UArts to DArts

After my freshman year at La Salle University, I decided to change my major from communications to digital arts. I found out that I didn’t like public speaking; therefore, I wanted my arts to speak for me.

I checked the University of the Arts website and was impressed with its programs and students’ projects. I wanted to apply, but then I decided to stay at La Salle when some faculty members informed me that La Salle would have a brand new program called Digital Arts & Multimedia Design next year.

I just learned that UArts will close on Friday, June 7. The abrupt closure is devastating, especially for the current students. Fortunately La Salle offers personalized transfer plan for all University of the Arts students. The digital arts program at La Salle has come a long way. As one of first graduates in the DArts program 23 years ago, I am doing fine in the field I studied.

Statement of Research Interests

As a web designer and an adjunct professor who has a passion for typography, I researched and wrote a book on web typography. Professional Web Typography was my independent study in pursuing my Master of Arts (MA) degree in graphic design at George Mason University.

The first edition of Professional Web Typography was released as a web book in 2015 when web fonts started to take off. At the time, I could not find a book that combined typography principles with web technologies; therefore, I decided to write the book myself.

With my experience of designing websites for over two decades, I understood the importance of legibility, readability, usability, and accessibility when setting type on the web; therefore, I delved into topics such as selecting body text, choosing headlines, picking type for user interface, and discerning typographical details.

My goal was to prove that typesetting on the web was fun and rewarding—not intimidating. As a result, I kept the technical aspects as simple as possible. Back in 2015, variable font was still in its infancy. Not all browsers adopted variable fonts. Today, browser makers, type creators, and web designers are all on board.

My current research is to show the benefits of variable fonts for designing web experiences. Using just a few lines of CSS, designers can have a wide range of possibilities including setting specific weight, width, and optical size.

My future research is to expand the power of variable fonts to make the web experiences more diverse. One of my research interests is language support. As a native Vietnamese speaker and writer, my goal is to see more support for the Vietnamese in typefaces.

Vietnamese Typography Turns 8

I just realize that Vietnamese Typography went live today eight years ago. Time had flown by quick.

Even though the project was my final thesis for my MA in graphic design, I have never stopped working on it. A website is never finished. I still add recommendations for new typefaces with Vietnamese support. I still create new samples, which no one else cared but me. They have become my favorite design exercise. In addition, coming up for the content for these samples has been my way of learning the Vietnamese language through music and poetry.

I also update the client list. It has been such a great pleasure collaborating and getting to know designers all over the world. Type design is such a global community.

I also would like to thank those who had support this project. I appreciate your generosity.

Lastly, thank you for reading Vietnamese Typography.

A B+ is an Asian F

In his commencement speech, Việt Thanh Nguyễn joked, “A B+ is an Asian F.” As a friend and I made some jokes on Facebook about our failing grades according to the Asian standard, a friend of my sister chimed in:

I hope no one will be laughing when your kids bring home an F report card
It not ok to be failing when you know your kids can do better than failing it call a lazy

I could hear the conceited tone in her voice and I thought she had missed the joke. I explained:

In his speech, Viet joked that, “a B+ is like an Asian F.“ I had Bs in my report card and they were considered Fs in Asian standard. That’s the joke. Of course, if our kids gets F, that should be a concern. B+ is not a bad grade.

She replied:

i didn’t even accept the B+ just saying oh well that how my daughter is she where she is now

I followed up:

That’s great that your daughter could live up to your expectations. That is also the point Viet is making in his speech. Asian parents accept nothing less than A’s. A B+ is considered to be a failure. Thanks goodness, my mother didn’t expect me to get all A’s. I was an average Cs student and I turned out OK (I think). If she were to push me to get all A’s, I might have dropped out of school with severe depressions and suicidal thoughts.

She responded:

i have my own standard and when parents should know their children capable of more than what they are currently demonstrating

In retrospect, my grades weren’t so good and my excuses were my limited English knowledge. I did OK in middle school because I studied the tests by memorizing the study guides. In high school, my grades were Bs and Cs. Any classes that required class discussions and presentations, I failed miserably. Again, my excuse was English. I had no idea what the teacher and my classmates were talking about. I also took AP Calculus in my senior year and failed miserably. I ended up hating Calculus. Fortunately, La Salle had already accepted me before my final grades for senior.

