Talking Vietnamese Diacritics with Sheila Ngọc Phạm

Sheila Ngọc Phạm wrote a long piece on “The Past is the Future” of the Vietnamese writing language for Disegno. She talked to me about Vietnamese Typography. The entire article will be available on the web later this year, but here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

In response to Nguyễn’s New York Times footnote, designer Donny Trương, who is based in Arlington, Virginia, reformatted her article to show it is possible to include the full set of Vietnamese diacritics. To achieve this, he used the typefaces Kaius, Job Clarendon and Change, designed respectively by Lisa Fischbach, David Jonathan Ross and Bethany Heck, and Alessio Leonardi. The reformatted version of Nguyễn’s piece is published in Trương’s ebook Vietnamese Typography (2015), which is free to read and regularly updated, and features an ever-growing ‘Samples’ section. Nguyễn’s article now looks and reads as it should.

Vietnamese Typography was originally written as Trương’s Master’s thesis at George Mason University School of the Arts, and was born out of the frustration he felt about the lack of Vietnamese diacritics in modern typefaces. It has since become an invaluable resource, particularly for non-Vietnamese type designers interested in designing typefaces that support Vietnamese, which has the most diacritics of any language with Romanised script. These diacritics are not just marks above one letter, as is the case with common diacritics in European languages (e.g. é, à, ö); in Vietnamese, the complexity is due to the way in which diacritics are also stacked on top of each other (e.g. ổ, ề). There is also the diacritic that appears below letters, as you can see in my name, and with letters that have existing diacritics (e.g. ậ, ệ). In his book, Trương outlines some of the design challenges this presents: “The marks must be consistent in the entire font system to create uninterrupted flow of text. The strokes of the marks have to work well with the base letters to help readers determine the meaning of words. They must not get in the way of the base letter and collide with adjacent letters. Considering balance, harmony, space, position, placement, contrast, size, and weight, designers must overcome each challenge to create a successful typeface for Vietnamese.”