• Jason Tselentis

Behind the Scenes: the Typography of “Black Panther”

When I saw Black Panther opening weekend, I wanted to push pause time and time again. Whether it was a flashback in Oakland or an action scene in Wakanda, there was so much to take in, architecture, characters, clothing, jewelry, transportation, weaponry, technology. Now that it’s available on DVD and as a digital download, I can finally watch it and push pause anytime to study the rich, amazing world that Hannah Beachler and her production design team created for director Ryan Coogler. And one of the things I’ve enjoyed studying is the movie’s typography.

Movie still courtesy of Perception

Just the Right Type

Typographically, Black Panther is a treasure trove of past, present, and future writing systems. It uses the BEYNO typeface for the main titles, as well as the locator cards that announce where a scene takes place. Fabian Korn designed BEYNO about two years ago and you can purchase a copy yourself. When I interviewed Korn, he said that even though he normally leaves the theater when a film ends, he stayed for all of Black Panther, including the closing credits that use his typeface.

Movie stills courtesy of Perception

During that closing title sequence, “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA accompanies the motion graphics designed by Perception, who also created all of the movie’s technology design you see on screen, as well as the locator cards that use the BEYNO and Wakandan typefaces, showing you where a scene takes place. Perception’s partner and co-founder Jeremy Lasky compared the BEYNO typeface to Avenir or Gotham, all of which have a clean, contemporary feel. But BEYNO is unique in that it looks and feels both geometric and futuristic, especially when you see it transform from English into Wakandan, a nifty visual produced by Lasky and his team when locator cards appear. “We developed a technique for the animated translation effect—rather than Wakandan type just wiping to English, we see every character cycle, as if actively decoding the type.” Lasky said they made the transformation appear organic thanks to arbitrary changes to character sections, rather than merely switching from one letter to the next. The end result appears to have bits of each character mechanically pop and click into place, alluding to the mechanical and technological advancements found in Wakanda.

Movie still courtesy of Perception

Lasky calls the closing titles his “favorite piece of typography in the film.” He explained how most title sequences use the pre-existing logotype, the same identity you see on marketing and merchandizing and sometimes comic book mastheads, but for Black Panther, they got the green light from Marvel Studio’s President Kevin Feige to do something different. Lasky explained their approach to the final title. “We maintained the same Wakandan-to-Latin transition concept, but animated each individual component of the Wakandan letterforms so that they reposition to form (a customized version of) the Latin BEYNO type. We added a few standalone shapes (designed to be at the same weight of the other typefaces) that zip across the transitions, adding simple geometric gestures and energy. We were very happy with the resulting effect that gives the final title a little something extra as the film concludes.”

Movie still courtesy of Perception

Going Beneath the Surface

The Wakandan typefaces, including the modern and ancient versions, were created by Hannah Beachler’s production design team. On Twitter she has responded to inquiries about the type, but she was unavailable to answer questions for this article. Zachary Fannin, who was on Beachler’s team, talks about the process that went into the Wakandan typefaces at a very revealing Creative Market interview.

Adam Pypstra’s type design, via Dribbble, courtesy of Adam Pypstra

Thanks to one industrious designer, you can get your hands on Modern Wakanda. After Adam Pypstra saw the movie in the theater, he said he fell in love with the scenery, costumes, typography, and for the most part, the entire on-screen world. Seeing the movie for a second time, Pypstra decided he had to make the Wakandan alphabet himself, and it can be yours. He’s received a lot of positive feedback about his TrueType and OpenType fonts, shared on both Dribbble and Twitter.

Scene from Black Panther, image courtesy of Marvel Studios

But what exactly is Modern Wakandan? Turns out it’s neither a logogram nor syllabary. Mark Jamra called the Modern Wakandan writing system more of an alphabet, since there is a one-to-one mapping between Latin & Wakandan. “There are different kinds of writing systems, alphabets, syllabaries, abugidas, abjads, etc. An alphabet is one where each basic sound of the language (phoneme) is represented by a written form (grapheme). Since the Wakandan script is mapped one-to-one to Latin we presume it is an alphabet.” Type designer and professor Mark Jamra has designed a number of non-Latin typefaces and writing systems with his colleague Neil Patel, including N’ko script, used throughout West Africa for the Manding language. Together Mark & Neil they work as JamraPatel.