Thanks goodness, La Salle didn’t require any math course, but I faced different challenges. La Salle required three or four philosophy courses. Again, I was like a muted student in class. I had no idea what my professors were talking about. I took a philosophy class on religion. We studied the Bible and I got as far as in the beginning God created Adam and Eve. I new nothing else after that. I ended up with a C in that class. In another philosophy class on sex, marriage, and religion, the professor knew my English was not so good. After flunking the first test, I was pulled aside. The professor made a deal with me. Each week, I had to meet him during his office hours to discuss about sex, marriage, and religion in Vietnamese culture. If I could do that, I no longer needed to take his tests or the final exam. I ended up with a B in that class and I thanked him til this day for his accommodation.

I had to withdraw public speaking, history, and biology because I was failing. I had to retake them in the summer at the Harrisburg community college to make up for them. In other general college courses, I didn’t even bother to buy the textbooks because I weren’t going to read them. Textbooks were expensive and I didn’t want to waste my money. I was struggling in all my courses, English in particular, because I didn’t know how to write essays. My English was horrible.

My plan to graduate from La Salle was to have a perfect attendance. I recalled some professor said that if we were to come to class everyday, we could guarantee a C even if we failed our tests. I took that to the heart. I never missed classes. I loved it when my professors took attendance at the beginning of every class.

In my sophomore year, I was heartbroken and miserable. I could have dropped out and focused on web design with the technical skills I had picked up on my own. It would have disappointed my mother; therefore, I stuck to it the whole way through. Even though I didn’t have good grades, I had enough credits to get college degree, which is a piece of paper that I had misplaced somewhere.

After four miserable years of college, I thought to myself I was done with school for good. I hated reading and writing. Then I started this blog and things turned around. I became obsessed with both reading and writing. I used to be terrified when I had to submit my writings to my professors and here I am pouring my heart out for the whole world to read.

After working at George Mason, I decided to take advantage of my tuition benefits. I enrolled into the MA program in graphic design at Mason’s School of Art. I figured even if I scored average, I could just get a master degree. I had nothing to lose. My first class was Advanced Typography. I didn’t know that the professor had a bad reputation. I had to do a tremendous amount of work in his class, but I didn’t learn much about typography. He didn’t care about legibility and readability. All he wanted to see was attention-grabbing display typefaces. I didn’t think it was the right way to teach advanced typography. I ended up with a B+ in his class. I didn’t feel bad about it until I received all A’s, an A+ for my independent study, in which I wrote Professional Web Typography, and another A+ for my final thesis, in which I wrote Vietnamese Typography. It all worked out at the end.

Based on my own experience, I don’t want to set high expectations for my children. I rather have them enjoying school and what they learn than chasing straight A’s. I don’t see the need for taking advanced classes at young age. They will have the opportunity to take them in college. As long as they do not drop out, I am happy with that. A B+ is not an F for me.

As an Asian parent, I wanted my sons to do well in school. If they can get A’s, they should, but it is not the end of the world if they can’t. My oldest son who is now in seventh grade should be able to get all A’s because he has the choice to redo any assignment and retake any test to bring up his grades. There is no reason not to do it unless he chooses not to. Of course, he chose not to and my wife had to constantly reminding him to redo and retake. If I had those choices when I was in seventh grade, I would have had straight A’s on every report card.

I might contradict myself, but own my advice is to do the best I can. I would do anything—retake the tests, redo assignments, take on extra credits—to get better grades. If I can’t A’s because I didn’t do well on my exams, I wouldn’t beat myself up. I would just suck it up and go through the process. At times, I felt like the dumbest student in class, but I didn’t care. My goal was to get that paper any means necessary. I would just keep moving forward and not giving up until I get that paper. A college degree is a college degree. They all the same.

My Middle-School Experience

Dr. Joy Garcia Tiên, my life-long mentor, asked me to take her back to my middle-school journey. She also wanted to know what divided us and what held us together. To answer her questions, I wanted to go all the way back to my first experience living in America.

