Harmonised type design revisited


In 1993 Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes published The design of a Unicode font. It was one of the first scholarly discussions of type design for multiple scripts, and likely coined the term harmonised design. Bigelow and Holmes defined the concept thus: “By ‘harmonization’, we mean that the basic weights and alignments of disparate alphabets are regularized and tuned to work together, so that their inessential differences are minimized, but their essential, meaningful differences preserved.” In 1993 the introduction of the Unicode standard provided the technological background which allowed this novel approach as fonts could now contain many thousands of characters. And just as Unicode aspired to be the single, universal encoding standard of the world, now it became tangible to create typefaces with unified typographic representations of many of the world’s scripts.

Harmonised type design was soon widely embraced, copied and promoted, and was received with little, if any, critique. Bigelow and Holmes’ assertion that “harmonization seems like a desirable goal” appears to have been a view which was widely shared in the trade, and harmonisation became an established concept.  

This talk revisits the notion of harmonised type design 20 years after its inception. It critically assesses the origin of the concept, identifies its parallels to modernist design ideas, and queries its applicability in different typographic scenarios. Some limits of the concept of harmonised type design will be discussed and different interpretations of designing type for multiple scripts will be considered.