It was the industrious scholars of the Qin Dynasty who took upon themselves the arduous task of unifying disparate Chinese writing systems into a single structure. But good things come to those who wait and, by 700 A.D., their work had paid off, reaching full maturity.

But, aside from the Songti stylistic updates facilitated by the advent of the printing block, that was pretty much it for a while.

The only other major development in Chinese characters would happen in the 1950s and 60s when The People’s Republic of China simplified the writing system to make it easier to learn. Well, I say easier. To be able to understand a newspaper, a reader needs to have a repertoire of around 2,000 characters. If that’s novel, another 1,000 are needed. A well-spoken person will read and write around 3,500 characters.

Chinese font research studies. Image credit: Justfont

But now another wave of change is afoot, prompted by the arrival of the digital age. In that context, developing digital Chinese fonts is a colossal undertaking: 7,000 glyphs for simplified Chinese and over 13,000 for traditional (used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) – with an average design and development timeframe of 2 years.

So it’s not a big surprise that major Chinese brands – known for their extreme pace and pragmatism – may find it hard to justify the investment in proprietary fonts. But the exact opposite is happening, with Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, Vivo and Oppo recently launching bespoke font families to great fanfare.

The reason goes beyond supply and demand. Granted, the number of commercial fonts available in Chinese is rather limited when compared to Latin languages. And that is especially true for fonts that can perform well on-screen, meaning that if you’re a Chinese technology giant with a global outlook, you probably don’t want to use the same font as your competitor. Differentiation comes into play.

Chinese Brands are Quickly Learning That Recognition is not Limited to Logos

Amongst the various components that make up an identity, tailor-made fonts have the power of unifying the brand experience online and offline, as well as, infusing the brand with a unique voice. That’s why companies as diverse as Audi, the BBC and Lush have proprietary font families.

Tencent global font family. Image credit: Tencent/Monotype

Tencent’s global font design, led by Monotype, was crafted to give the brand a progressive voice in Chinese, Japanese, Cyrillic and Latin languages. Taking cue from the Tencent wordmark, gently italicized characters – unusual in Chinese – convey the idea of ‘leading the future’. The result is a hard-working brand asset that delivers on uniqueness, legibility and recognition.

Oppo Sans. Image credit: Oppo/Pentagram

Oppo, following the footsteps of Huawei to become a global brand, invested in a font family that was optimized for mobile screens. The characters were crafted to ensure complete consistency between Chinese and Latin scripts to avoid the mismatch often seen when languages co-exist in communication.

Alibaba Sans. Image credit: Alibaba

Alibaba took it one step further by creating a family that can be used free of charge by any of its partners and sellers, maximizing the longevity and return on investment of their newly created brand asset.

None of the examples above are purely aesthetic exercises – they are deeply linked to business goals and brand strategy. The right time to invest is usually when these are being defined.

What Should Chinese Brands Consider When Commissioning Bespoke Fonts?

Find your voice

Language is an incredibly powerful asset because it’s a true reflection of culture. And it’s not only what you say but how you say it. The design of characters, combined with verbal attributes, gives a brand a unique voice that contributes to awareness and recognition. This voice is determined by the brand personality which is, in turn, the result of brand strategy. Greatness doesn’t happen by chance.

Go mobile first

Even simplified Chinese characters will contain multiple strokes and great intricacy. In that sense, smartphone screens are the ultimate litmus test for any Chinese font – irrespective of the sector in which the brand operates. Everything in China is done by mobile.

Think global

Chinese brands with global ambitions should never design in isolation. But this also applies to international brands coming into China, meaning that Chinese characters should match design features of Latin type such as stroke width and X-height to deliver a consistent brand voice regardless of language.

As the Chinese consumer becomes more sophisticated, greater pressure will be put on businesses to invest in design that can deliver relevance. While bespoke typography is just one of the many tools available to brands, it has the power of enhancing recognition and standing the test of time.

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