Hong Kong exhibition celebrates the history of typography

Tsim Sha Tsui exhibition looks at the art of arranging and printing type

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 10:59pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 10:59pm

Don't know your Helvetica from your Baskerville? How about your Times New Roman from your Daytona? Your Rockwell from your Gill Sans? Still blank? Don't worry, you're far from alone.

Although much of the world, on its screens and billboards and in its books and magazines, is a blaze of typefaces often twisted and teased in the service of product or programme, more often than not we don't know what we're looking at - not in a typographical sense anyway.

Typography, the art of arranging and printing type, is celebrated as part of this year's Design Month at K11 Design Store, Tsim Sha Tsui. An exhibition, "The Origins of the Sources", focuses on the Lanston Monotype Company, founded in Philadelphia in 1887. Monotype patented the original hot-metal typesetting machine used in printing, but the company's influence goes far beyond hardware.

Distinguished by arguably the world's best-known font, Times New Roman (commissioned in 1931 by The Times newspaper), its catalogue runs to more than 2,000 original and revived typefaces, including Helvetica and friends. More than 10 per cent of those are non-Latin typefaces - and it was as long ago as 1920 when Monotype created its first Chinese script.

The ultimate goal of a good typeface is to be transparent and to transmit the content it carries. I like it when people know something about fonts, that's wonderful; but we prefer other designers to know the names
Julius Hui, senior type designer

In 2006, Monotype Hong Kong came into being with the acquisition and renaming of the local typeface design and production company, China Type Design. And with a seemingly never-ending demand for new fonts, the company finds itself under pressure to respond rapidly to every commission.

"With the help of our 30-strong team in Zhuhai, we can produce a new font in three months, which is very quick," says senior type designer Julius Hui. "That includes testing people's reactions to, and recognition of, it and, especially with Chinese typefaces, adjusting the character spacing, which is so important for the reader."

Hui, also a graphic designer, graduated from Polytechnic University before studying further under renowned typeface designers Sammy Or and Keith Tam. But he's no despot when it comes to general understanding of the fruits of his labours.

"To the public, a new font is just another type of lettering," he says. "And from the point of view of typographers and font designers, it's not necessary for people to know the names of typefaces. The ultimate goal of a good typeface is to be transparent and to transmit the content it carries. I like it when people know something about fonts, that's wonderful; but we prefer other designers to know the names, because that makes solving visual communication problems easier."

Such problems look set to multiply as long as electronic devices of increasing ingenuity retain consumers' attention. "For 100 years we've seen different typefaces used in many different spheres of print," says Ricky Chun, executive manager at Monotype Imaging.

"Now we see typefaces on computer screens, mobile devices and in all manner of media. Because people are looking at retina-display screens, e-paper magazines, Apple Watches and so on, designing and optimising typefaces is a challenge, but there are lots of possibilities."

Fonts old and new are on show at K11 in 12 showcases, supported by video footage detailing typeface creation and sample sets of English and Chinese text.

"A different design will always give you a different voice," Chun says. "Often people don't see the details, but if we want them to have a better appreciation we have to help them understand what they're looking at."

The Origins of the Sources; 10am-10pm daily, until October 11, K11 Design Store, shops 105 and 111, 1/F, K11, 18 Hanoi Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. Tel: 3110 5898  k11designstore.com