Vietnamese Typography Updates

In the last few weeks, I made some small updates to Vietnamese Typography. On the homepage, I added more random covers showcasing big, bold display typefaces with vibrant colors. I also added large display text throughout the pages to accommodate body text.

The significant update was the recommendation page. I decided to remove all open-source typefaces. When I first published this book, support for Vietnamese language was hard to find. Now the open-source community has stepped up its support for Vietnamese. Google Fonts now has a sizable collection of quality typefaces with Vietnamese. With the release of Fontshare from Indian Type Foundry, it seems like all of its typefaces support Vietnamese. I wish it had a language filter like Google Fonts.

Open-source typefaces are important and they are a great service to make graphic design and the web typographically better. Anyone can download and use them; therefore, I don’t need to recommend them. I would like to focus on typefaces from small foundries and independent type designers instead. A smaller selection also made it manageable for me. Looking at the current list, I need to showcase typefaces designed by Vietnamese type designers. That will be my goal moving forward.

If you’re a Vietnamese type designer and you have a complete typeface, particularly text face, I would love to showcase your work. It has to be commercial and not open source.

Ten Years at Scalia Law School

This October will mark my 10th year working at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School as Director of Design and Web Services. A decade in the web-industry timeline is eternity, but it still feels like yesterday when I took on this position.

In my first three months on the job, I single-handedly re-coded the entire website from scratch. I ripped out all of the HTML markups and CSS presentations and rebuilt everything from scratch. Our site was one of the first higher education websites that went responsive. In retrospect, I am glad I took that approach right from the get-go. In the past nine and a half years, our website has gone through many iterations instead of major redesigns. Because of the solid foundation I built from the beginning, our website stands the test of time.

In the last few weeks, we conducted a handful of user studies, in which we asked current students to share their experience using our website. We gave them a few tasks and asked them to do as we watched their browsers. They found our website easy to navigate and they could find what they needed. They provided us suggestions we can improve, but the feedback had been positive.

As CSS grid has become stable, I wanted to go back to replace complicated floats with grids, but the task seemed overwhelming. In the past five years, I have taken on new roles beyond the web, which included marketing designs and email newsletter. I could not dedicate my time to make the transition. Every time I looked at my SCSS file, I wanted to just throw it away and start from scratch. Unfortunately the site had grown so much in the last decade.

After our latest redesign under the new dean direction, I decided I need to tackle this issue. Now that I have a designer to help me with graphics and a developer to help me with day-to-day requests, I could focus on refactoring the CSS elements as well as cleaning up the HTML markups. Simply replacing float layouts with grid layouts make the CSS file much more cleaner and manageable. In addition to simplifying the CSS elements, I was able to get rid of tons of unused styles.

Although the work was entirely behind the hood, it made me feel great. I had accomplished something that I had wanted to do for quite a while. The overall visuals haven’t changed much, but the details have been hammered out. Because I have invested my time, energy, and effort into our website, I take great pride in my work and I treat it with tender, love, and care as if it is my own baby. I take the responsibility and the ownership of it. I expect my developer to do the same. I wanted him to put his care into it instead of just dashing off to complete the requests. Every piece of markup needs to be clean and no inline styles unless absolutely necessary.

I understand that we have to do things quickly, but doing so carelessly will come back and bite us in the long run. Our website has come a long way. The day of hosting it on a GoDaddy dedicated server is long gone. I am so glad that we had migrated to MODX Cloud with the help of the incredible MODX team. From the server side, our site is now fast, secured, stable, and in good hands. From the frontend side, the HTML markups and CSS presentations are streamlined. The design is still fresh and modern with exceptional typography.

If everything goes well, I will stay with the law school until my retirement. I only have about 20 odd years to go. I don’t know if I will be able to keep up with the web industry in my 60s. That’s a scary thought. Then again, I have not kept up on the latest trend a decade ago. I am still doing fine thus far. I can’t see myself doing anything else besides web design and development, but I never know what the future will hold.

