Talking Type with Dipika Kohli
I enjoyed a fun interview Q&A with Donny Truong, for my e-mag S P A C E. The issue it’s published in is S P A C E | ‘Talking Type.’
Like all of my stories in S P A C E, it started with a small curiosity, and a couple of questions, over email. Sometimes people don’t reply so a lot of the beginnings of stories can end here. But occasionally, you get a few replies and then you start a conversation that goes back, and forth, and then back again. This is jazzy, improvisational, and fun, when it’s at its best (at least I think so). But you can only get to the heart of a story when you call, talk, listen, connect and find that magic moment. Somewhere in there. And we did. And it’s the story. And the story is also online. You can read it in full at Donny’s site.
Thanks to everyone who has believed in me and my work. I appreciate it.
Really cool work you are doing with helping people understand the rules about how to design Vietnamese type. I got ‘stuck’ in Vietnam for 2 years, so now I speak and understand a tiny bit. While I was there I got into Vietnamese language and type. Tell me about your website. What made you decide to start it?
Vietnamese Typography was my final thesis for my MA in graphic design at George Mason University School of Arts. I decided to focus on Vietnamese diacritics because I found the lack of support for the Vietnamese language in type design. My goal was to help expand and enrich Vietnamese typography.
We interviewed a few typeface designers before. They told us about the attention to detail and the personality type that usually gets into that kind of work. Do you have some comment about what it takes to ‘get it right?’
Since I am not a type designer, I don’t have an answer to this question. From my perspective, however, type designers need to understand the importance of diacritics to get it right. The goal for my book is to help them understand everything they need to know to design Vietnamese diacritics.
Can you elaborate with 1 or 2 concrete examples, maybe in which people were helped directly by the resources you have made? What changed as a result of your putting the effort into creating the site, and your book, that you can comment about?
As a web designer who has a passion for typography, I didn’t have too many options when typesetting in Vietnamese. Many typefaces didn’t equip with Vietnamese diacritics. Back in 2014, when I started doing research for Vietnamese Typography, Google Fonts had about half a dozen out of thousands of fonts that supported Vietnamese. Fortunately, Google Fonts has increased support for Vietnamese drastically over the years.
After publishing my book online, I have heard from type designers around the world testifying how Vietnamese Typography had gave them the understanding of the Vietnamese language as well as the confidence to expand their typefaces with Vietnamese diacritics. In addition, type designers have reached out to me to review their typefaces to make sure their diacritics were properly designed for Vietnamese readers. It has been such a pleasure for me to play a small role in their works. Nowadays, I am happy to see many new typefaces released with Vietnamese support.
I have not read your book, but your website came to us through a referral as we were designing a typeface for someone here.
To clarify, my book is my website. If you read my website, you read my book. For my final thesis, I had a printed version and the website. For the second edition, however, I decided to focus primarily on the website because I wanted to continue to update it with new typeface recommendations and examples. I can’t do those things in a printed book.
Still seeking other people who can comment on Vietnamese-language typeface design. I’ll reach out to 1-2 whose work you admire, if you can point me to some people doing amazing work.
I have many type designers who I admired and worked with on Vietnamese diacritics. Off the top of my head, here are the designers doing amazing work and caring deeply about Vietnamese support:
- David Jonathan Ross (DJR)
- Stephen Nixon (Arrow Type)
- Veronika Burian & José Scaglione (TypeTogether)
I checked out the designers’ sites and listened to some youtube stuff. I think it’s a unique sphere: typeface designers. What’s your favorite typeface?
As a digital designer and typographer, I choose typefaces that are suitable for each project. Understanding the background as well as the intention behind the typefaces help me make the right choices. Having said that, I always have a soft spot for serif text faces. For example, I am loving Warbler Text, designed by David Jonathan Ross.
What are a few sets that you personally advised or worked on? What were the challenges along the way, and how did you overcome them?
I recently worked with TypeTogether, particularly with Veronika Burian, on Aneto. The first draft she sent me, the diacritical marks were good, but they were not cohesive and the hook above was truncated. I made a few suggestions and emphasized the importance of the bottom tail on the hook above for readability. She not only nailed it in the updated version, but also designed an excellent hook with the tail. I was so happy.
