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The perils of harmonization

This text was originally published in Rosetta Type Specimen No. 1.

There is one thing particularly notable about our typefaces, and that is that they are designed with several writing systems (scripts) in mind. In other words, they are attempts to harmonise different scripts in typographic terms. However, a careful reader should stop and wonder what does it exactly mean to match scripts and why would one want to do that in the first place.

With the advent of global communication, all kinds of multilingual documents are becoming more and more common. Multilingual typography is most noticeable in dictionaries, linguistic publications, various product manuals, websites, and way-finding applications. In some countries, owing to linguistic diversity, it is omnipresent.

The use of various scripts in one multilingual document presents a brand new set of conditions and constraints for typographers. Designing text material involving two or more scripts means balancing sometimes extremely different writing systems in one coherent meta‐system. The result has to solve not only problems of each script individually, but those arising from their interaction as well.

Notably, perfect equality may not always be the goal. Depending on the purpose of a publication, scripts may be required to act in different roles. In a dictionary, one script is usually dominant and the other subordinate. In a general academic text with multi‐script quotations, an equal relationship is usually intended.

Methods of dealing with multiple scripts on one page can be diverse as well. Scripts can be separated, either on the level of pages, paragraphs, or lines. The most challenging approach is setting varying scripts on one line.

Typographic balance involves mainly these closely related parameters: size, colour (weight), and proportion. The size is usually decided based on the intended importance of corresponding text while the proportion is related to convention and legibility of a particular script. When using different typefaces for each script, it is often a problem that when the proportion and size are set properly, it is hard to get an even overall colour. This is one of the objectives of multi-script typefaces, to allow for an even colour together with the appropriate default sizing and proportions respectful to the readability and to the natural character of the scripts.

A multi-script typeface should ideally unite the scripts stylistically as well, yet this cannot be forced. Scripts which developed in different environments require different typographic solutions. Stylistic features have to be applied with great sensitivity. Overdoing the matching and misinformed attempts at innovation can cause more harm to readability than merely getting the mutual typographic balance wrong. One should never take for granted that what works in one script will be applicable and equally effective in another.

In order to achieve an ideal harmony, scripts have to be balanced aesthetically, but also with cultural sensitivity. The ability to choose a proper typeface for a certain purpose requires understanding the history of the script’s development and the culture associated with the script. And this knowledge cannot be simply generalised.

Rosetta is trying to provide graphic designers and typographers with carefully selected typefaces which consider these perils of harmonisation and deal with them in a thoughtful manner. Only such typefaces will make multi-script typography easier and improve the reading experience.

10 May 2013