Every Website is a Gift

Robin Riddle writes:

So websites can be serious things; we can turn them into great wells for us to cast our anxieties into, or stress balls for us to relieve the pressure of our lives. But a website can also be a delicately wrapped bundle of words and colors, with the express purpose only to make someone you love smile.

I love Robin’s perspective on creating website as a gift for someone you love. Although I design websites for a living, I also enjoy crafting small pages for friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances. Let’s take a trip down to the memory lane to see what I had designed as gifts.

As far back as I can remember, I designed the very first website for La Salle University’s Multicultural and International Center, where I did my work study. It was a gift for Ms. Cherylyn L. Rush, my mentor and former supervisor. Ms. Rush is still holding down the spot 20 years after I graduated. I still remember the distinctive homepage, which was a collage of faces from different ethnicities. It was inspired by a poster Ms. Rush had on the wall in her office.

One of my favorite spots at La Salle was the art collection in the Art Museum even though I was clueless about art. As a design student, I knew if I could get this site on my portfolio I would have no problem getting clients and jobs. I approached the director and chief curator of the museum to let me redesign its boring website. I told her it would be my gift to the school. She was grateful to hand over the keys (FTP) to the server. I remember the site was color coded to showcase different rooms and collections.

When La Salle’s Digital Arts first launched, I wanted to get into the program even though I knew nothing about arts and digital. Without any design foundation, I dived right in. When most of my classmates were learning Photoshop and Illustrator, I took up Flash. The combination of animation, music, and graphics made Flash an ideal tool at the time. When DArt needed a website to promote its program, I was chosen to design it. It was a gift for the program that launched my career.

In the summer during my college years, I often visited the Upward Bound office at Millersville University. The program had a website, but it was outdated. I asked Ms. Doris Cross, the director of the program and my mentor, to allow me to redesign the site as a gift for the program that gave me the opportunity to pursue my career in design. I was into Flash at the time; therefore, I created a fun intro with music loops, text effects, and photos of kids in the program. When I showed it to Ms. Cross, she danced to it and called all of her staff members into her office to check it out. It was such a wonderful feeling to see my work made them smile.

One of my favorite websites I designed and still maintained is I Love Ngọc Lan. It was a gift to the fans of one of the beloved Vietnamese singers whose life got cut short by multiple sclerosis. Like many of her fans around the world, I loved Ngọc Lan’s angelic voice as well as her breathtaking beauty. Even though she had passed away 20 years ago, her music is still alive today.

A couple of years ago when Jim Van Meer, a dear friend and former classmate from the graduate graphic design program at George Mason, started his own agency, he tapped me to create the website for him. Thinkpoint Creative was a gift for him and a collaboration between us.

A few months ago, I designed and developed the Educational Partnerships for Success website for Ms. Joy Tiên who is my life-long mentor. Ms. Tiên and I go all the way back to the Upward Bound program. She has helped many immigrant kids like myself succeeded in our educational endeavor. This little gift is to show my appreciation for her compassionate work.

When I chose Vietnamese Typography as my thesis to earn a master of arts in graphic design, I wanted to make it freely available; therefore, I chose the platform I know best. I created this website as a gift to the type community so they can support my native language. I hope I had played a small role in the increasing support for Vietnamese in the type community.

I wrote Professional Web Typography as an independent study for my MA program in graphic design. I chose the web as publishing platform and as a gift to the web community.

For my personal projects, I created a webpage as a gift for my kids to celebrate the day they were born. It is also a place I can look up quickly when I need their birth dates to fill out forms. In opposite to celebrate life, I also created tribute websites to honor those loved ones I lost. I created a tribute site for my father-in-law when he passed away in 2012. He had stage-four lung cancer. I created a tribute page for my father when he passed last year. He had stage-four pancreatic cancer. A month later, I created a tribute site for my mother. She passed away after a brutal battle with COVID-19.

As Robin pointed out, websites can be made “to make someone you love smile.” I know my parents and father-in-law are smiling down on me from heaven.

