Typotheque’s Peter Bil’ak on How Font Foundries Can Keep Centuries-Old Languages Alive

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Like all clichés, the timeworn phrase “lost in translation,” carries a grain of truth. Every language lacking proper typefaces becomes muted or even silenced in the worldwide conversation. As globalization makes the world feel ever more homogenized, it’s vital to preserve authentic scripts and languages that carry details and nuances of centuries-old cultures.

Georgian (ქართული ენა) is the most widely spoken Kartvelian language and is also the lingua franca for speakers of related Slavic tongues. However, very few commercially available fonts support the Georgian alphabet, and there is scant financial incentive for foundries to design new typefaces for the script’s approximately 4 million users.

But this spring, Typotheque ceremoniously launched 30 new Georgian typefaces with a book, symposium, ten-minute documentary, and exhibition in Tbilisi. The Dutch foundry devoted significant effort and resources to collaborating with native speakers, designers, and academics to reproduce the authentic forms of the Georgian characters. The centuries-old writing script is unique, with 33 letterforms that do not belong to any other series of alphabets.

Multidisciplinary designer and Typotheque founder Peter Bil’ak maintains that typeface development is not merely a commercial enterprise— it has a critical role in preserving valuable cultural and political components of society as well. We spoke with him to hear some additional thoughts.

In your opinion, should large foundries commit more time to creating good quality fonts in languages that are not widely spoken? Or are there enough smaller foundries making the effort to ensure widespread availability of these fonts?

The largest foundry is, of course, Monotype. Their site MyFonts features no Syllabic fonts for the languages of Canada, India, or Africa, and there are just three Georgian fonts there. There is a belief that there is no market for these fonts, and very few people will allocate resources to change it.

How do young type designers learn to create new and authentic typefaces in Georgian, given that there are few advanced teachers?

Indeed, there is interest in type and typography in Georgia, but few places to learn the craft. The people I worked with (Ana Sanikidze and Akaki Razmadze) studied in the West, but now take it as their responsibility to lead initiatives and inspire other designers within the country. Ana and Akaki teach at universities and organize workshops as well. Typotheque is supporting these local events and activities in any way we can.

For alphabets with limited commercial audiences, such as Georgian, does Typotheque recoup its investment of time and resources spent developing and licensing them? Or is it a social, cultural, and political responsibility that Typotheque is happy to take on, regardless of profit (or lack of it)?

We are a small company, and because we receive no outside funding for this kind of work, we have to carefully consider what we can take on before overstretching our resources. This kind of project is funded by our commercial work and sales of Latin fonts. We put 50% of our profits into the development of marginalized writing scripts. In considering the projects, we take into account the impact of the work and the benefits of collaborating with the local community more than the commercial return.

Having said that, I don’t see this work as altruistic— there is a longterm commercial interest too. There are no type foundries in Georgia, so it is a win-win situation for both parties. In our experience, even the smallest writing scripts have a potential to recoup the investment over time. For example, we worked with the indigenous communities of Canada, and the fact that we produced the first fonts that support all the First Nations languages correctly led to large companies buying licenses. We recovered the investment. There are no such expectations, but it is wonderful to see that the value of the work is recognized.

Let’s end with a purposefully loaded question: Why is it important to preserve authentic scripts and languages?

Indeed a loaded question! In our lifetime, we will experience a dramatic loss of languages. Typotheque recently published another complex project addressing the languages of South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), which is one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth, but is projected to lose 80% of their languages by the end of the century.

While the global population keeps growing, the number of languages spoken is declining, leading to less diversity and richness across the planet. With the loss of a language, we lose access to the cultural information and heritage it contains. The world becomes poorer.

Typotheque’s book New Georgian Type
All images via Typotheque