns contained in the Hangul font. The letterforms were then divided the 17,388 glyphs and 100 groups. It is an Open Font license, so they can be used freely and shared. 

Naturally, when designing for an international audience, we need to create products in different languages. As designers, we need to use our power to push for greater range and access to type that is as beautiful and contemporary as the world we aspire to create.