Type Ơi Talks with Donny Trương About Vietnamese Typography

I would like to start by asking you to tell us a bit about your background and how design started to become part of your life?

I was born in Mỹ Tho. I left Việt Nam with my family after finishing fifth grade. When I came to America, I realized it was a whole new world for me. The culture, the people, and especially the language, were so different. I did not speak a word of English. I struggled to learn English, even when I entered college many years later. As a result, I chose design to let my work speak for me.

I did not understand much about design. I thought I could just place text and image together to create a design, and yet, my ignorance for design opened up a new door for me. I was not afraid to put out anything. I didn’t know anything about design criticism, which gave me the confidence to enter the design world.

I was drawn into Macromedia Flash because I could combine motion, sound, image, and text. I spent a ridiculous amount of time learning and experimenting with Flash. I made a motion graphic piece in Flash using images of Việt Nam to accompany a song called “Bonjour Vietnam” performed by the Vietnamese-Belgian Singer Phạm Quỳnh Anh. The piece went viral for a period of time. My career took another turn when I switched from multimedia to web, but that was how I got started with design.

What motivated you to write a book on Vietnamese typography?

I wrote Vietnamese Typography as my final thesis for my MA in graphic design. The motivation came out of my frustration with the lack of Vietnamese diacritics in typography. Being a native Vietnamese reader, I know the crucial role of diacritics in shaping the reading experience. Without diacritics, words can have completely different meanings in Vietnamese.

When I began my MA program, the first class I took was advanced typography. In one of our projects, we were assigned to redesign a restaurant menu. When I presented to my professor the menus I had collected, my jaw dropped when he read out loud a Vietnamese noodle house named, “La Cây Chợ Lớn.” Because he read “Chợ Lớn” without diacritics, his words came out so wrong and so vulgar. When it came time for me to do my research for my final thesis, I knew I wanted to introduce proper Vietnamese diacritics to non-Vietnamese audiences, specifically to the type design community.

Do you have any typography or graphic design book that has been an inspiration for your work?

From theory to history and readability to legibility, I spent a tremendous amount of time reading books on typography including Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typography, Karen Chang’s Designing Type, and Sofie Beier’s Reading Letters. You can see my collection of books on typography on my blog.

One of the things I admire in your book is your ability to go beyond the technical aspects of typography, introducing relevant information about the Vietnamese language in a concise and interesting way. Did you have any particular audience in mind when you were writing your book?

Thank you! I am glad that you’ve found the information interesting. As I began to do my research for the book, it became clear that none-Vietnamese type designers were my target audience. Designing for a language that they don’t know can be intimidating. Fortunately, the Vietnamese writing system is based on the Latin alphabet; therefore, it should not be too hard for them to pick up. I wanted to make the information as concise and as approachable as possible so they can feel confidence in designing Vietnamese diacritics. I wanted to give them the basic knowledge that we have when we first learn our Vietnamese alphabet, especially with the emphasis on modified letters and tone marks.

The Vietnamese language has been through radical transformations. The romanization of the Vietnamese writing system comes from the same roots of my mother tongue, Portuguese. When you were writing about the history of the Vietnamese language, did you discover any interesting things that you didn’t know before writing the book?

I must confess that I took our language for granted before writing this book; therefore, researching for the history chapter led me to fascinating discoveries. I knew that Alexandre de Rhodes was credited for the romanization of the Vietnamese writing system, but I didn’t realize the crucial role of Vietnamese scholars, such as Lương Văn Can, Nguyễn Quyền, Dương Bá Trạc, Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, Trương Vĩnh Ký, Phạm Quỳnh, Nhất Linh, Khái Hưng, Hoàng Đạo, Thạch Lam, Tú Mỡ, Thế Lữ, and Xuân Diệu, whose contributions had made our modern writing system simple yet articulate. I had read Xuân Diệu’s poems over the years, but I had no idea that he played a role in advocating for Việt ngữ.

In your book you comment on possible challenges faced by type designers when considering diacritical marks, which the Vietnamese language is rich of. What do you think are the most common mistakes typographers make when designing for the Vietnamese language?

