Vietnamese Typography: An Interview with Donny Truong
The market for type is growing. But there’s a lot we need to learn about supporting languages outside North America and Europe. TypeThursday with typographer Donny Truong on the lack of support for Vietnamese in typefaces and how we can improve the situation.
TypeThursday: The precision and clarify of your points are really visible on Vietnamese Typography. I get the impression you ran into frustrations in your life that would novitiate you to make such a resource.
Is that a fair assessment?
Donny Truong: Yes, that is a fair assessment. As a designer with a passion for typography and a love for my native language, I am frustrated with the lack of type choices for setting text in Vietnamese. As you already know, Vietnamese is based on the Latin alphabet. I am not 100% certain, but as far as I can tell, Vietnamese probably the only Eastern language that is not written in ideographs. So Vietnamese has been Romanized and most of its letters are the same as the Latin, how come most typefaces do not support its characters? That’s the question that motivated me to make the resource for Vietnamese Typography.
TT: What sparked this interest in typography? Was there a particular moment that you remember?
DT: Wow, your question gives me nostalgia. You know, I started building websites for a living in the early 2000s. At the time, I either set the text in Helvetica or Georgia and then moved to other things like web standards, images, colors, and user interactions. But because I was working at Vassar College at the time, I was fortunate to be surrounded by typographic experts, particularly Tim Brown who is now working at Typekit. Tim used to raved about The Elements of Typographic Style, but the book was way over my head. I was always interested in typography, but I did not delve deep into it until about three years ago when I started my job at the George Mason University School of Law.
I still remember a particular moment when I stood in front of the vast collection of typographic books in the Mason library. It felt like I founded a treasure. I started to read as much as I could and soaked up as I possibly could. Although most of the books I read were for print, I applied many of the principles for the web and they served me well. As for the The Elements of Typographic Style, I think I read it six or seven times now and I always find something intriguing every time I read it.
TT: A lot of people have a hard time with Elements of Typographic Style! Especially at the beginning of their interest in typography. What changed in your typographic knowledge between taking the course with Tim Brown and being at George Mason University?
DT: To clarify: I worked with Tim, but never took a course with him. I wish I did. Reading the rich history of type and its vibrant transformation in the last 500 years completely changed my typographic knowledge. In addition to Robert Bringhurst, I owe my knowledge to writers like Alexander Lawson for his classic Anatomy of a Typeface, Erik Spiekermann for his enlightening Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, Sofie Beier whose book Reading Letters taught me about legibility and readability, Karen Chang for her amazing details in Designing Type, Jost Hochuli for his concise yet rich Detail in Typography. I could go on and on, but if anyone is interested in typographic books, I have a long list on my web site. Come check them out.
TT: What is the most common mistake made by typeface designers in developing support for Vietnamese?
DT: One of the common mistakes I had seen so far is not making diacritical marks part of the font family. What I mean is that the marks are often way smaller than the base letters, especially the ones with the combined diacritics. For example, when a modified letter is combined with a tone mark, an acute, a grave, or a hook above gets so small that it becomes illegible at small size. The angle of the accents, especially on uppercase letters, get lower to avoid leading issues, but also ended up affecting legibility. There are some design challenges when adding Vietnamese support, but they can be resolved.
I have tremendous respect for Robert Slimbach and the Adobe Type Team for always making Vietnamese support part of their priorities. Most of the typefaces from Adobe are equipped with Vietnamese right from the start.
TT: Unicode support of Vietnamese has existed since 2001. Now in 2015, you’ve written in Vietnamese Typography, a dearth of typefaces that cover the needed character sets. Why the delay? Do you hope your site will help advocate more support for Vietnamese?
DT: I had this project in my mind for a while, but I thought that there has to be some kind of resources out there on Vietnamese typography. To my dismay, I could not find anything. So when it was time to do research for my thesis for my MA in Graphic Design at George Mason University School of Art, I knew I had to tackle this challenge.
For the second part of your question, it is my goal to help advocate more support for Vietnamese. If you look at Typekit, there’s only about 20 out of thousands of typefaces have support for Vietnamese. Google Fonts has only a handful out of hundreds. Last year I attended the Typographics conference in New York and asked Jonathan Hoefler if any of his typefaces support Vietnamese and his answer was none.
Since the day I launched vietnamesetypography.com, a few type designers had reached to me and they had shown interest in making Vietnamese support for their existing typefaces. I am more than happy to help out or review their fonts.
TT: Would it be fair to summarize your dismay about the lack of support of Vietnamese is because of the limited range of typographic expression currently possible?
DT: Yes, that is correct. If you look at online publications written in Vietnamese, most of the texts are still set in default system fonts. Last year, I noticed some Vietnamese articles posted on Medium. At that time, Medium didn’t even have support for Vietnamese characters; therefore, the text looked pretty funky. Their custom typefaces didn’t have the proper Vietnamese subsetting. As a result, the browsers just picked up whatever system fonts that have diacritical marks and combined the two. Imagine the base letters set in Goudy, but all the critical marks set in Georgia or Times New Roman.
As far as the limited range of typographic expression in Vietnamese, it also has to do with the lack of awareness from the Vietnamese people. I don’t think they pay much attention to typography. As long as they can read the text, they are not concerned if the type is good or the diacritics are legible. In my research, I found inconsistencies in the position of the tone marks when combined with the modified letters, but they don’t seem to bother Vietnamese readers. Furthermore, it might be a cultural thing. You can find tons of Vietnamese doctors and engineers, but not much in the creative profession. I could only track down one type designer for my book. So, in addition to reach out to type designers with my project, I want to raise awareness of typography in the Vietnamese community. On one hand, I want to help type designers make typefaces with Vietnamese support. On the other hand, I hope to get the conversation started on Vietnamese typography.
TT: That’s an ambitious mission! I love it. How can TypeThursday readers help you with Vietnamese Typography’s mission?
DT: Yes, it is an ambitious mission, and this is just the beginning. I have been receiving valuable feedback from type designers; therefore, I am planning on expanding it in the future. My goal is to get it out there and see if people are interested in it. They have responded.
TypeThursday readers can help me out by reading it, sending me their thoughts on how I can improve it, and sharing it to type designers. And thank you, Thomas, for giving me the opportunity to talk about Vietnamese Typography. It will definitely help getting the word out.
Want to help Vietnamese Typography’s mission? Check out the site and share it on social media.
This interview is originally posted on Medium.