Piecing together new possibilities
Can you tell us a bit about the background of Kowloon Type?
There are limited variations of Ming-style typefaces for Chinese text and they don’t always rhyme with modern contexts. When creating Ku Mincho, I deliberately approached it with an appreciation for how Chinese characters could flow naturally in lines and paragraphs. It was my attempt to offer a lively, flexible typeface that is specially tailored to novels and poems.
Furthermore, as digital devices become more prevalent, engineers and web designers are seeking typefaces that they can handle more flexibly. We can help them by developing typefaces that they can easily adapt to a wide array of contexts. We want to project the spirit of Chinese culture onto the screen.
The spirit of Chinese culture, that’s quite an intriguing phrase. Are there any aspects of Chinese culture that you are particularly keen to preserve?
Possibilities are found in places others avoid
From your perspective as a Japanese graphic designer, what are your thoughts on Chinese typefaces?
Many Chinese typefaces are based on Japanese typefaces. However, as Yamaguchi mentioned, Japanese kanji are designed to coexist with hiragana and katakana, so we can’t simply use Japanese kanji in a Chinese context.
The current situation in Hong Kong makes it challenging to create typefaces specifically for Hong Kong people. In order to create a Chinese typeface, let’s say a basic set for Mainland China, you need to account for a minimum of at least 6,000 characters. Quite a high hurdle! As a result, it requires a large investment without a guaranteed return. Chinese and English are used in roughly equal proportions in Hong Kong, so there isn’t an immediate market demand. With all of this in mind, typeface design in the Chinese-speaking world lags behind Japan. I just wish there were more good typefaces that Chinese-speaking designers could work with.
It seems like having two primary languages is a unique challenge for Hong Kong.
Shared sensibilities beyond language
What attracted you to Nippon Design Center (hereafter NDC) for this website project?
I was aware of NDC even before meeting Yamaguchi. I read the books of creators like Ikko Tanaka and Kenya Hara and I really resonated with NDC’s philosophy. The approach of NDC creators has always emphasized the significance of typefaces. NDC is well-known among designers in Hong Kong, and it has been a driving force in shaping design culture in East Asia.
I knew Yamaguchi as a typeface designer, but I’ve always been fond of her overall perspective and her design aesthetics too. Being from the same East Asian region, I felt that she would be able to understand the culture of the Chinese-speaking world.
Can you tell us a bit about the website’s concept?
Yamaguchi: One thing I discovered during this project is that what can be easily done in print design can become quite challenging in web design. In the typeface specimen part, I wanted to align all different types of text boxes — vertical/horizontal, Chinese/Japanese/Latin, single-column/double-column, etc. — within a single grid, just like in print. However, the line spacing in web applications is completely different from print so finessing and making adjustments is incredibly laborious.
Goto: Another significant challenge was to convey a sense of ‘living typefaces.’ When trying to artfully display text information on a website, we typically convert it into images. For this project, however, we are talking about the website of a typeface design studio, so we discussed ways we could display beautiful fonts without converting them into images. By faithfully reproducing typefaces at an advanced level, I feel we were able to create something that truly reflects the high quality of Kowloon Type.
Typeface designers are often thought to have a niche, narrow approach to design, but I’m not really like that — I always seek something new. We managed to translate my philosophy perfectly and I believe this was possible because of the chemistry between the three of us with Yamaguchi as a graphic designer, Goto as a web designer and myself as a typeface designer.
There’s a sense of playfulness throughout the website with the moving dragons in the screensaver, etc. Can you touch on this for us?
Yamaguchi and I had long discussions about the different kinds of creative flourishes we could bring to the web.
What was your impression of Julius?
Goto: What struck me when I met Julius in Hong Kong was his love of Japan. In his office, there was a Yusaku Kamekura’s Tokyo Olympic poster on the wall, and the bookshelves were lined with many Japanese books. Even in the works Julius shares on Instagram, you can find quotes from Haruki Murakami and mentions of Hirohiko Araki. It feels like he shares a similar sensibility with us. We are simpatico so there weren’t any major issues in the project and it progressed very smoothly.
Creating culture, not borrowing it
Where do you see Kowloon Type in ten years? Also, what do you think East Asian typeface design will be like?
Yamaguchi: In East Asia, branding often relies on Latin typefaces to establish individuality. People in those regions still use their own local languages for reading and speaking, so I would love to see a movement towards designs that utilize their native Asian scripts such as Chinese characters, hiragana or hangul in a creative way. I think Julius might be someone who can help make this vision a reality by promoting designs that embrace the local language.
Goto: I looked at Julius’s studies of Chinese characters on Instagram and it gave me a sense of belief that even tricky web design problems in my own work life can be overcome. If Julius’s typeface can be used not only in the Chinese-speaking world but also in Japan, it could potentially bring about a revolution. When I first saw Julius’s Ku Mincho typeface, I saw Japanese culture within it. It’s almost as if Julius’s appreciation for Japan is embodied in the typeface itself. I’ve no doubt that Julius will become a trailblazer in Asian typeface design.
Julius: That’s amazing to hear. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is considered a compliment to be told that your work looks Japanese. It’s a bit sad, though, that people sometimes insist that we can just continue relying on typefaces borrowed from Japan. I hope we can create something great based on our own culture in a way that makes such voices less influential.