I started sixth grade at Lafayette Elementary School with limited English. I spent half a day in my regular classroom not understanding what my teacher and my classmates said. I felt out of place. Fortunately, the ESL (English as Second Language) classroom was my comfort zone. All of the ESL students shared a similar circumstance and our goal was to improve our English. Our ESL teachers, Mrs. Susan Hurlburt and Mrs. Sue Kresge, had done an excellent job of making us feel comfortable and welcoming. They not only taught us English, but also helped us to adjust to our new lives in America. They were more than our teachers. They were our guardians.

I went on to Reynolds Middle School in seventh grade and faced different challenges. Reynolds had a diverse student body including Black, Hispanic, White, and Asian. English remained an issue for me and I still attended ESL classes, but only forty-five minutes a day instead of half of a day. Asians, Vietnamese immigrants in particular, were the minority. It was the first time in America that I experienced bullying, and race played a part of it. I was called “Ching Chong,” “Slanted Eyes,” or “Chink” on a daily basis even though I am not even Chinese. I did not know much English, but I recognized the racial slurs. I got into fights to defend myself. My grades dropped tremendously after a suspension for getting punched in class. I was miserable and didn’t feel like getting up in the morning to go to school. I realized that the students were divided into their own ethnicities and the majorities had more power over the minorities. I kept my head low and focused on my academics.

In eighth grade, I joined the Upward Bound program. I still can’t recall how I signed up or how I heard about it, but the pre-college program changed my educational life. My experience at the Upward Bound summer program was completely different from my regular school year. The program was also made up of a diverse group of students from different backgrounds, cultures, schools, and cities, but I did not experience any bullying or racism. In the summers, I was able to hang out with our little Vietnamese group as well as expanded into the larger groups. I did not know how Ms. Doris Cross, Dr. Joy Garcia Tiên, and the entire Upward Bound staff made it possible, but I was grateful for the individual-yet-inclusive experience. Black kids blasted hip-hop in their rooms; Hispanic kids blasted their salsa in their rooms; White kids blasted their heavy metal in their rooms; we blasted Vietnamese ballads in our rooms. No one complained until curfew time. Before wrapping up each summer program, we put on cultural shows and performances to celebrate our differences.

In retrospect, what united students in the Upward Bound program were our goals and our circumstances. Although our skins, cultures, and ethnicities were different, we were from low-income, underprivileged families. While other kids enjoyed their long summer vacations, we chose to attend summer classes and to challenge ourselves with pre-college courses taught by college professors. We were committed to make a better future for ourselves. We spent the summer living, studying, eating, and hanging out together; therefore, we embraced and respected our differences. Once we found our common ground and goal, we lifted each other up instead of tearing each other apart. As a result, I had found a special bond with my Upward Bound colleagues from my middle and throughout high school years.

I would love to hear from other Upward Bound alums on their perspectives and experiences. I also would love to hear from other Vietnamese Americans, particularly how they dealt with racism or bullying in middle school. Even today, I still wonder about that period of my life. Were kids at that age understand racism? Was I targeted because of my lack of English? Was I picked on because I did not fit in? Now as a father, I do not wish to see my kids go through what I had been through, but these experiences had shaped me and made me more resilience. I did not succumb to negativity. I found support elsewhere and appreciated those who were there for me, believed in me, and gave me the opportunities.

Why Do I Choose to Work for Higher Education?

My résumé shows that my entire career has been working in higher education. I started off at Vassar College for five years, moved on to George Washington University for three years, and landed at George Mason University for almost nine years. Why do I choose to work for higher education? The short answer is that I wanted to make money and keep on learning at the same time. I am still doing both of these things today.

In the summer of my sophomore year in college, I landed my first graphic design internship at the Trump Marina, which was the casino the savvy businessman ran to the ground. Although I was paid, I did not do jack. The in-house graphic designer didn’t give me anything to work on. I got tired of sitting in front of a Mac computer with no internet connection. I quit after two months and decided to focus on web design instead of graphic design.

