Bilingual Lettering — (3) Making

5 min readAug 14, 2020

There is never only one approach to create a bilingual lettering. Depending on the design object and design intent, solutions can be completely different. Existing type genres can be paired or brand new styles can be created to match each other.

The most important thing to keep in mind throughout the design process is that both scripts should convey the same message and personality rather than being limited to only sharing similar appearances. What is the meaning that this logotype/lettering wants to convey? Can this logotype/lettering express the spirit of the design object (client / brand)? Here are some approaches to create bilingual letterings.

Approach 1: Pairing with the existing type genre

Certain Kanji typeface genres are commonly associated with serif and sans serif typefaces. In most cases, Ming-ti (明體 / JP: Mincho-tai), is considered a similar genre to serif typefaces, while Hei-ti (黑體 / JP: goshikku-tai) is viewed as sans-serif. (3) It is relatively easy to create a bilingual lettering within these two kinds of type genre as long as we make sure their visual parameters are consistent (such as concentration, balance, visual center, contrast, texture, details and so on, see “Consistency” for more.)

In addition to Ming-ti and Hei-ti, serif and sans-serif, there are some calligraphic scripts that can’t be directly associated with any scripts in another language, such as blackletter, italic, Cao-shu (草書) and Li-shu (隸書). These are traditionally drawn with distinct writing tools with specific rules. While it is not always necessary to match appearances, the two languages do need to have the same personality. So how can this be achieved? It depends on the design objective.

Take blackletter as an example, if the assignment is to create a Kanji logotype to pair with a blackletter newspaper masthead, the Kanji has to demonstrate a sense of authority. Stylizing Kanji to mimic blackletter may make it lose the seriousness of a masthead, but choosing a script that exhibits “classic” and “trustful,” such as high-contrast Ming-ti can be a great solution. The New York Times Chinese masthead designed by Julius Hui is an great example. (4) However, when blackletter is used for a different design intent, such as a heavy metal band, a blackletter-stylized Kanji design can enhance the visual impact.

Approach 2: Coordinating styles

For a brand/design subject with a stronger personality, rather than pairing the existing type, we can create a new style as long as we don’t lose legibility or its basic skeleton. Here are a few different approaches to coordinating styles.

→ A. Using the feature as decorative elements

In this approach, we can extract traits (such as stroke end-shape, serif style, etc.) as a decorative element and bring it onto the other script without making any weight-distribution and structural changes ⓕ.

Figure ⓕ

To compare, take Approach 1’s blackletter as an example again. Now we already have Ming-ti as a base-structure and then try to bring features from blackletter into Ming-ti. If we try to carry the curve from blackletter onto Ming-ti, it will make Ming-ti look very unnatural since it is traditionally carved on wood. The strokes in Ming-ti are mostly straight and barely curved. However, we can make Ming-ti look more blackletter-like if we replace Ming-ti’s triangle shape with the unique diamond shape from blackletter as a decorative element (5).

→ B. Imagine drawing with the same tools

In addition to treating the traits as decorative elements, another way to stylize the type is to imagine using the same tools to create both scripts. This approach would be a great solution for calligraphic or brush-drawn type and will make both scripts share a more similar appearance. However, this kind of non-traditional drawing may deviate from traditional weight distribution and make the type look informal or over-stylized.

There are some aspects to consider while creating bilingual lettering with this approach: What kind of material is the tool made of? If it is a brush, how hard is the brush? At what angle is the pen held? How thick is the ink? How rough is the paper? What kind of personality does the writer/painter have? With these considerations in mind, imagine using the same tools, gestures, speed, movements, etc. to draw the two scripts rather than copying the strokes onto the other type. Because of structural differences, there is no way to have the exact same drawing ⓖ.

Figure ⓖ

→ C. Treat it as a graphic

If the objective is to create a more expressive lettering, other than working within existing type categories, we can also treat the type as a graphic. With such an illustrative approach, the biggest consideration is legibility. It is crucial to make sure all the letters are distinguished from one another. As for Kanji, the recognizability of the form is more important than the clarity of each individual stroke since native users identify characters based on contour of both radicals (units) and their complete form rather than stroke structure ⓗ

Figure ⓗ

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

(3) Although they share some similarities in appearance which make them easy to pair, they are not equivalent to each other.
(4) “Typography 02” (Taiwan) 2016, page 30–33, Print. ; Type is beautiful: 記《紐約時報》中文牌匾設計
(5) There is usually a triangle shape on every horizontal stroke in Ming-ti. Sometimes this is considered “serif” when compared to western typography.