In a time of geopolitical instability in Europe, the European Union is realigning itself into a post-Brexit Atlantic balance, we find out, with little surprise, how English took over the institutions in Brussel as an unocial lingua franca. For Czech type designer Radek Sidun, this is not a new problem: the focus on English kept languages from the central and eastern regions of the continent, and their abundant diacritics, at the margins. Starting from his Manual of Diacritics¹ we talked with Radek about being condemned to using Arial typeface, the nerdiness of his discipline, and inclusivity in language through type design.
Type design is a niche discipline that I think almost nobody realizes the problem with diacritics design you address in the Manual of Diacritics. My mother tongue being Italian, which has very few accents, I have to admit that I had to initially Google diacritics to have a better idea of what we are talking about. So, first, who was the manual aimed at and what were your intentions with it?
It’s aimed mainly at students and designers, but in general to anyone who wants to push their design skills a bit further to reach some professional standards in type design. The users—and I say users and not readers because it’s a mainly pictural book—are nerdier than average.
A great thing about the book was that it made me think about language hierarchy and inclusivity (in Europe), in a way I didn’t consider before. This manual focuses on the Latin script, which has a limited number of characters, 26, and, as you wrote, that is barely good enough for English, but not for the other 23 official languages of the European Union. Especially since the expansion of the Union towards the north and east of the continent, English has become the institution’s lingua franca and central/east European languages were pushed to an even more marginal position. The diacritics issue has been overlooked in favor of English and Western European languages. Do you see the European Union dealing with this language diversity in some way?
I don’t think the marginalization of Czech and other languages is a political issue. It could just be from a practical economic perspective, it’s simply about economic predominance. One of the reasons why the central-eastern European languages are out of focus was also because most of the economic power was in the West. Of course, the problem starts with the introduction of computers and coding: a vast majority of coding languages are written in Latin alphabet with English keywords, simply because there was a market for that in the western world. In the Commission’s ocial typeface is Arial: an American font demonstrating the economic imbalance in the use of typefaces. It had nothing to do with central and eastern European languages when it was created (1982), but the European institution stated that they chose it “because it is a system font that is suited for multilingual use.”² There seems to be no awareness of inclusivity concerning the fonts of the EU?
I was looking more at the political decisions behind the hierarchy of languages and fonts. I’ve seen, for example, that the European Commission’s ocial typeface is Arial: an American font demonstrat- ing the economic imbalance in the use of typefaces. It had nothing to do with central and eastern European languages when it was created (1982), but the European institution stated that they chose it “because it is a system font that is suited for multilingual use.”2 There seems to be no awareness of inclusivity concerning the fonts of the EU?
With diacritics, we generally have three problems. The first is the missing diacritical marks in typefaces and fonts. The second is the bad design of diacritics: somebody was aware of the need for accents, but not of the proper conceptual design approach, so they made badly designed accented letters. This is what I’m dealing with in the book. The third problem is the incorrectway of using diacritics which can really mislead you. The first problem doesn’t really exist anymore: you can say that 99% of the typefaces produced in the last few years have some sort of multilingual support, so in terms of awareness we are in a much better position than before. But I’d like to go back to what you said about cultural diversity and support from the EU. I think in general the European Union is in a dicult situation, especially now with populism rising up and growing sentiments against the EU. The Union is extremely sensitive about cultural dierences; they really pay attention to it. It’s a union but we have to keep our local cultures. I never felt a lack of interest in language inclusivity. The problem is how the market influences culture and politics. In the end: this marginalization evolved naturally; it wasn’t a political choice.
Politics is a way to counterbalance the economic hierarchies of Europe, giving more space to language minorities. Now that we are talking about the European Union as a fragile balance between different nationalism, I’m thinking of what happened with the design of the Euro banknotes: early design proposal included existing bridges, historical figures, and architectural monuments from different countries of the Union, but they were rejected in favor of a more neutral and abstract representation of bridges and gateways, to not compromise the equilibrium between the countries of the monetary union. Do you think that to move even further into this fictitious neutrality, we should have a European typeface?
Neutrality doesn’t exist. I have to say that the example of the banknotes is just ridiculous. That always makes me laugh. How is it possible that Europe was not able to agree on what to put on the banknotes? For the font, I never seriously thought about it, but this would not be possible anyway, because we seem bound to Arial for technical reasons. There’s no way back from it. It’s simply because there are way too many documents set in Arial. So, if we would have to change the font, we would completely mess everything up. It’s very painful, especially for me as a type designer, but I can hardly imagine that we could just move away from it. It’s just too late. The problem is that Arial is badly designed. Also, the accents are poorly designed. So, despite the fact that it is a very multilingual typeface, it’s also a pretty bad typeface.
Arial is a good representation of the current market hegemony we are tied into, as you mentioned before. We are stuck with Arial because type design is linked with the economic system, and it’s dicult to escape from it. It seems difficultcult to escape this hegemony; is there a way to get away from it in type design?