Cascadia Code, I think, is how we found you. Care to comment?
Yes, Cascadia Code rings the bell. In October 2019, Aaron Bell reached out to me to review Vietnamese diacritical marks for it. I didn’t know Microsoft had commissioned it until you brought it up. It is a fun, legible monospaced font for coding with excellent Vietnamese diacritics.
La Salle, did you study in Singapore? Just reviewing your website more now today.
No, I did not study in Singapore. I attended La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for my undergrad.
I’d love to hear more from you about the way you transitioned to the working life in the United States and how it’s been for you for 30 years there. Reason being, it feels like when I was in VN that people seemed to view life in the US as ‘making it’ and ‘striking big’ and ‘getting rich.’ The reality versus the perception—any comments? You can reply in Vietnamese or English or both.
Tôi đến Hoa Kỳ lúc mười một tuổi. Tôi được đi học và làm việc trong nước Mỹ. Sự khác biệt trong công việc ở đây với Việt Nam là cơ hội và điều kiện, nhất là những ngành nghề có liên quan đến thiết kế trên mạng. Dĩ nhiên so sánh mức lương ở đây với Việt Nam thì bên đây cao hơn, nhưng lối sống ở đây cũng cao hơn. Muốn làm giàu cũng không phải dễ dàng như những lời đồn đãi ở trong nước. Ở đâu cũng phải đi làm để kiếm sống qua ngày. Tuy nhiên, có trình độ và học vấn thì làm những công việc đỡ mệt nhọc hơn đi làm lao động.
Tôi rất muốn nghe ý kiến của bạn về nó: xã hội, bản thân và ‘divergent thinking’, ‘creative thinking’ ở Việt Nam. Sẽ rất hữu ích cho tôi hiểu. Tôi muốn hiểu hơn. Điều khó khăn nhất đối với tôi ở Việt Nam (khi làm bất cứ điều gì mới và khác biệt) là những ức chế của xã hội, của các khối. Không có nhiều sự quan tâm và thậm chí là thù địch với những ý tưởng mới. Nhưng, tôi đã kết bạn với những người có thể đánh giá cao: một cách mới.
Tôi xa quê hương trên 30 năm nên không nắm rõ về tình hình trong nước. Riêng cá nhân tôi sống ở Hoa Kỳ cũng đã chứng kiến những thành phần khác nhau. Có người luôn sẵn sàng đón nhận ý tưởng mới và cũng có người không muốn đổi mới. Tôi nghĩ ở xã hội nào cũng thế.
Bạn là ai?
Tôi là người chồng, người cha, người thiết kế, và người đam mê những môn trượt như trượt tuyết (skiing), trượt trượt patin (rollerblading), trượt băng (ice skating) và sắp học thêm trượt ván (snowboarding).
Làm thế nào để bạn tìm được chính mình?
Bất cứ ở đâu trên thế giới hoặc chính trên đất Mỹ, nơi tôi đã sống hơn 30 năm, chỉ cần đọc chữ Việt là tôi tìm được chính mình. Như lời của cố nhạc sĩ Phạm Duy đã viết: “Tôi yêu tiếng nước tôi từ khi mới ra đời, người ơi / Mẹ hiền ru những câu xa vời / À à ơi ! Tiếng ru muôn đời”. Việt Nam vẫn là nguồn gốc, quê hương và tuổi thơ của tôi.
Bạn có chấp nhận mình ở hiện tại không, nếu có bạn có thể kể về chặng đường bạn chấp nhận mình ở hiện tại.
Tôi không chấp nhận mình ở hiện tại. Vì nếu như có, tôi sẽ bị dậm chân tại chỗ. Tôi luôn có những khía cạnh để cải tiến bản thân. Chẳng hạn như làm người chồng tốt hơn, người cha dễ dãi hơn, người thiết kế kỹ thuật cao hơn, và người trượt tuyết tiến bộ hơn. Dĩ nhiên cái hại trong sự không chấp nhận hiện tại của mình là không cho phép mình được cuộc sống nhẹ nhàng thoải mái. Hy vọng một ngày nào đó tôi sẽ chấp nhận mình ở hiện tại để có một cuộc sống an nhàn.