The Life of Our Blogs

I was elated to see one of my posts was quoted in one of my favorite websites. I have been following Robin Rendle’s blog and newsletter for a while. I admire his writing, both style and subjects. We shared some common interests including typography and web design. I am glad that he found “Inheritance” resonated with him and that we both have thought about the life of our blogs. He expands on it:

At some point or another this website, this URL, won’t resolve though. Maybe the Internet Archive will stick around for a while, but then everything is locked within this vast archive.

But if my URL is dead, my website dies with it.

My work shouldn’t be presented in the Smithsonian behind glass or anything, I’m just pointing at this enormous flaw in the architecture of the web itself: you’re renting servers and renting URLs. Nothing is permanent because on the web we don’t really own any space, we’re just borrowing land temporarily.

I dashed off that post when my son said, “When you die, I will read your Visualgui.” I have thought about this topic when Kevin Davis, a former colleague at Vassar College, passed away in 2010. Kevin was a fantastic designer and developer. His website ( was beautiful and distinctively personal. It was created in Flash, but he fed in his poems through XML. After he died, I still visited his site and read the poems he had written. Then one day, the site stopped working because Flash was no longer supported and was uninstalled on my browsers. I guess he didn’t have a chance to update his site to HTML and CSS. Then one day it was completely gone. I guess his payment had ran out and he didn’t leave his keys to anyone else.


What will I leave my children when I die? Since I don’t have anything worthy or much money, I haven’t thought about it yet. Yesterday, Đán told me, “When you die, I will read your Visualgui.” I smiled at him and asked, “Will you and Đạo take care of it when I die?” He replied, “Sure, we will take care of it for you.”

I often wondered what will happen to my websites when I die. Will they just die with me? I have invested a tremendous amount of time and effort into them. This blog, in particular, has documented 18 years of my life. It has become my daily journal and I haven’t intended to stop writing. I will continue to maintain and redesign it for as long as I can.

Even though I make a living as a professional web designer, I find my passion and motivation to stay in the game from my personal websites. The web has not only allowed me to feed my family, it also allowed me to express myself. I can share anything to the world from just a few clicks away. When I wrote Vietnamese Typography, as my final thesis for my MA in graphic design, I knew that the only way to reach as many type designers and typographers all over the world was to publish it as a website. I also wanted to make it freely available for anyone to read. I did not expect it to become my little consulting business on the side.

I love the web and I love making websites that are meant to stay around for a long time. The tribute website I created for Ngọc Lan has been around for 18 years. Even though it is no longer as active as it was in the early days, I still am maintaining it for as long as I can.

A few years before Mr. Đình Cường passed away, his health was declining. His son hired me to put together a website as a special gift for him. Now the site has become an archive of his artworks. His legacy will live on as long as his son maintains the website. Thơ mưa, a book of poetry by Cao Nguyên, is another website that will stay on for as long as the author wants to keep it.

As for my own blog, I am not sure how long I will continue to keep it, but I am happy that Đán is willing to take care of it after I die. My sites might have no value to anyone else, but they are my pride and legacy. I designed them with pure HTML and CSS so that they will stay around for a long time. Fancy frameworks come and go, HTML and CSS stay around. I also host my webfonts along with my websites, instead of using a third party, to make sure that they will continue to work in the future.

Yesterday, Đạo mentioned that he had gone through 400 pages of my blog and read posts that were specifically about our family. He is now in 2009 and only has six more years of materials to read through. Only my own son has that much dedication to my writing and that means the whole world to me.

Working on COVID-Related Website

After checking out Mapping Corruption, an interactive exhibit I had developed for The American Prospect, an art director at Mural Arts Philadelphia had reached out to me last year to see if I would be interested in developing an artistic, informational project related to COVID-19. Of course, I jumped on board. The day we scheduled for a kick-off meeting, my mom went on the ventilator. I had to drop the project.

A few weeks ago, I sent them an email to give them the reason I had to drop the ball on them and hoped that they had found a developer to take on the project. They were in the process of interviewing several candidates, but decided to work with me. I was ecstatic that they would give me another shot. I hope I won’t let them down.