Then I landed another paid internship at Unisys. I had no clue what the company did and I still don’t know what they do now. I was working with two older gentlemen on an intranet. They worked on a zip disk, burned the site to CDs, and distributed them within the company. They gave me a copy of the site to play with, but they gave me no instruction on what to do. I gave them advice on cleaning their codes because they were using Microsoft FrontPage, but they were not interested in implementing the changes. I quit after a month and a half and joined my classmates at La Salle University working on a start-up website called, which was some kind of a sport registration site for kids. I was recruited because of my Flash animation skills. It was a sweet gig. Unfortunately, I got laid off the day after the site launched. I guessed no one signed up.

Then I landed a part-time job at D4 Creative, an advertising agency in Philadelphia. I was hired to do Flash work and I was tasked with cheesy email ads. After a few weeks, my supervisor told me that he didn’t have any more work for me. He didn’t fire me, but he never called me back either.

I graduated from college and faced the dot-com bubble burst. I could not find a web-related job; therefore, I ended up stuffing papers into envelopes at RR Donnelley full-time and coding HTML pages at Triple Strength part-time. I finally landed my first real full-time job at Vassar College doing web design. At Vassar, projects didn’t move as fast as the agencies and deadlines took longer, which gave me the time to design, to experiment with different techniques, and to implement new technologies. I loved the educational environment where I could work and learn at the same time. After work, I went to free lectures and even free dinners sometimes. I audited classes and my favorite one was the course on the history of jazz. That class opened up my world to improvisational music, something I had never noticed before.

I moved to Virginia, worked for George Washington University School of Business, and started my own family. I had a rough time there, but I managed to get by. I even enrolled into the MS in Information Systems Technology program. I dropped out just after two months to take on a new job at George Mason University School of Law, which had been renamed to Antonin Scalia Law School.

Although educational institutions pay less than private companies, they are more secured. You are less likely to get laid off or fired unless you screw up really bad. On the positive side, tuition is the key benefit. I have an older friend who still works at American University and he put two of his kids through college for free. He saved four hundred grants right there. For me, getting an MA in graphic design at George Mason University School of Art was such a rewarding experience. Not only I didn’t have to pay a dime, I also made money teaching as an adjunct professor while earned my credits toward my degree. I wrote Professional Web Typography for an independent study, in which I earned an A+ and made some money off it as well. For my final thesis, I wrote Vietnamese Typography and put it out for free. The book had started my consulting works with type designers.

Lately I have been thinking of enrolling into a master writing program at Mason since I love to write so damn much. I would love to do non-fiction writing or journalism. I floated the idea to my wife, but she shut it down quickly. My priority right now is my kids. When they grow older, I’ll reconsider it.

Even if you just graduated from college and want to further your education, you might want to consider higher institutions. I hope this long post will inspire you to do so.

Releasing The Second Edition of Vietnamese Typography

Completely redesigned, revised, and expanded, the second edition of Vietnamese Typography takes on a bolder visual direction to provide more useful information, supply more illustrations, and feature new typefaces. For the new design, I wanted to turn the website into a rich browsing experience that is similar to a coffee table–worthy book.

The page is structured in a four-column fluid layout using CSS Grid. It is fully responsive from small devices to large screens without limiting the width of the browser. The columns changes from one to two-two to one-three depending how large the screen it. The larger the screen, the larger the illustrations. The size of the body text remains constant.

The text face is set in Fern, designed by David Jonathan Ross for reading text on the screen. I loved Fern the first time I spotted it on his sample page. When I was thinking a typeface for the second edition of this book, I immediately thought of Fern, but it did not support Vietnamese. I reached out to David to see if he would like to expand it some time in the future. Shortly after our exchange, David began to work on it. The first draft he sent me, I thought I have received a special gift. I went through every single diacritical mark and provided him my feedback. He nailed it on the second draft. I am so happy to have played a role in this elegant, grace typeface.

In addition to Fern, I used Roslindale, also by David, for headers. Subheads and captions are set in Retina, designed by Tobias Frere-Jones. I added Exchange, also by Tobias, for the quotes. Besides these four typefaces, I included 40 more typefaces throughout the site. Needless to say, I wanted to have as many typefaces as possible. This is the opposite approach of my conservative view web typography: Only use what you need.

