Not your typical type: An interview with Emily Hsiang

by on August 12, 2017

Frances Loke Wei speaks with Emily Hsiang, editor of Hanzi, a new documentary on the Chinese script. Hanzi is produced by independent, Taiwan-based film production house Muris, under which two other successfully crowdfunded films exploring design in society were produced: Design & Thinking (2012) and Maker (2014).

Inspired by the street signs that populate Taiwan’s vibrant urban spaces, Emily and her team decided to produce a documentary film, Hanzi (漢字; “Chinese Character” or “Chinese Type”) to showcase a part of Taiwan that would be distinct from the same-old hackneyed narrative of good food and beautiful scenery—through its language. By extension, it also prods its audience to reflect on written language design at large and how it relates to or reflects their culture and identity. For Emily, it’s also a way “for us to reconnect with language in a physical way” and thus learn about who we are and the community of practice in which we live.

Hanzi—in Mandarin Chinese with Chinese and English subtitles—explores the humble relationship that handwriting, typography, and language shares with culture. The film does this through interviews with individuals in New York, Hong Kong, London, and Taiwan who share their insights as font designers, signage artisans from Japan, educators, and even includes the founder of internet startup Chineasy, which pioneered a method of learning of Chinese through carefully designed images.

But does font design really matter? “The way I see, different fonts are sort of like different cuisines. Yes, it’s okay to have bread and butter for every meal, but it’s nice to have Thai or burgers as an option,” says Emily with a smile. In the documentary trailer, Nikhil, a Quartz reporter and learner of Mandarin in Taiwan remarks:

You can use any font so long as you are able to read the words and read the characters, so it’s kind of a question of ‘Why do we care what the font looks like?’

He believes that “font is a kind of proxy for how much society is thinking about the subtleties of design and expression”. Hanzi is testament to the energies invested in learning about this field, given that approximately 10,000 to 20,000 characters have to be designed for a single Chinese font type.

But who are all these type designers and is this still a viable trade? According to Emily, the “emergence of new and old innovation, as well as the digitisation and the democratisation of software and resources online” has kept the trade alive says Emily, and contributed to the awareness of the trade among laypeople. In fact, Taiwan will soon be coming up with its first crowd-funded font, Jin Xuan (金萱), which has generated a significant amount of buzz online.

In the digital age of auto-correct systems for writing, a question often comes to mind for those who care enough to consider how people will bestow their languages on their progeny: Is handwriting and spelling becoming obsolete?

I’ve come across quite a number of Chinese-speaking friends who use the pinyin keyboard (friends from China) or wubixing keyboard (friends from Taiwan) to text or work, but often forget how to write Chinese characters the good old-fashioned way with pen and paper, simply because they have not done it in a long time. Emily casually admits, “We’re in the same boat!” But that’s because “you kind of have to do it repetitively for the hand muscle memory to stick” and people simply don’t see the need to do that anymore. It appears, according to Hanzi, that “what [we] see on screen is function. Handwriting doesn’t represent function; instead, it conveys personality”.

In spite of this, I’m inclined to believe that apart from aesthetics, there are fonts that serve specific needs and purposes, such as enabling young readers to learn the shapes of letters and not getting them mixed up early in life. Indeed, I’m thinking about Comic Sans—the sans-serif Latin alphabet font everyone loves to hate (read about it). The round-edged font, however, seems to tick all the right boxes for young learners and dyslexics, because of the few repeated shapes it uses to create each letter, making each letter more recognisable and less distracting. Its widespread availability has since also garnered it a recommendation by the Dyslexia Associations of Britain and Ireland, and the teacher of a new children’s Kristang class I’m helping to facilitate.

I wondered if the world of Chinese fonts had a Comic Sans equivalent in terms of helping kids and dyslexics learn better. There isn’t; although Emily is reminded of the Chinese font 少女體 or “young girls type”, probably Comic Sans’ closest Chinese relative:


How to watch Hanzi

Having won the Big Nomad Prize at the Urban Nomad Film Festival (Chinese) and organised screenings at schools and companies all around the world including Harvard University, Google, and Twitter, Emily and her team are looking forward to their North American premiere at the Sidewalk Festival in Birmingham, Alabama from 22–27 August. In September, they’ll be in Singapore as Hanzi will be the opening film for A Design Film Festival!

If you’re part of an educational organisation, non-profit organisation, and corporation and wish to screen Hanzi, check out

6 Responses to “Not your typical type”

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