We kicked off the meeting last week and I loved their illustrations. The information will also be useful. I am glad that they will publish these materials as an interactive, informational website. I can’t wait to share it once we launch. Of course, I will make the announcement once it goes live. Anything related to COVID-19 is personal to me. I will dedicate this project to my beloved mother.

Chọi Chữ

Cuối tháng 12 năm ngoái, Nguyễn Đặng Việt Anh, một người bạn trẻ đa tài trong ngành UX (trải nghiệm người dùng), ngỏ ý tặng tôi bộ board game “Chọi Chữ” bạn đã sáng chế. Việt Anh muốn bày tỏ sự cảm ơn của bạn ấy với tôi về dự án Vietnamese Typography. Việt Anh chia sẻ:

Mình rất respect quyển sách Vietnamese Typography của bạn. Không những là vì nội dung rất hay mà còn vì quyết định của bạn chia sẻ miễn phí trên mạng, tạo ra impacts lớn đến những người muốn hỗ trợ tiếng Việt. Xin cám ơn bạn.

Tôi rất vui khi đọc những lời của bạn. Hãnh diện hơn là bạn đã lấy nguồn cảm hứng từ quyển sách của tôi tạo ra bộ game “Chọi Chữ” để phổ biến chữ Việt của chúng ta ra thế giới. Dĩ nhiên tôi nhận ngay món quà đặc biệt này của bạn.

Món quà đã được gửi đến hơn một tháng rồi mà tôi vẫn chưa có cơ hội để chơi thử. Hôm qua mở ra đọc hướng dẫn và chơi thử thấy cũng thú vị. Thiết kế đẹp và cứng cáp. Cách chơi cũng đơn giản nhưng hữu ích trong việc học tiếng Việt. Hôm nào lôi mấy con ra chơi thử. Hoặc khi nào rảnh dụ vợ ra chọi chữ. Ai thua thì lột.

Nếu ai hứng thú muốn mua bộ game này, hãy vào trang Na Board Game đặt hàng nhé.

Medical Doctor

My nephew Eric is a straight-A student and he has a passion for design. I used to believe that you have to follow your passion, but I would like him to go into the medical field. Being in a life-and-death situation, my design passion is utterly useless. The decision-making process has been extremely hard. I never had to face something like this until now and I don’t have the experience or the expertise to make these difficult choices.

No one dies if I picked a serif over a sans-serif typeface. No life is on the line if I picked a darker or lighter shade of blue. No one cares if the logo is too big. I am at the point where I am too tired to fight for design. If my superiors want orange, I’ll give them orange. I am not going to bother explaining to them why, from a design perspective, they should go with red instead. I would let them have it.

In a life-and-death crisis, one wrong decision could make me regret it for the rest of my life even if the outcome won’t change. To get the medical expert’s advise, I have to reach out to a friend I haven’t seen in twenty-something years, a wife of a friend I have never met, a sister-in-law of my niece I met once, a friend’s husband, or my wife’s cousin. I am very grateful for their generosities and kindness, but I also feel extremely bad. I wonder if they have to give medical advice to family members and friends all the time. I wish I could return a favor. If any of them need a website, I will do it for free. That’s my offer.

I told my wife that I hope at least one of our four kids will become a doctor. Fingers crossed!

Trang nhạc Phú Quang

Gần đây tôi hay nghe lại nhạc Phú Quang, nhất là với giọng hát của Quang Lý và Ngọc Anh. Nghe lời nhạc của ông đẹp và thơ mộng nên tôi muốn thiết kế một trang web nhạc gồm những sáng tác của ông.

Thứ nhất là để làm mẫu cho nghệ thuật chữ Việt (Vietnamese Typography). Gần đây tôi thu được bộ chữ Harriet, thiết kế của Jackson Showalter-Cavanaugh. Anh thiết kế những dấu Việt đẹp và rõ nên tôi muốn dùng để làm một dẫn chứng về chữ Việt.

