Dr. Fiona Ross is a type designer and educator who has spent her career outside of Latin type. Instead of going the normal route, Fiona started her career in philology and has developed many of the world’s most popular non-Latin typefaces.
During my first visit to TypeCon in 2014, I saw Dr. Ross receive the SOTA Typography Award. It was the first time I had seen someone be recognized for achievement in the field, and it really sank in for me.
When I saw that Dr. Ross was speaking at Typographics this past Summer, I tracked down her email and asked for an interview. She fought through jetlag to give a wonderful talk, then sat down with me for 15 minutes.
To learn more about Fiona, I suggest looking at her University of Reading profile, which includes a more detailed bio and many of her publications dating back to 1989.
Download all 4 interviews(completely free!)
This interview with Dr. Ross is one of four that I’m posting. You can read them as I upload them to Type365, or you can download all four as a convenient, free PDF.
Can you describe the research that you do before even starting on the design?
The first step is to define the character set. This used to be determined by the keyboard and this had a huge impact on the typeface design. It therefore used to be crucial to know how the font was going to be typeset, before we invented the phonetic keyboard. But such keyboards have become standard now. We are no longer constrained by what I used to call direct-entry typesetting. Whereas direct entry was one-key-one-code, and that was that. If you had, say, ninety-six codes on a keyboard, you could only get 96 characters/glyphs out of that. Today, we can have as many glyphs in the font as we like, which is great. But the first step is to define the character set.
And so, if you’re talking about something like the Devanagari script, we have to think “what are the different languages it’s going to cover?” Are we going to cover Marathi and Hindi, are we going to do Sanskrit, are we going to cater for Nepali? They all have different preferences and different typographic conventions.
With Indian scripts, which is my main field, you have consonant clusters that can generate different forms.
Today, within all the words you’ve spoken, can you tell me precisely how many different consonant clusters you have uttered without an intervening vowel? No. So, the only way of actually looking into this is by looking into past font synopses listing all the characters. That is part of the research and forms a very useful starting point. What was the character set, and what was its intended use?
I found recently that in Bengali, one of the things we were asked to include is the consonantal cluster (conjunct) ‘spl’. I couldn’t think of a Bengali word with it, but I was told by the newspaper editor: ‘we’ve got a report in the paper about a Maoist splinter group and we need it to transliterate the word ‘splinter.’ So there are loan words, neologisms and therefore there is no finite character set.
What we usually would find is that newspapers know roughly what their core character set is and what the most frequent characters are that they use: what characters are essential.
So it’s not as bad as what they would describe in the Chinese newspaper where every day you may need to add a new character with a new name.
When we did the UI font for the localisation of Windows, we asked Microsoft what they were translating and or transliterating into local Indian languages. One of the things we found was that they needed to transliterate the word ‘Windows’ and some people had different ways of doing that.
They sent us something like 40,000 strings of commands that were extremely helpful but some were almost unbelievable. I remember they needed ‘tz’ in Bengali as a combination, and I asked, “Where on earth would that come in?” I couldn’t think of one. I was told it was to set the world clock and it was needed to spell ’Switzerland.’ Again I recall that they needed ‘tzv’ in Devanagari because they had in Hindi—I had no idea why—the phrase “Congratulations on your bar mitzvah.” These are unanticipated combinations.
Working on the project for the Murty Classical Library of India—which as the name suggests are based on classical Indian texts, many of which I have myself studied—then the vocabulary that is covered is very different to that of UI commands, and so the character set will differ.
What’s next for you and what’s next for the type that you’re designing?
Well, I’m doing a lot of design work for newspapers at the moment. And I have to say I design with a team, which now includes Neelakash Kshetriymayum, who does the final art work, and John Hudson (Tiro Typeworks) who also does design work but mainly production for the newspapers.
We are designing new typefaces for the Bengali newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP)—as I showed in my talk—which is really nice. ABP are willing to invest in type design, whereas a lot of newspapers are not willing to spend the time waiting for that investment or to actually spend the money investing in typefaces that could be copied.
As mentioned earlier, John and I are also working on the Murty Classical Library of India, which is exciting. Upon the publication of each new text, the Indian fonts become available free of charge to any non-profit organisation or individual. But one of the things that is clear is that there’s such a poverty of reasonably good—or even high quality—typefaces for the scripts that I’m involved with; therefore, print tends to be the priority at the moment. But, there is a need to design for the screen as well.
When I worked on the Adobe Thai and the Adobe Devanagari, and helped with some of the OpenType work for the Adobe Arabic, that was for print and screen. These were for business use, and particularly for filling in pdf forms. In that sense, with the Thai we made the counters very large so that they were very visible on the screen and there are certain effects with the Devanagari, which is a script with a lot of verticals and a lot of horizontals. On a screen it can be quite dazzling to the eye. It can have a sort of strobe effect. So, I went back to looking at manuscripts. And with Tim Holloway, we decided that in following some manuscript forms, we would actually emphasize the curves slightly flare the vertical strokes. So we tried to diminish this strobe-like quality. And we made it much more generous than earlier designs such as Linotype Devanagari. So whereas we did also flare the vertical strokes in the Linotype Devanagari that Martin Carter originated, based on a foundry type, the Linotype design was very condensed and the vertical very strong, perfect for newspaper typography. Certainly in designing for the screen use, such as the Windows UI fonts or Adobe Devanagari and Thai, there are different considerations.
I think there are many challenges, and I think there are possibilities for greater collaboration and more people are emerging with type design interests and skills. One of the really good ways for people who want to step into this area, who are interested, but are not native speakers or, may even be native speakers but are nervous, is to become part of a team working on a project. Working with a team where you might actually be helping discover a new way of representing a language is very good learning process.
A lot of creatives have an interesting daily routine. What does an average day look like for you?
Well, I don’t have an average day because also I teach and then I write. I go through the year in different patches. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of font testing and reviewing of fonts because we’re doing some more development for Murty Classical Library of India, but then of course I go back to my desk and have a seven-thousand-word chapter I’m supposed to be writing. My teaching also goes in patches; recently the MA students were all submitting their practicals, so I gave a lot of feedback, and then time with them is going to build up when their dissertation writing starts. I also have a number of PhD students who are submitting work shortly, so that will provide me with a lot of interesting reading!
One of the things that I do have a ritual about is that with each Indian typeface, I always start with the letter Ka and I always have. Partly because it’s auspicious, and because in texts it often the most frequent letter. So, it’s the most important and it’s really important to get it right: it is the key to a lot of the other characters.