Vertical Types: Experimentation on vertical typography by Yuexin Huo

Vertical signage possibility & culture

With a Chinese background, I was and still is intrigued by the comparisons between Chinese and Latin typography systems. Rooted in very different histories, they obviously bare more differences than similarities, especially for the directions of writing. Chinese letters wrote from top to bottom, right to left for a long time until the change to match that of Latin very recently. Latin letters, on the other hand, were never evolved nor designed to write vertically. As a result, when I entered the Latin world years ago, I was shocked by the difference in visual cultures of signages on the street: there were very little vertical billboards due to the limitations of Latin typography system.

I started to explore the possibility of bringing the merits of two different language systems together and see if it’s possible to allow Latin languages to write vertically just like the Chinese system.

Hotel Type: A take on vertical typography

Hotel is the first take on this idea and it came after numerous researches and experimentations. I looked into the reasons why conventional vertical typography don’t work and found many issues that really limit the use of vertical typography.

A Vertical System

The very first issue is the lack of consistent dimensional structures among all glyphs to be set vertically. For the glyphs in conventional types, they usually have different optical and mechanical widths which prevent them from aligning up vertically with each other. While capital letters may inherently be less of an issue, lower-case letters can’t really work especially for letters like f, t, d, where their “center of visual gravity” does not sit as their mechanical center. This could cause vertical letters to feel like they are jiggling left and right.

To solve this problem, I have created a vertical type system. It follows the conventional system but re-established in a vertical way. The system features a vertical baseline, “x-height” line, an “ascender” line, a “descender” line, and a cap line. (I call them “baseline”, “x-width line”, “right line”, and “left line” respectively due to their new positions against glyphs.) An “x” glyph would have its left side sitting on the baseline and its right side setting on the x-width line. The conventional letters with ascenders and descenders would have their serifs on the ascenders & descenders sitting on the right line and left line respectively. Capital letters would set on baseline and cap line as usual. Of course, over-shoots on each line would be addressed as usual but would be on left and right side.

With this system, all the glyphs would be optically as wide to achieve a visual consistency that conventional glyphs lack, and as a result, their heights can be easily adjusted accordingly. Note that glyphs don’t have to be optically as high, just like conventional glyphs don’t have to optically as wide.

Care for the Rhythm

Another big problem of setting vertical type using conventional typefaces is that they often lack a visual rhythm across the paragraph. The issue is more pronounced in typefaces with higher contrasts as the position of stems in letters can’t really align with each other on their optical centers. An easy way to fix that is to reverse the contrast of letters so the thicker stem part goes square to the direction of writing. (i.e. horizontal strokes are thicker when the letters write vertically) This is also the case with conventional typefaces where their vertical stems are often thicker when they right horizontally. With the reversed contrast, such vertical type can share the similar visual rhythm with conventional typefaces in terms of relative directions and variations.

The result is this Hotel typeface with some capabilities to be set vertically. It surely has many short-comings: it’s not as legible as conventional types and it might be hard to be designed as a workhorse font, but I hope it is a good start on making vertical types possible for Latin-based languages. I also hope it could be the first crack on the barriers of forms and functions among different language systems before we could really break the barriers of language itself.

Neon Type: Hiding information instead of showing them

The idea of Neon came from the process creating Hotel type as I feel it’s actually easier to make typefaces illegible. Neon is a take on this direction and push it to the extreme: Neon tries to make texts as hard to read as possible to hide information instead of showing them to readers.

A Uniform Texture

The shapes of Neon’s glyphs feel very much like an ultra-condensed sans-serif and it’s deliberately designed in this way to feature a very uniform texture. Though uniformity of textures is very important in type design, especially for workhorses, it can hinder legibility if it’s been pushed too much to the point where the characteristics of individual glyphs are lost.

To achieve this, Neon only uses two type of strokes to construct all its glyphs: horizontal strokes and vertical half-circles as “hairlines” that connect them. (Round circles are also used but they are only for some glyphs like “i”, and “j”.) The horizontal strokes are constructed to keep the same distance with each other with zero optical adjustments among glyphs. That is to say, certain glyphs would look much longer than others due to their special shapes. Such design would also surprise readers as normally people would assume different glyphs to be optically as wide/as high.

Besides the uniformity of textures, Neon has another level of confusion. It aims to construct glyphs as simple as possible to reduce their characteristics as much as possible. Neon features many letters that are basically rotations/mirrors of others. Besides the famous b, d, p, q, being identical to each other, letters like a, e, g, are also rotations/mirrors of each other which can surprise readers of their similarities. Other letters like h, t and C, D, B, E, are also mechanically identical.

Vertical Calligraphy: New possibility for Latin scripts?

The vertical system can also be applied to calligraphy. The vertical calligraphy system is quite similar to the vertical type system with the same idea of baseline, x-width line, ascender, descender, and cap line. It can be written by both calligraphic pens with broad nibs or brushes. Due to the reversed contrast, the calligraphy pen is held around 90 degrees to make sure the horizontal strokes are the widest. I have written a calligraphy piece for a Latin poetry O Fortuna, sighing the ever-changing and ruthless nature of fate itself.

The current calligraphy system provides a way to write Latin scripts in the vertical way, but it is not without flaws. The process of writing is not very natural compared to traditional calligraphy and it is harder to control the details of many letters, especially for bowls where one must predict the total length of the x-width by muscle memory. The current system is still at the point where the process of writing is largely determined by the final form itself. It should really be reversed as I believe it’s more valuable when forms are determined by functions. It is like mimicking Neo-Grotesk Sans-serifs with calligraphic brushes.

 

That being said, I think it has much rooms for improvements. A good system, aka style, should at least be easy to write, easy to learn, and have its beauty coming from the very mechanical & pragmatic rules of writing instead of the opposite. The perfect vertical calligraphy system is yet to be designed, and I will make it happen.

Yuexin Huo is one of Fontown’s type designers. His typeface Monark is available in our app.