Well, thanks to digital tools many people are making a living out of type design in this market, and to answer your question: we live in [a system of] capitalism, and there’s no way out of it. As a Czech citizen, I experienced a system that was the opposite of capitalism, heavy socialism, and I can say that that didn’t work either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of capitalism, but the alternative also doesn’t work.
You don’t have to stick with it, though; you can find some typefaces, for instance, that are completely free, designed as a public service. One of these examples could be Gentium: a typeface designed by Victor Gaultney. It was one of the first multilingual typefaces with a really nicely designed set of diacritics. It’s open-source and completely free.
However, whether free or not, typefaces remain universal tools and the fact that one may be available in the public domain means that as a designer you’re not in control of it, and sometimes you are not happy about it. For instance, we once realized one of our typefaces was used for a political campaign. We’d never thought about it before; we never thought it could be used for something we would generally disagree with, but it did happen to us. That’s the risk and also the beauty of type design.
Historically there’s a lot of attention for graphic and type design in Amsterdam, it is definitely one of the capitals of the discipline in Europe, like, maybe similar to Zurich and Prague. Would you like to draw a geography of graphic and type design? And, what’s the role of Prague and the university you are vice-rector at, UMPRUM, in this constellation?
Cities like those are still predominant, but now because of globalization and computers, localisms have disappeared: designers from Prague have more in common with people from Berlin or New York than designers living in the rest of the country. Can we still talk about local design? Can we say that Amsterdam is still dominant? I’m not sure about it. Universities are the centers of this exchange, becoming places that gather so many people from dierent countries, who generate a cluster of global designers.
Speaking of geographical units, maybe Prague is slightly dierent: it’s history and the fact that most of the students there are Czech combined with its young tradition in type making, I think, makes designers less burdened by excessive respect for old historical typefaces and craving for experimentation.
Don’t you think that one of the risks of having this cluster of global designers is to flatten the creativity of the outputs and to have an extremely shallow proliferation of dierent typefaces and designs? I’m thinking of this other famous graphic design manual, the Vignelli Canon, in which Massimo Vignelli complains about the overabundance of typefaces available. He blames this on the introduction of the computer, which to him generated “the biggest visual pollution of all times.”³
It’s a super broad and dicult topic. From one perspective, thanks to digital tools, it’s now just super easy to design type faces, and everybody can do it. There’s mass production. Of course, I also ask myself: do we actually need more typefaces?
I wonder about this as it’s more dicult to come up with some original design. I think young designers should study more what has been done in the past and try to find some gaps in between, not only copy old typefaces. The beauty of graphic design is that it can be actually produced pretty quickly. In graphic design, a trend can come and go very rapidly, but typeface design is dierent because a font can be used for decades or centuries. It’s way more static.
Type design and graphic design move at dierent rhythms. It’s very dicult to have permanent innovations in type design. Perhaps, one way design could be innovative now would be to think of inclusivity, not only from the language perspective but also to embrace more contemporary issues, such as the idea of moving beyond the gender binary through typography. I’ve recently been told to check the work of this Franco-Belgian collective called Bye Bye Binary that is trying to design a non-binary type design in the French language, through the introduction of completely new glyphs replacing the male and female declinations. Can type design push innovations like this?
There are for sure some projects that I’ve seen in the last few years that are dealing with this problem. I actually know the project you mentioned: it was coming from one of the students from the Atelier National de Recherche Typographique in Nancy, Eugénie Bidaut. It was a very good attempt to erase the gender divide in writing. We should definitely pay attention to it, but it’s a dicult change. Type design comes from language: it’s just really a way to record the language and it doesn’t really work the other way around. New elements like those would be probably quite dicult to implement in the daily spoken language. I don’t see that happening in the near future, for sure. The problem exists, but I don’t think that is the typography’s fault. The main problem comes from something else.
Type design is a rather specific sector, and its issues and values are probably not well-known to a general public. Would you like to share guides, manuals, and tutorials that are fundamental for you and that could be good as an introduction to type design?
There are not so many manuals and the ones we have are predominantly textual. But we are designers, we need to see things rather than read about them. It’s too abstract, otherwise. I was missing some visual guides, that’s why I wanted to do the Manual for Diacritics and made it that way. There are some books like ‘Setting Sings for Europe’⁴, that really explain the history of language development from a political and social point of view, or ‘The Insects Project’⁵, that summarizes the languages of the so-called Visegrad area and explains the historic roots and legacy of these languages and how they are connected to diacritics. In a way, if these books and projects didn’t exist before, then I could have not produced my manual.
Radek Sidun. Manual of Diacritics:
Case studies of newly designed accents for contemporary typefaces (UMPRUM, 2021).
On the European Commission website on EU System, Font—ec.europa.eu/ component-library/v1.15.0/eu/components/ detail/eu-style-typography-font/ (visited June 2022).
Massimo Vignelli. The Vignelli Canon, (Lars Müller Publisher, 2010).
Bernd Kappenberg. Setting Signs for Europe: Why Diacritics Matter for European Integration: 139 (Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society), (ibidem Press, 2015).
Agnieska Ma)ecka and Zofia Oslislo (ed.). The Insects Project: Problems of Diacritic Design for Central European Languages— theinsectsproject.eu