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.

Thank You, Class of 2015

Thanks to the graphic design students in AVT 498 for the lovely card and the gift card. I am glad that the web site for the Senior Show worked out. You did all the work. I only helped out just a bit. Nevertheless, I appreciate your gift and will put it to good use on books over the holidays. Congratulations on final project. Looking forward to seeing your work at the closing reception.

Last Day of Class

Last night we wrapped the last day for Web Design & Usability. Students presented their portfolio web sites. Some of their codes are still rough, but they have until next Friday to fine tune their site. They seem to have the foundation down. My hope is that they will continue to work on it beyond the class. The only way to learn to is keep working and refining their site. I have been working on my own site for fifteen years and still making changes to it.

Overall, I am pleased with the students’ performance. They put in their share of work. My TA was also great. He helped out by providing good feedback to the students. As for me, this could be my last teaching. I am taking next semester off to spend time with my family, especially the newborn. I am not sure if I will return after that. Regardless, having taught three classes—Introduction to Web Design, Web Design & Usability, and Advanced Web Design—gave me a good experience. I am happy that I did it, especially seeing students improved their design and a bit of coding.

The Show is Over

After ten days, we took down our 4×4 exhibition. My part took the quickest to de-install because it is minimal comparing to my cohorts. Even though the printed books were supposed to be read in the gallery only, eight of my copies had left the building. I am actually glad that visitors found some interest in my book.

I had a chance to read through the guestbook and the following entry made my day:

Love it!
Donny—thanks for touching on an issue a lot of type designers ignore. Keep it up! You’ll change the world.

Great show
Thank you

I couldn’t figure out the guest’s signature, but I am really appreciate the compliment. Thanks to the person who had written it. It means a lot to me.

4×4

4 Books By 4 Designers
George Mason University
M.A. Graphic Design
Final Exhibition
Nov. 30 – Dec. 5

Reception Nov. 30, 6 – 9 pm
School of Art Gallery
4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030

Please join us in the School of Art gallery to celebrate our final thesis exhibition! On display will be four books representing the culmination of our graduate studies:

  • Not Born To Run, by Melody Cook
  • Sockeye, by Marianne Epstein
  • Hummingbird Down, by Paul L. Petzrick
  • Vietnamese Typography, by Donny Truong

Refreshments will be served and a short reading will happen around the halfway point.

We hope you can make it!

–Melody, Marianne, Paul & Donny

Praise for Vietnamese Typography

Type designer and professor Phạm Đam Ca:

Việc làm này của anh không chỉ ý nghĩa với type design mà với cả cộng đồng người Việt nữa.

Monotype’s type designer Toshi Omagari:

I just wanted to congratulate you on the release of Vietnamese typography thesis. It was a much needed information on the subject, and will be used as a reference for years to come.

Computational linguist Ngô Thanh Nhàn:

I have not seen such passion for fonts since James Đỗ Bá Phước with his Vtopia.

If you have read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Vietnamese Typography: Nghệ thuật chữ Việt Nam

I am proud to present my new book titled Vietnamese Typography: Nghệ thuật chữ Việt Nam. It was written not only as a final project to complete my MA in Graphic Design at the George Mason University School of Arts, but also to fulfill my personal goal: to expand and enrich the quality of Vietnamese typography.

As a Vietnamese-American designer with a passion for typography, I often find limited choices for setting type in Vietnamese. Although Vietnamese is based on the Latin alphabet, most typefaces were not designed with Vietnamese subsetting. As a result, I set out to write this book to help type designers understand Vietnamese’s unique typographic features so they can design their typefaces to support the Vietnamese language. Furthermore, I want to help graphic and web designers in using correct Vietnamese typography for a given project. The book is aimed at providing insights into the subtle details and nuances of the Vietnamese writing system, that can be used for reference and transferred into practice.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is that I haven’t found any publication that dedicated to Vietnamese typography. When I started my research, I could not find much information on it. I even asked friends and family members in Vietnam if they could get me some books on typography written in Vietnamese, but they could not find anything. I ended up using books written in English on this subject—even though they barely scratched the surface—as well as my own experience in Vietnamese and typography. Through writing this book, I had learned many details about Vietnamese typography that I didn’t pay attention to before.

