Our society is becoming evermore global and multicultural, and with it, the  need to communicate a single message in a variety of different languages is becoming vital. Companies that target audiences worldwide, or airport signage aiming at as many nationalities as possible, require texts in different languages to appear side by side in visual harmony. This task is relatively simple when combining texts in Latin writing systems, such as English and German that share an alphabet with only slight variations like dotted Umlauts (ö). But when you throw into the mix non-Latin writing systems (Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic and Indic to name a few), you might start to feel like a model UN gone wrong.

Non-Latin languages vary not only in the shapes of their letters, but also in the very way they are read. Be it in various writing directions, or different usages of the characters themselves (from conveying syllables to whole words), the linguistic diversity is striking, and requires approaching multilingual typography with care. The unique characteristics of each script must be noted, as not only do they affect text meaning and readability, they are also deeply rooted in cultural and historical context. Arabic, for example, stems from a calligraphic tradition, which reflects in its appearance. How do you design a multilingual font that has a unified, harmonious look throughout, while maintaining each script’s unique traits? We’ve looked into two fonts that support more than five writing systems each, for some fresh insights into the topic. 

The Greta type family: Living the multilingual life

The Greta type family was initially introduced in 2007, and has not stopped expanding since its launch. Its current language coverage is extremely vast, supporting all Latin-based, Cyrillic-based, and Greek-based languages, as well as Vietnamese, Arabic, Devanagari (Indic) and Hebrew. This incredible amount of languages is almost entirely foreign to the typeface designer behind Greta Text, Netherlands-based Peter Bil’ak, a renowned typographer who feels strongly about the importance of multilingual typography. On his many endeavors with languages from around the world, Peter works in close collaboration with native-speaking designers to help him with the many nuances that are only noticeable in the eyes of a native.

As is often the case when working in an alphabet that is not your own, when Peter first approached designing Hebrew letters, he was on unfamiliar turf. “I couldn’t tell one letter from another, or even whether the page was right-side-up or upside-down,” he describes in his article, “Designing Hebrew Type”. Working on several Hebrew fonts simultaneously, Peter collaborated with a couple of native Hebrew speakers to help refine his designs. Israeli typeface designer Daniel Berkovitz, then an intern at Bil’ak’s type foundry, Typotheque, collaborated with Peter on the Hebrew version of Greta Sans.

“There were different issues with the design at the time,” Daniel says of the initial stages of the process that Peter shared with him back in 2015. “It was too calligraphic, some proportions were off and generally there was something about the design that didn’t reflect the Latin version well to the eyes of Hebrew readers.” Daniel and Peter collaborated on redesigning the Greta Sans Hebrew and its additional weights, and upon returning to Israel at the end of his internship, Daniel went on to extend the font to all remaining styles (compressed, condensed, etc.).

Daniel remarks that working closely with Peter – who he describes as a virtuoso – was a fascinating experience, and that designing the Greta Sans Hebrew was a task very close to Daniel’s heart. “Just like any non-native English speaker, we live a multilingual life. There’s English around us all the time. This situation creates a unique appearance to our public spaces both in print and the digital world,” he explains. “Creating type systems that support many scripts not only saves frustrated designers a lot of time, trying to match different scripts from different type families, but can also lead to a better inclusion of all these languages in our public space.”

With this in mind, Daniel approached the design of Greta Hebrew with more than just aesthetic questions to show him the way. He wanted his designs to reflect the minimalistic and neutral feel of the Latin Greta, while staying true to the tradition and cultural associations of the Hebrew letter. “When designing multiple scripts, one script can’t take over the other,” he says. “In addition to similarity in the form and shape of the letters, there’s the need, perhaps of higher importance – to achieve a similar impression, culturally and functionally. That’s why, possibly contrary to intuition, copying parts of letters to create another script will not work. The result has to contain both elements – form and cultural context – making us interpret multiple scripts as one family under the same meaning and intention.”