In this new edition, I did not enlist any editors. My friends were already generous enough with their time helping me out with the first edition; therefore, I don’t want to ask for anymore of their precious time. I would have loved to hire an editor, but I did not get enough financial support from the first edition.

For the second edition, I thought of putting it behind the paywall or just release the print edition, but I still love the open web. I have invested tremendous time and energy into the second edition and my hope for the return of investment is still slim. Again, if you find this book useful, please consider supporting the effort.

Majoring in Web Design

A friend’s daughter is thinking of pursuing a degree in web design. She reached out to me for my advice. Here’s what I wrote to her.

Dear M,

Web design is an exciting field. I guarantee that you won’t have a hard time finding jobs, especially in the Metro area. Although you can get a two-year degree in web design, I highly recommend getting an BA at a four-year college. With that said, I am not sure if there are specific majors in web design at universities.

George Mason University School of Art offers major in graphic design and minor in web design. Since you’re in Maryland, you might want to check out MICA and its graphic design program.

I have been doing web design for almost twenty years. I studied digital art and multimedia design at La Salle University. I completed my master in graphic design two years ago from George Mason University School of Art. I am currently director of design and web services at George Mason University Scalia Law School. I also take on some freelance projects once in a while. You can see some of my works at

Something for you to think about when considering web design. Web technologies changes all the time; therefore, you will have to constantly keep yourself up to date. The good thing is that HTML & CSS will always be the foundation of web design. You will need to master those two; therefore, learn them as soon as you can. You will need to know graphic tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch. Programming languages such as JavaScript and PHP & MySQL are an important part of the web, but they are more on the development side. You can learn them later.

I hope I have provided enough information to help you make your decision. Please do not hesitate to ask me any question.

Wish your all the best,

Georgetown or Northeastern?

A family member had been accepted to the biotechnology graduate program at Georgetown and Northeastern. He asked for my opinion for what school should he attend and here’s my response

N, congratulations!

It looks like you have two tough choices to make, but they both are good. I am sure you’ll do well at either institution; therefore, it is coming down to what you want to do with your degree.

If you want to be in the clinical or industrial environment, Northeastern might be a better choice. If you want to be in government, however, Georgetown is obviously better. You will be at the center of all the federal agencies including NIST, NIH, FDA/, and USDA.

Personally I would recommend Georgetown. We need young and smart thinkers like yourself to make stronger, better policies in biotechnology for the U.S.

Also think about the tuition. You can complete your program in one year at Georgetown whereas you’ll need two to three at Northeastern.

Keep us updated with your decision.

Congrats once again and wishing you all the best.

Bùi Quang Tiến: Nghệ thuật chữ trong thiết kế bìa sách giai đoạn 2005–2015 ở Việt Nam

Tình cờ google ra những bài tranh cãi về luận án tiến sĩ của nghiên cứu sinh Bùi Quang Tiến. Nhiều người cho rằng đề tài “Nghệ thuật chữ trong thiết kế bìa sách giai đoạn 2005–2015 ở Việt Nam” chưa “xứng đáng” với một luận án tiến sĩ. Thậm chí có người cho rằng nó còn tầm phào và không ứng dụng thực tế. Sau khi đọc xong luận án này, tôi hoàn toàn ủng hộ đề tài này của Bùi Quang Tiến.

Trong nước nghệ thuật chữ vẫn chưa được đánh giá cao nhưng ngoài nước đây là một đề tài nghiêm nghị đã được nghiên cứu từ 500 năm trước cho đến nay. Bùi Quang Tiến nhận ra đều này:

Ở Việt Nam, vai trò của NTC [Nghệ thuật chữ] chưa được văn bản chính thức nào ghi nhận vì vậy nó chưa xác lập được vị trí cho mình như các bộ môn nghệ thuật khác. Tuy nhiên trên thực tế, NTC đã xuất hiện từ khá sớm trong tiến trình lịch sử mỹ thuật của dân tộc. Cho đến nay nó vẫn đóng vai trò như một yếu tố không thể tách rời đối với một số lĩnh vực nghệ thuật đặc thù gắn liền với các công trình kiến trúc, nội thất (chữ trên các hoành phi, câu đối, trên cổng chùa, đình làng, cổng chào, lăng tẩm, văn bia, cột trụ…), thậm chí các kiểu dáng chữ Đinh, chữ Công hay nội Công ngoại Quốc đã được lấy làm cảm hứng cho kiến trúc mặt bằng của một số ngôi chùa xây trong thời kỳ phong kiến.

