I’m about to dive into diacritic design for the Protest font I’m working on. Now, I’m actually stalling for time with this post. I found I have a lot more work to do than I thought to be able to add diacritics to this typeface.
What do I need to do to add diacritics to my typeface?
I speak English. More embarassingly, I’m monolingual. (Though my kids are trying to teach me Spanish, which is awesome.) So I don’t speak or read a language that uses diacritics. This makes it really hard to just rattle off what marks I should be drawing, and I don’t recognize intuitively how to draw them. If I don’t read a language with diacritics, how am I supposed to know what looks right?
This handicap requires me to do a not insignificant amount of research. I have to:
- look up what diacritics I need to draw
- find exemplars of diacritic design from the various languages I intend to design for
- read about diacritic design from experts who know how to design for their respective languages
There are some really good resources out there, but as far as I can tell they are few. Here’s what I’ve found so far:
- Karen Cheng’s Designing Type has a section on diacritics, which is principly observation and comparison of exemplars. It’s a good place to start.
- The Insects Project: Problems of Diacritic Design for Central European Languages is a great resource written by five talented type designers from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.
- The Diacritics Project is a collaborative project from typo.cz and designiq.cz with a wealth of knowledge in a wiki format.
- Polish Diacritics: How To? is a manual of Polish diacritic design by Adam Twardoch.
- Diacritics of World’s Languages is a project of Radek Sidun chronicling and systematizing good diacritic design across languages.
I realized that I need to establish vertical spacing for my font. Establishing the line spacing before I go to the computer is crucial, because it’s a pain to re-set the size of the bounding box after it’s been set.
Line spacing without diacritics is obviously very different than line spacing with diacritics. I could get a sense for the line spacing with the basic A-Z and lowercase descenders, but that dynamic changes dramatically with the addition of diacritics on top of the uppercase or lowercase with ascenders.
Drawing Distinctions Between Upper- and Lowercase
The lowercase gets read far more than uppercase, so it’s a good place to start establishing color for the font. There’s plenty of room to work with for the most part, and many of the marks can be reused on other letters. However, I can’t necessarily use the same marks for both lower and uppercase.
Diacritics for uppercase, depending on the line spacing for the typeface, may need to be drawn differently. That is, they may need to take up less vertical space in order to account for the amount of room (or lack thereof) between the accent height and the descenders on the line above.
So if this is so much work,
why should I do it?
The more diacritics I include, the more languages I support. The more languages, the greater the market diversity. Obviously language support is a good selling point. It meets a need and fills a market gap—if it’s done right. But there’s a more important reason for me to put in the work.
I don’t want to be anglo-centric. Diversity is more important than market share. It means people can have another tool with which to express their language and tell their stories. Including broader language support mean that, at the very least, I’m indicating that I recognize there are other languages, peoples, and cultures out there, and their alphabets deserve just as much care, scrutiny, and consideration as mine.
I know there are many other languages and alphabets, but I have to recognize my own limitations as well. I can’t design all glyphs for all peoples. However, I can stretch beyond my comfort zone and work to design for other languages that at the very least share a base script with my own native language.