Monotype Acquires Fontworks: An Interview with Creative Type Director, Akira Kobayashi

Posted inType Tuesday

Last month, Monotype announced the acquisition of Fontworks in Japan. Founded in 1993, focusing on creating a “new culture” through type, Fontworks’ inventory of 260 font styles will sit alongside classics such as Helvetica and Futura Now.

Fontworks has shaped Japanese culture for the last thirty years. An impressive ninety-five percent of Japanese television stations use Fontworks’ fonts, and ninety-eight percent of the fonts used by Japan’s top 10 video game makers are from the company’s catalog. The acquisition is Monotype’s first in Japan, representing an increasing global demand for Japanese type design and multiscript typefaces.

We sat down with Akira Kobayashi, Creative Type Director at Monotype and 2022 Type Directors Club Medal winner, to discuss the acquisition and his thoughts on this new era of global type design.

With over 40 years in the industry, what trends are you most excited about in global typography?

Akira Kobayashi (AK): When I joined Linotype GmbH in 2001 as a type director for Latin typefaces, my ability to read and write in Japanese was not questioned at all, let alone to design Japanese types. Now, I’m collaborating with type designers in East Asia to develop Japanese and Chinese fonts. Designers who can work multilingually, particularly in Latin and Asian languages, are very much sought after. That’s one of the most significant changes I have seen, and I’m excited about it.

Akira Kobayashi and Adrian Frutiger

What’s a great example of English lettering (or other Latin language) in conversation with Japanese?

AK: I happened to pick up this book (Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus’: Five Lectures by Nitobe Inazo) while casually browsing the shelves of a small secondhand bookshop in my hometown in Japan. I still remember my heart beating faster when I opened it – the words in English here are set in Granjon (Linotype, 1928–1931), one of my favourite typefaces. The Japanese and Latin types are successfully integrated without distorting either form. This is a perfect marriage of Japanese and Latin types!

Photo: Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus’: Five Lectures by the late Dr Inazo Nitobé. Edited by Yasaka Takagi. Kenkyusha, 1938.
Photo: Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus’: Five Lectures by the late Dr Inazo Nitobé. Edited by Yasaka Takagi. Kenkyusha, 1938.

What should designers look for in a culture of increasingly globalized design?

AK: If you visit Japan, you’ll find that many of the important messages in English are quite difficult to read because of inappropriate choice or use of the type. The same thing can be said with information in Japanese found in Western countries. When you design or typeset something written in an unfamiliar language, just ask a person who uses it.

Where do you see the design of Japanese lettering going next? And how does that track with some of the trends you see in Western type?

AK: Just like I joined Linotype in 2001 as a specialist in Latin type design, in the future, there will be more people who are not from Japan designing Japanese fonts.

What does accessibility mean when bringing Western and Eastern lettering systems together? Is there a concern about diluting culture?

AK: Diluting culture? On the contrary. When you have more access to other languages cultures, you’ll have more opportunities to think of your own culture as well as others. That happened to me in 1989 when I went to London for the very first time in my life – I was overwhelmed by the cultural difference between the two countries, and I wanted to know Japanese culture much more than before.

I think ‘diluting’ might happen when a person does not have enough understanding or respect for script which looks exotic to him or her. Unfortunately, it did happen in Japan in the mid-twentieth century, the photocomposition era, when Latin alphabets were reshaped – or deformed – to make them more suitable to Japanese texts.

In general, a Japanese font character set mainly consists of kanas, kanji, and Latin glyphs. Japanese glyphs are designed in almost full size on an em-square, while an average Latin glyph has letters with different heights, e.g., uppercase letters, lowercase letters with ascender or descender, and lowercase letters with no extenders that occupy less than half of the height of the square. Because of such structural differences, Western words tend to look much smaller than Japanese in a mixed composition. The type designers in Japan drew a set of Latin alphabet, usually based on a rehash of a pre-existing design, but with extremely short descenders so that many Western words match the size and the height of Japanese. Most phototype foundries in Japan had to take this solution due to technical limitations, and it has been the de facto standard since then. It has a major disadvantage – the shortened descenders on the g, j, p, q, and y affect the overall appearance of words set in the Latin alphabet, and it makes them less comfortable to read, but they did not pose a major problem because English words rarely appeared in Japanese texts until the 1990s.

When I was assigned to the director of our first new Japanese typeface, Tazugane Gothic, I did not want to follow the ‘standard’ of the phototype era in Japan.

We have seen more and more Western words or names used in Japanese text and have felt the high demand for Japanese fonts equipped with decent Latin glyphs. Since we have a huge library of classic Latin typefaces developed over a long time, it is quite natural for us to start developing new Japanese designs inspired by our existing Western font, which had already stood the test of time. Our solution was to combine scaled-up Latin glyphs that retained their original, legible letterform.

However, this option was not an easy choice either; namely, the size and the baseline of the enlarged Latin had to be calculated to balance text in Japanese and Western words comfortably.

What do you wish designers knew more about Japanese typography? Or non-Western/non-Latin language systems?

AK: In Japan, we use three different scripts: kanji, hiragana, and katakana, all mixed in one sentence, but this is nothing particular to the Japanese typography. In Western countries, we use the Latin alphabet, which is a good mixture of upper- and lowercase letters, italic types, and ‘Arabic’ numerals, which came from the Arabs who adopted the system from India more than a thousand years ago.

The biggest difference is that an East Asian ideograph, namely a Chinese hanzi character, a Korean hanja, or a Japanese kanji, is a word in itself, while in most Western languages, a single letter hardly carries anything meaningful. So, when you pick one good-looking character out of your favourite Asian script, I would recommend asking a person who uses the language and making sure it does not have any negative connotation. Believe me, I have seen many embarrassing mistakes so far.

In your mind, how does type shape culture and vice versa?

AK: Type is a tool of communication. A couple of centuries ago, our writing tools were limited mostly to pens or brushes, and they hugely affected the forms of our letters. In the twenty-first century, we use digital types almost every day to get information or express ourselves. Monotype has been one of the top tool suppliers in the Western world. Now, we have a new series of tools made by Fontworks, which has been creating Japanese typefaces that have become the pinnacle of trends for more than two decades.

It’s fun just to think about the many thousands of ways to combine Latin and Japanese. I believe that out of this will emerge what has the potential to become the culture of a new era.