Phần mở đầu và chương một của luận án có nhiều nghiên cứu về lịch sữ Nghệ thuật chữ bổ ích nhất là cho những ai học về ngành thiết kế đồ hoạ, trang web, hoặc chữ. (Chúng ta cần nhiều nhân tài về ngành thiết kế chữ.) Phải chi tôi đọc được bài luận án này khi làm bài luận án của tôi về Vietnamese Typography: Nghệ thuật chữ Quốc Ngữ để được tham khảo những nghiên cứu ở trong nước. Nhưng tôi sẽ tìm đọc những quyển sách mà Bùi Quang Tiến đã đề cập đến trong chương một:

  • Tìm hiểu dáng chữ in gốc La-tinh: Chữ nét trơn (Tập 1, 1970) Nguyễn Viết Châu
  • Tìm hiểu dáng chữ in gốc La-tinh: Chữ có nét chân (Tập 2, 1974) Nguyễn Viết Châu
  • Nghệ thuật chữ trang trí và quảng cáo (1992) Hồ Xuân Hạnh
  • Kỹ thuật chữ (1996) Nguyễn Ngọc Sơn
  • Đại cương về kỹ thuật in (2008) Huỳnh Trà Ngộ
  • Văn minh vật chất của người Việt (2011) Phan Cẩm Thượng
  • Thiết kế logo, nhãn hiệu, bảng hiệu theo tập quán Việt Nam và phương Đông (1998) Tố Nguyên
  • Nghệ thuật Đồ họa bao bì (2016) Nguyễn Thị Hợp

Trong chương hai, Bùi Quang Tiến chia sẽ phần nhận diện của nghệ thuật chữ trong thiết kế bìa sách giai đoạn 2005-2015. Bùi Quang Tiến viết:

Trong lĩnh vực thiết kế chữ, nét được chia làm hai loại. Nét chính và nét phụ. Nét chính là nét quan trọng làm nên hình dạng của ký tự. Nét phụ là nét viết thêm vào nét chính hoặc nối liền nét chính với nhau để chữ có được sự hài hòa, cân đối về tạo hình thị giác. Người ta thường biến nét phụ trở thành các nét có tính trang trí để làm cho chữ đẹp hơn.

Những ví dụ Bùi Quang Tiến đưa ra và luôn cả những quyển sách Việt tôi đã từng thấy, đa số là thiết kế bởi những hoạ sĩ. Cách trình bày đó vẫn đẹp và sang trọng nhưng nó thuột về vẽ chữ (lettering) chứ không hẳn là Nghệ thuật chữ (typography). Tôi không phủ nhận sự việc quang trọng của bìa sách nhưng nó chỉ là một phần nhỏ trong công trình thiết kế sách. Phải chi Bùi Quang Tiến nghiên cứu sâu thêm về phần thiết kế của sách. Theo tôi, chữ ở trong sách của tác giả mới quang trọng nhất. Người đọc sẽ bỏ ra rất nhiều thời gian với quyển sách cho nên người thiết kế cần phải tôn trọng người đọc. Người thiết kế phải dùng mẫu chữ nào và biết những chi tiết cặn kẽ của từng nét chữ để giúp người đọc dễ dàng và thoải mái. Dạo này tôi thường đọc sách tiếng Việt và đã nhận ra một vài chi tiết trình bài không đúng lắm. Tuy nhiên bài luận án này nên được tôn trọng và chúng ta cần nhiều bài luận án khác trong tương lai để Nghệ thuật chữ Việt Nam ngày càng phát triển hơn.