The most common mistake I have seen typographers make when designing for the Vietnamese language is that they don’t even realize the typefaces they set don’t support Vietnamese. When that happens, software programs or web browsers substitute letters with diacritics with a different font. As a result, you can see a strange mix of characters. When I was writing my book, I spotted many of these mistakes on Medium.com. I haven’t read much on Medium these days; therefore, I am not sure if that has been resolved. I even spotted printed banners at Eden Center, a Vietnamese-American strip mall in Virginia, that were set in scripted fonts, but letters with diacritics are set in a sans serif. They were jarring and yet the banners were printed and displayed on stores’ windows.

Since you wrote your first edition in 2015 have you seen more type designers concerned with the requirements needed for Vietnamese language?

After my book was published online in 2015, I have heard from many type designers around the world showing their interest in including Vietnamese diacritics. They have reached out to me to review their typefaces to make sure the diacritical marks they designed feel natural to Vietnamese readers. I have been glad to help in that capacity.

As a lecturer I often see my students struggling in designing in Vietnamese, some include diacritics marks by hand, but most of them will choose to design with English content instead, as there are more options of typeface available. How do you think we can get more type designers on our side, designing for the Vietnamese language?

Getting type designers on our side was the primary goal for my book. It was the reason I chose to put the entire book on the web for free so it can be accessed anywhere in the world. I have received messages from type designers from different countries thanking me for the resource to help them understand the Vietnamese writing system. Although we have a long way to go, I am pleased to see more and more typefaces released with Vietnamese support.

I understand your students’ struggles. I was in the same boat when I was doing my MA program. If they see typefaces that they want to use, they should contact the designers to see if they are willing to expand their typefaces to support Vietnamese. If the designers get enough demands for Vietnamese support, I am sure they will consider expanding their typefaces.

As for my personal use, I have made a commitment to license only typefaces with Vietnamese support.

Under the ‘type recommendation’ session of your book you present us with a good variety of typefaces designed for the Vietnamese language, which is a great resource for Vietnamese graphic designers. Nevertheless there is a lack of Vietnamese type designers on your list, why do you think it is so difficult to find more Vietnamese type designers?

When I did my research for my book, I only found one Vietnamese type designer and his name is Phạm Đam Ca. He provided insightful information for my book. Since then, I came across only a few more. I am sure there are more Vietnamese type designers I have not heard of. Because my book is published on the web, I can update the recommendation section with new typefaces from time to time. I would love to showcase works designed by Vietnamese designers in the near future. If you know any, please send them my way.

In your opinion, how can we get more Vietnamese people interested in typography?

Through education, like what you are doing with Type Ơi. We need to understand and appreciate the value of typography. We need to learn and to invest in new typefaces rather than to limit ourselves with a handful of fonts that come with our computer. Typography gives our design a voice if we use it effectively. Most of the time, text is all we have and using typography can make or break our design.

What is your perception of graphic design and typeface design in Vietnam?

Unfortunately, I don’t know much about graphic design and typeface design in Việt Nam since I have been living abroad for most of my life. I would love to learn more from you since you are living and working in Việt Nam.

What do you like to see more in terms of Vietnamese graphic design and type design in the future?

I would like to see bolder and stronger use of typography in Vietnamese graphic design. I would like to see more variety in typefaces and less script fonts for everything. I would like to see richer typefaces rather than using default system fonts for Vietnamese websites and online publications. Most importantly, I would love to see more Vietnamese designers entering the type design industry. Type design is the future in the Vietnamese design community.

Do you think living abroad has changed your perception of what typography is or can be?

Absolutely. It was my design education and working experience in the U.S. that gave me a different perspective on designing with type. When I first started in design, I didn’t think much about typography, partly because I only had a handful of fonts to work with for designing webpages, until I worked at Vassar College with a few talented designers who had mastered the use of typography. I learned so much from them and continued to hone it on my own until today.

Often designers will have a selection of typefaces they will use constantly, specially the ones used for body text, do you have a favorite typeface that you use in your projects from time to time?

As a book lover, I have a soft spot for serif text faces. Fern, designed by David Jonathan Ross, is one of my personal favorites for body text. Initially, Fern didn’t have Vietnamese diacritics; therefore, I reached out to David to see if he was willing to draw them. We came to a mutual agreement that I would advise him on Vietnamese diacritics and in return he would license me his typeface. It was a fruitful collaboration. I ended up using Fern for the body copy of Vietnamese Typography.

Finally, are there any other projects coming soon?

I don’t have any personal or passion projects at the moment, but you can follow my blog at visualgui.com to see what I am up to.