Beginner’s guide to multiscript typography

March 2020

If you are working on a design project involving several of the world’s languages — as so many projects these days do — one of your toughest challenges will be to create a functional yet attractive multiscript typographic palette. Imagine trying to pair Arabic with Greek, or Devanagari with Hebrew, or Latin with Thai. If you are not confident you can do this with a high degree of professional excellence, this guide is a great starting point to help you learn how to successfully match and work with typefaces across two or more scripts.

By Pooja Saxena

1. Harmonize size and weight
You can use different fonts supporting different scripts together, even if they were not designed as a family, as long as text size and weight are harmonious. But this is easier said than done.

When dealing with two unrelated typefaces, simply setting them at the same point size may not lead to them looking like the same size. The height of the most prominent part of letters in any script, say x-height in Greek and the height of base letters in Devanagari, may not be equal at the same font size. Being equal mathematically does not in itself translate into having harmonious proportions. The issue of size is complicated further by marks, like accents and matras, which can be attached above or below letters, making it even harder to discern height.

Matching weight can be similarly tricky. Even if the thickness of the vertical stroke in two typefaces is the same, it won’t necessarily mean that the overall appearance of text weight will be alike when typeset next to each other.

To harmonize typefaces, they must be tested against each other at incrementally higher and lower sizes and weights until the best combination is found. When matching a script with only one case (not an upper- and a lowercase), say Hebrew, with a bicameral script like Latin, a good beginning rule of thumb would be that the height of the Hebrew letters is somewhere in between the x-height and cap height of the Latin. Any smaller will make the Hebrew text unreadable, and any larger would make it dominate the page comparatively.


Looking closely at the Hebrew and Latin siblings from the Noam Text family, notice that to harmonize the size of the two scripts, the sweet spot for the height of the Hebrew letters is somewhere between the Latin x-height and cap height. This can be a good starting point when trying to match unrelated typefaces in these two scripts.


2. Make flexible layouts
A multiscript layout must accommodate the visual characteristics of all its scripts. These can range from directionality of text to vertical and horizontal proportions of letters. For example, if a design contains both Greek and Arabic text, it would need to allow for both left-to-right and right-to-left reading. Even icons like arrows would have to be chosen with this in mind.


A page with both Arabic and Greek, even when using matched typefaces like Athelas Arabic and Athelas Greek, must accommodate the fact that Arabic is written from right to left, while Greek is written from left to right. A good, flexible layout bears in mind the nature of all the scripts being used.


Devanagari has marks that are attached above and below letters. So when passages in Cyrillic and Devanagari are being set in parallel, texts will need a line-height more than what is usual for Cyrillic alone to create space for Devanagari’s marks.

One way to achieve a flexible layout is to start with the most complex script first. Another approach, if possible, is to work with several scripts simultaneously so the layout is tailored for all their needs. Most importantly, familiarise yourself with all scripts before beginning to make sure you are aware of their unique requirements.


3. Typographic styles are not universal
It is only natural to assume that the design traditions we grew up with are universal, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Typographic styles and classification vary from script to script. Even the meanings and associations we ascribe to styles due to repetitive use, like high-contrast Latin Didones for fashion magazines, are unique to each script; they don’t translate into other cultures or scripts.

Thoughtlessly copying a visual style from one script to another will not only lose meaning in translation, but can also look downright alien or comical. When possible, research typefaces in use for each script to learn more about which styles are appropriate for what purposes, and if there are cultural quirks of which to be aware.


This Arabic logo for Banana Republic is a great example of what not to do when trying to match two very different scripts. Serifs have been copied from the Latin to the Arabic, even though they don’t belong to its natural structure. The rigid horizontal baseline, which is trying to emulate the verticality of the Latin is only making the Arabic look stiff and contrived.


4. Typographic tools are not universal either
Typographic tools are used to create differentiation in text, but are not common across scripts. While working with Latin typefaces, we can change the case of glyphs (uppercase, lowercase, or even small caps), use italics, or increase tracking. But these devices are not universal.

For example, the Thai script has only one case. Traditionally, Arabic has no italics. In Devanagari, all letters and attached marks in a word usually hang from or sit on top of a connected horizontal line. Increasing tracking will break this headline, which is not allowed. Knowing such particularities of each script will help in setting them well.


Increasing the tracking of Devanagari text will break the headline in each word, and make the text hard (if not impossible) to read overall, as seen here in Adelle Sans Devanagari.


While working on a multiscript project, you may need to devise inventive ways to create emphasis and hierarchy. Using different text sizes and employing colour and white space are a good start. Using typefaces of varying styles for different purposes can be an effective way of making the text easier to navigate. These methods don’t have to be uniform across scripts, as long as text in each script has been given due care.


5. Never use letters from one script in place of letters from another
When working with two scripts that look similar, the temptation to use a letter from one script to substitute a letter for another script can be quite strong, especially if only a few are needed to make a logo. But resist! Similar letters are just that — similar, but not the same.


While the double-storied, lowercase Latin “a” and the loopless Thai letter “lo ling ล” can look similar at first glance, they are in fact quite different. Notice how the two letters are distinct in Adelle Sans Latin and Adelle Sans Thai — the “a” has an outstroke, but the “lo ling ล” has an open counter rather than a closed bowl and is both taller and wider. Even the curve on the top is unique to its own script. Using one of them to replace the other always yields awkward, and incorrect, results.


Just like one-to-one substitutions are disallowed, modifying letters from one script to create letters from another script also doesn’t work. Each script has it own long calligraphic heritage that inform how its letters look today. You may be able to achieve a skeleton that is close to the letters you need, but it won’t have the correct stress or stroke width. Native readers will always be able to tell if you have used a stand-in or a morphed letter, and it will de-legitimize your design in their eyes immediately.

Finally, if you like a Latin typeface for your design but have not found appropriate options in other scripts, consider asking the designer for a recommended pairing or hire them to create a language extension if budget and time frame permit.

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