Wakandan typeface, image courtesy of Marvel Studios

When viewing the Wakandan typeface, Jamra saw influences from Tifinagh (North Africa), as well as glyphs taken directly from Bamun (Cameroon), N’ko (Guinea), Osmanya (Somalia) and Vai (Liberia). According to Jamra, the Wakandan alphabet is not just a collection of glyphs from various African systems, but it also consists of frequently occurring shapes that are common across many writing systems, including even Nordic runes, Latin, Greek and ancient Phoenician, which Jamra called proto-glyphs. “Proto-glyphs are best described as the basic shapes that humans make and that recur across many writing systems. These are often combinations of horizontal, vertical, diagonal and circular strokes. These forms usually pre-date any means of cursive writing and as a result are very iconic in appearance.” This makes for an angular and geometric look and feel, which Jamra’s colleague, Neil Patel, defined as having a techy feel with futuristic qualities. “This is something we see all the time with the Latin script in sci-fi movies. By stripping the humanity out of the forms and using only uppercase it looks technical to us. It all has to do with the medium it is rendered in. When rendered very crisply on screen it looks futuristic and when created by hand on paper or stone it looks ancient.”

Scene from Black Panther, image courtesy of Marvel Studios

Black Panther illustration, image courtesy of Sanford Greene

For illustrator Sanford Greene, the Wakandan typeface’s angular and jagged qualities evoke Black Panther’s necklace. Greene has worked on Marvel titles and characters on and off over the years, including Black Panther, Powerman and Iron Fist the series, and covers for Spiderman, Punisher, Moon Girl and Inhumans. You could say he knows superheroes, and not only does he draw and illustrate them, but he knows their history. To Greene, the geometric aesthetic found in the Wakandan typeface is also a throwback to Jack Kirby’s illustration style: chunky, bold, and very non-streamlined. Jack Kirby, who created Black Panther with Stan Lee, had an illustration style that was all his own. It was blocky, bulky, and muscular, and his use of varied line weights and contrast is often mimicked, but never truly replicated.

Movie still courtesy of Perception

Back to the Future

In Black Panther, and other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where we see Wakandan culture, its architecture, clothing, transportation, technology, and weaponry, look and feel futuristic, and so do the writing systems. Author and filmmaker Ytasha Womack called the Wakandan typography simultaneously ancient and futuristic. “It denotes a timelessness. Based on imagery alone it appears to communicate messages into the past and into the future simultaneously. However, this messaging isn’t purely encoded in the meaning of the words. The typography itself, the art of the lettering creates this bridge through time. The typography feels like a multilayered code, much like a parable. There is a story in the shape of the lettering itself, a deconstruction of time and space that speaks to the many dimensions of language.” Womack is the author of the book Afrofuturism and director of the award-winning short A Love Letter to the Ancestors From Chicago. She saw Black Panther four times in the theater.

Looking at the Modern Wakandan typeface, you might recognize glyphs that are similar to Latin or even Greek, leading you to believe that Wakandan is based off those pre-existing writing systems. But that would position Wakanda and its development as coming after those cultures—the wrong perspective to take. Instead of considering Wakanda as an outgrowth of Western, European, or Hellenistic/Greek foundations, and in effect, coming after them, it’s important to consider Africa’s historical and cultural significance, as Womack explained in our interview. “Ancient African civilizations predated Greece. Greek philosophers were quite honest about their Egyptian inspirations, and hailed Egypt as an older, wiser kingdom. Ancient Egyptian culture is fundamentally African and an outgrowth of those cultures that were just south and west of it. The fictitious Wakanda is located at the cradle of civilization, according to the map in the film, the site where the earliest of modern human cultures arrived near the horn of Africa. The Black Panther story, one of the son of a king wrestling with his new kingdom and seeking help from the ancestors as he pushes his kingdom forward is an ancient story. But it’s not an ancient story that began with Greece. African and Native Indigenous cultures are usually the missing link in our world’s attempt to understand itself and I’m always fascinated by how African and Indigenous thinking is not referenced as people try to uncover sources and ideas.”

Since Black Panther debuted, it’s been a hit typographically and financially, and in so many more ways. People have been fascinated by the Wakandan writing systems, sparking discussion at a February 2018 Reddit post, Is this Wakandan Lettering accurate? where some hoped a font would be released. Designers like Adam Pypstra did just that. Commercially, the movie has broken one record after another, and Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson goes deep, identifying all the money it’s made. But fandom and record-breaking aside, it’s important to go beneath the surface and recognize the cultural influences and inspirations that went into the movie’s typography. Black Panther’s writing systems and type designs are just one part of a much bigger picture, which Ytasha Womack pointed out in our interview. “One of the reasons Black Panther was so successful is that it introduced mass audiences to a mashup of African and African Diasporic aesthetics in an Afrofuturist mythos. Afrofuturism helps to reclaim the contributions that people of the African Continent and Diaspora have made to philosophy, science, and future thinking in the past, while forwarding the best of those ideas into the future to benefit us all.”

Read more about Black Panther in Michael Dooley’s Beyond Black Panther. And learn about designing for the movies in a two-part special about Clint Schultz, Big Screen Design Part 1 and also Big Screen Design Part 2.

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