And in the case of Greta Sans Hebrew, the results definitely manage to put all pieces together beautifully, winning the shared work of Peter and Daniel the “Type Directors Club’s Certificate of Excellence”. Daniel is currently working on his own type family that supports Latin, Hebrew and Cyrillic, adding his latest contribution to a growing number of high-quality international typefaces.

Greta Sans type family
Typotheque’s Greta Sans type family supports Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew and many other scripts

Canada1500: From Indigenous Canadians to outer space

The story behind Canada1500, a font designed by Japan-based Canadian typographer Raymond Larabie, is a story full of twists and turns. It started off as a public domain typeface that Raymond released under the name of Mesmerize. Stumbling upon the font online, the Canadian government contacted Raymond, asking permission to use it as the official typeface of the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2017. Raymond was very much inspired by this idea, but he felt that in order to do this correctly, he would have to invest some more work into the font. “It occurred to me that covering only French and English wouldn’t be in keeping with the idea of a celebration of Canada,” he recalls.

Raymond decided to freshen up the font and customize it for the occasion in a way that would honor his homeland, its culture and history. He expanded the font’s language coverage, creating the first font to support of all of Canada’s spoken languages – from its official English and French, to  its many Indigenous languages (over 50 in number). Raymond took the time to research Canadian Aboriginal scripts in depth in order to accomplish the task, a stage which he describes as tricky. “There was so little information about less common languages. Some of them have no websites, nowhere that shows a list of the characters used.” He took to studying handwritings and hand-painted signs to complete information that was missing from the Internet, but there were other problems along the way. “Some languages have fallen out of use completely, when nobody alive understands it or uses it beyond language study. Since nobody usually announces, ‘this language is officially dead,’ I had to guess. If I wasn’t sure, I’d include the characters to be safe.”

His thorough study of these rich languages, including consultation with linguistic professionals, helped him spot a mistake in the Unicode chart of one of the Cree languages. He notified the Unicode Consortium about it. The updated font, renamed Canada 150, is a sans-serif that beautifully combines these different alphabets, reconciling the horizontal alignment of the Latin letters with the central alignment of the Aboriginal ones. Used by Canada for all of its official 2017 celebrations, the font was a festive visual representation of cultural and national inclusiveness.

When Raymond was contacted about the font for the second time, it was for a completely different mission. A Mars mission, in fact. This time, Raymond returned to the font for an additional round of alterations, making it suitable to label buttons and signage on a manned spaceship headed to Mars, and eventually on a Mars base. He worked closely with Nasa consultant Constance Adams to understand the unique needs of outer space communication. “Adding more language coverage was important. Greek characters are a must, it’s always alpha this and gamma that,” he says. But Raymond was also asked to create a series of icons, some of them very informative such as a ‘beware, toxic’ skull or a ‘this side up’ arrow, and others more unique, featuring all planets, the moon, some of the major asteroids, a cyclone and a nebula. His personal favorites are the two alien portraits, respectively called ET Good and ET Bad. “Hopefully we’ll never have to use the bad one,” he comments.

According to Raymond, many of the icons he needed to create did not have official designated symbols, so he had fun with the task of imagining them himself. The gravity icon is one of them. “There’s G to describe the unit of gravity but no symbol for gravity itself. So I merged the symbols for Mars, Earth and Luna with half of the Japanese/Chinese symbol for ‘pull’,” Raymond explains the reasoning behind his process. It might come as no surprise that the Canadian leaf has also made its way to this series of icons. The font, now called Canada1500, has since expanded even further, adding support for Vietnamese and Cyrillic. Raymond placed the font under public domain, because it was important for him “to make it truly free”, and have no control of what happens to it in the future. From Canadian celebrations to Mars, not even Raymond knows where it will end up next.

Raymond Larabie’s Canada1500 font supports many scripts, including Canadian Aboriginal languages, and offers a set of space icons