Jazz. I like it too. Tell me about how you got into it? Does it inform your work in some way today?
I got into jazz after overhearing Vietnamese ballads arranged in jazzy style. Unlike the bolero-saturated ballads, in which many Vietnamese songs were produced, jazz gave Vietnamese music a new sound. The swing, the blues, and the bossa-nova rhythm piqued my curiosity in jazz and I wanted to learn more. I worked at Vassar College at the time and I went to the music library to check out every jazz album I could get my hands on. One of the albums I came across was Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and I instantly fell in love with jazz. I even audited a jazz history class at Vassar and my appreciation for improvised music grew deeper.
Yes, jazz has definitely informed my design work to this day. Like jazz improvisation, I let go of all the rules I had learned in school and just let my design be free from restrictions. If you are interested in finding out more about how jazz has influenced my work, read my short essay titled, “Designing With Miles.”
Crossing culture and identity are hot topics these days. Please share your opinion about what ‘identity’ means to you.
I am Vietnamese American. I was born in Vietnam but have lived most of my life in America. I appreciate both cultures and languages. They define who I am. That’s the broadest sense of what identity means to me.
How did it feel to interview in HCMC for the web design job? (I would love to hear you tell this story in your own words.)
Interviewing for a web design job in HCMC was demoralizing. I am not sure if the interview process has changed now, but in the early 2000s, it took an entire day. I can’t recall how many positions they were hiring for, but about 30 applicants had to sit in a classroom and we were tested for both English and Vietnamese in the morning session. Since I did the English portion so quickly, another applicant asked me if I came from America. When I nodded, he started giggling and told others that I went all the way from America to apply for a web design job in HCMC. In the afternoon session, we had to design webpages. I spent hours making webpages for free. I went through the entire process, but I never got a call back.
I can relate to your sense of being ‘between worlds.’ I think it is hard to ‘fit in’ on either side. Can you elaborate a bit, if you have any examples of something that you experienced, it will illustrate the point.
I don’t fit in on either side, maybe it has to do with my own personality. I don’t feel as if I can’t find common interests. For example, I am not into football; therefore, I can’t be part of that American culture. On the flip side, I love skiing and snowboarding, but most of my Vietnamese-American friends don’t like the cold.
But I feel more and more we all have multiple identities and they aren’t always drawn on ‘culture’ lines. Maybe you can tell me what you think about that.
I suppose politics and religions aren’t drawn on cultural lines, but they can open up different kinds of worms. I steer away from these two as well because they can easily break relationships even within my own family. I find that being a parent, I can connect better with other parents. Kids are always non-controversial.
Do you have any regrets? What would you do differently, if you could?
Yes, I have tons of regrets. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have said that. I should have treated that person better. I used to live with regrets. As I am getting older, however, I realize that I cannot change my regrets and I don’t have too much time left to regret. I just have to leave my regrets behind in order to move forward.
Please tell us the typeface designer’s website you had mentioned? I will give a shout out to him. The person whom you helped and encouraged? I would love to hear you share your story in your own words, about how you felt talking to him about ‘making it’ in a creative field. It is a good example for others, I think, who I know in VN who might be facing similar difficulties. (Society vs. Me, etc. Quarter life angst, too)
Here’s his website. His name is Nguyễn Quang Khải. He reached out to me after having read Vietnamese Typography. In our conversation, he shared that his dream is to become a type designer. His parents worried that he can’t support himself as someone who makes letters. Doctor, lawyer, engineer are more realistic professions. He also shared that his first typeface, Theccoa, has not gained any traction. I encouraged him to keep pushing forward. No type designers had succeeded with their first typeface. Designing types requires experience and patience. Once he gets past the first few typefaces, he will make it and he will also prove to his parents that type design is a legit profession.
Is there any question I did not ask, that you wish I had? Tell me more.
I don’t have anything to add, but I want to thank you for taking your time to talk to me about work, life, and death. I appreciate our phone conversation as well as our email exchanges. I wish you all the best with everything you do and I hope we will cross paths in the future.
About Dipika Kohli
Dipika Kohli is the founder and CEO of Design Kompany. She founded it in Seattle in 2006. Before this, she was in newspapers as a reporter and editor in that city and, also, southwest Ireland.