In an effort to share what I have learned and to reach out to designers around the world, I chose the web as publishing platform. The book is available to read for free at vietnamesetypography.com, but I also designed a print edition. The paperback copy is available for purchase on Blurb.

For the design, I wanted to keep the book consistent in both print and the web. The text face is set in Garamond Premier Pro, designed by Robert Slimbach. The subheads, captions, and UI elements are set in Acumin, also by Slimbach. The website was developed using HTML, SCSS and some PHP. The layout is responsive so that the book could be read on any device. Fonts are served through Typekit. Service Worker was installed for offline reading. The print edition was set in Adobe Illustrator.

This book is near and dear to my heart and I could not have written it without the support from friends, colleagues, and family members. Thanks to professor Jandos Rothstein for his guidance in working with me on this final project to complete my Masters of Arts in Graphic Design. Deep gratitude to Linh Nguyễn for her critical evaluation of the first draft. Based on her invaluable feedback, I rewrote almost everything. Big up to Jim Van Meer for his meticulous proofreading of the early drafts. Props to Trang Nguyễn, Raymond Schwartz, and Chris Silverman for their thorough editing, detailed assessments, and indispensable inputs. Huge appreciation to Phạm Đam Ca for taking his time to explain to me the nuances of Vietnamese type design. Kudos to readers of the beta versions: John Balaban, Tim Brown, Ken Lunde, Ngô Thanh Nhàn, Trung Nguyễn, John Phan, and Christian Schwartz. Finally, mad love to my wife Nguyễn Đức Hải Dung for her support and enlightenment.

I am thrilled to share this book with you. I hope you enjoy it too!

Students’ Redesign Project for Fall 2015

For the second project in Web Design and Usability, students chose a web site to redesign. To read the requirements, refer to last year’s post. Most students had done a good job of improving the existing sites they had selected. Two particular students, however, went above and beyond.

Tina took on the daunting task of redesigning the Periodic Table. When she showed me her early mockups, I suggested that she might want Univers by Adrian Frutiger for her periodic table. She took it and made a striking redesign using just type and colors. The new design is beautiful, clean, and user-friendly.

For Angela, she took on the challenge of redesigning VegWeb. Her first mockup was nowhere near her level of work, based on what she had done in the first project. I asked her to stepped it up and she did. She emailed me five, six of comps at one in the morning on Saturday. Although most of them were good, the editorial layout stood out to me. She was not sure if it was the right direction because she felt restricted to do more traditional layout for the web, but I encouraged her to push more into the editorial approach. Truth be told, web design these days is kind of boring. Most sites looks very similar; therefore, I wanted to see more breaking designs, especially from students. What she delivered I couldn’t be happier even though I knew it would be a huge challenge to turn her mockups into HTML and CSS. She did an amazing job with balancing big type and stunning photos. Her strong grid layout makes the pages look so damn good. She’ll have a great future ahead.

These type of works really make teaching rewarding. I will definitely miss it after this semester.

The Book is Coming

I have been working around the clock on my book, Vietnamese Typography. In addition to the website, which is now in beta, I am working on print materials for a gallery show with three other graduate cohorts. The show will begin on November 30.

Even though the website is the main focus, I am creating a print edition to complement it. I am experimenting with the trade book format and running a test print using both Blurb and Lulu. I wanted to make them at economical as possible so that I could distribute them at a low cost. I am also considering selling them. I need to see how they turn out first.

While waiting impatiently to see the proof copies, I am taking a break from this project to catch some sleep. I has made a living hell for myself working on the site, the book, and the posters. I have not done my physical activities to spend time on this project; therefore, I will be spending time with the boys this weekend to regain some energy.

Student Project: Mobile Web Design

The first project for Web Design & Usability in the Fall of 2015 has been completed. Students were assigned to the design a mobile web site. A few projects have been uploaded to Pinterest.