Thứ hai là để làm thỏa mãn bản thân. Tôi có sở thích đọc lời nhạc như đọc thơ qua iPhone. Những lúc xếp hàng đợi mua ly cà phê hoặc đợi trả tiền ở Costco, tôi mở trang web nhạc ra đọc thay vì lướt qua Twitter hay Facebook. Tuy lời nhạc tìm rất dễ dàng qua Google nhưng những trang nhạc thường chỉ để từng bài chứ không hết những bài hát của một nhạc sĩ. Đa số những trang nhạc đó load rất chậm vì họ kèm theo quảng cáo và họ chỉ dùng phông chữ thường (generic). Tôi muốn dùng chữ khác hơn và dễ đọc hơn.

Mỗi khi đọc hết một bài trên những trang nhạc khác, tôi lại phải tìm đọc bài khác. Cho nên tôi dồn hết tất cả những tác phẩm của một nhạc sĩ vào một trang theo thứ tự của tựa đề. Đọc hết một bài thì scroll tiếp đến bài kế. Khi nào ngưng đọc vẫn để trang web như vậy không đóng lại và thế thì lần sau sẽ đọc tiếp.

Tôi đã tạo ra tập nhạc của Trịnh Công Sơn, lời rap của Rhymastic, và tập thơ của Hồ Xuân Hương. Những trang này xem như những sưu tầm riêng của tôi. Nếu như sau này những trang nhạc không còn nữa, tôi vẫn còn lưu lại cho mình. Tuy hơi tốn công một chút nhưng thiết kế cũng vui vui. Sẵn tiện học luôn chữ Việt. Dự án kế tiếp tôi sẽ làm khi thời gian cho phép sẽ là những tác phẩm của nhạc sĩ Diệu Hương. Nhưng bây giờ mời các bạn vào đọc những lời nhạc của nhạc sĩ Phú Quang.

The MODX Disaster

After watching the final U.S. presidential debate on Thursday, I checked my RSS reader instead of going straight to bed. I saw a notification from MODX releasing 2.8.1. I was a bit surprised because I just upgraded to 2.8.0 only a few weeks ago. MODX usually takes at least 6 months to put out a minor release. It must be some security issue that they needed to patch.

MODX is the content management system that powered the Scalia Law website. Since it was midnight so no one would be logging into the CMS to make any updates; therefore, it was a good time to do the upgrade. It would only take me about 15 minutes to complete. I followed the procedure like I had always done in the past. Something didn’t go right when the files which were supposed to be merged had prompted me to replace. When I allowed the files to be replaced, the website went down. The files that used to take 15 minutes to merge were now estimated about 55 minutes.

I started to panic, stopped the upload, and tried to figure out what went wrong. I went into our daily backups and re-uploaded the directories I had made the upgrade. The process alone took about half an hour. The website was still down. At this point, I re-upload the entire site as well as the database from two days before. This process took a couple of hours. It was already three in the morning and nothing worked. I called GoDaddy, our hosting provider, to see if there’s anything they could do. The first time I called, the technician recommended that I try to re-upload the site from a week old. If that would also fail, I could request a disaster recovery.

I went on Twitter and tweeted for help from the MODX community. I received no response. Its community is way too small. Around six in the morning I started to get messages from colleagues telling me that the site had been down. I explained the situation to my supervisor and her supervisor. They completely understood. Since I could not get any help the last resort was to ask GoDaddy to perform a disaster recovery. The site remained down until around 4:45 pm on Friday. The site went down for 16 hours and I feel horrible. It was all my responsibility alone to bear. I did not sleep that night and kept checking my phone for a miracle to happen.

Although the website is now backed up working, we are set back 3 weeks. GoDaddy only keeps a snapshot every two to three weeks. Now I have to restore what was missing and it is a pain. I am also causing other people to redo some of their work as well.

After this incident, I now determine that we will need to get off MODX. This CMS is dying. It could never get beyond a couple of thousand enthusiasts. I should have called the shot a long time ago, but I held on the hope for it. Now it has become cleared that I need to make an exit strategy. It’s time to migrate to WordPress.