Bilingual Lettering —(2) Observation

4 min readAug 14, 2020

The differences of contour, density and form between Latin & Kanji

In Latin script, a word is composed with alphabets arranged from left to right. The contour of a word can be viewed as a horizontal rectangular shape. Most strokes go vertically than horizontally with similar thickness. The negative spaces between the strokes are also visually equivalent. Overall, the texture of Latin script looks pretty even ⓐ.

Figure ⓐ

Although it is also composed with small units, Kanji (2) on the other hand, is totally different. With its complex composition, some characters are constituted within a single unit and some within multiple ones. Some characters are assembled with just a few strokes while others may go up to twenty or more ⓐ. Unlike Latin script, the stroke thickness in Kanji varies from one to another, depending on its structure and the amount of strokes ⓑ.

Figure ⓑ

Although they are drawn within squares, the actual character contour is not always a square. It can be a triangle like “木,” a diamond shape like “今,” or a vertical rectangle like “目.” A word/phrase is usually made up with one to three (or more) Kanji, which makes the word contour even more complex. The differences in Kanji’s density, shapes and visual rhythm makes it challenging to create bilingual letterings.

Figure ⓒ

In addition to the overall look, their stroke direction is also distinctly different. The amount of vertical stroke in Kanji is usually more than the horizontal ones, which is opposite in Latin script. There is no real circular stroke in Kanji (撇, 捺 and 鈎 have strokes that are only slightly “curvy” ⓒ) However, nearly half of the Latin alphabet contains round shapes. Some are even close to a fully circular shape, especially O, Q, C, D, o, b, d, p and q. How these round shapes are designed is one of the key factors of type personality ⓓ. For instance, making the round shapes more squarish will drastically alter the type personality, but this factor does not apply in Kanji since most of its strokes are relatively straight. The structural differences discussed above will be a key challenge in the development of bilingual letterings.

Figure ⓓ

Basic typography knowledge of both languages

It is essential to have a basic typographic knowledge of both languages, such as configuration, proportion, optical correction and so on. For example, did you know that the four squares in character 東 are all different sizes? The “O” is usually taller and lower than “I,”? This is called overshoot ⓔ. And since Latin and Kanji scripts are traditionally drawn with different tools, their stroke weight distribution never go the same way. Graphic designers tend to apply the traits from one script to the other directly without considering the fundamental rules of foreign type. This can make the type look stiff or even unrecognizable.

Figure ⓔ

Read more
Bilingual Lettering — (1) Intro
Bilingual Lettering — (2) Observation
Bilingual Lettering — (3) Making
Bilingual Lettering — (4) Consistency
Bilingual Lettering — (5) Alternatives

(2) 漢字 (simplified Chinese: 汉字) is pronounced differently in many languages, such as Hanzi in Mandarin, Hanji in Taiwanese, and Kanji in Japanese, but they all refer to the same writing system that’s widely used in East Asia and originated from China. The traditional version is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong while the simplified version is adopted in Mainland China. 漢字 is also used in Japanese along with their syllabary, hiragana and katakana. In this website, “Kanji” is used to refer to 漢字 since it is already widely known in English.