Fonts of the Era, the Era of Fonts Interview with the Master of Fonts Sammy Or

PTU News Reporter

What comes into sight when you look up amidst the crowds of a city? Signboards, billboards, slogans? In the eyes of the master of font design Sammy Or, it is all beauty – because fonts are the beauty of the city. ‘When the economy was bad and times were rough, there was no demand. But as the economy flourishes, luxury is desired to adorn our surroundings. There are many forms of aesthetics, among which is fonts.’

Fonts reflect the times. Beiwei Zansyu used to be the most popular font for signboards in the early years in Hong Kong, which reflects the pragmatism in the industrial era. As the society shifts and with the commencement of the MTR, the font Mr Or designed, MTR Song, witnessed the flourish of the economy and the rise of pragmatism. In the post-industrial era, the fact that life became easier is manifested in the rounder fonts. Recent years have seen the rise of Kickass Type, which represents the new generation’s toughness.

Fonts tell the story of the times. What about our times? The PTU invited Mr Or to modify our logo and fonts. He also shared with us his thoughts on the development and education of Chinese fonts.

Life in Words

If Cangjie invented Chinese words, then Mr Or digitised them. He was among the first who designed Chinese fonts and has been involved in the creation of more than 100 sets of fonts, including the most commonly used DF Girl and DFSoZing-B5. Not only have his works shaped the digital ecosystems of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, their influence has even reached Korea. In the 80s, he travelled multiple times to Korea to train locals in using font design software so that Korean characters could be digitalised.

Mr Or’s career began in the MTR stations and quickly expanded to China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. He has devoted more than 30 years to the art of fonts.

As a professional in the advertisement industry, Mr Or started working for the MTR in 1978 and was assigned to design the font to be used inside MTR stations. As he adopted the typeface Song, the font he designed was named MTR Song. He is always open to changes when it comes to fonts. ‘MTR Song was symbolic of its times, but has been fading in a sense. New times call for new fonts. Fonts fulfill their duties by representing their times and their job is done as times change. We must record these changes and catch up with the times.’

Every era has its own fonts. As times change, fonts are succeeded by new designs. Mr Or’s interest lies in preserving and passing on the beauty of Chinese words.

The signs inside MTR stations now mostly adopted “MTR Song”. The first version of MTR Song was created by Sammy Or, now replaced by the third version.

Appreciating the Beauty of Chinese Characters

The culture of font appreciation is far less rich in Hong Kong than that in its western counterparts. In the West, magazines design their own fonts to create personalities. In Hong Kong, they mostly adopt existing fonts to save costs.

During his time teaching Chinese font design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), students’ lack of knowledge in fonts came to his attention. Even those who studied design failed to differentiate between the most basic Song and East Asian Gothic typefaces.

He has devoted much of his life to digitalising Chinese words, but digitalisation became a distraction for students. ‘Without computers, we used to do everything with our own hands and that is how we learnt the principles. Computers and tools make our lives easier, but it is only true as long as we do not forget the basics. Students nowadays know nothing about how things work. The computer does everything for them. There is no need for them to learn about the process. All they know is the results. That is the worst.’

He deems learning about arts a prerequisite to the appreciation of fonts, but local education has yet to catch up. In class, he practises calligraphy with students to facilitate understanding of the structure of Chinese words. In recent years, he established a theory in which the characters “three(三)”, “moon(月)” and “grass(草)” are used to dissect the structure of Chinese words. These three characters represent the traditional format of Chinese words. The distribution of blank spaces, the length of strokes, and the stress of each character combine to produce different aesthetic effects.

Instinctual Design

Mr Or is an inspiration to many who came after him. DF Girl, a typeface most popular among teachers, only came into existence thanks to his instinct.

During his career creating fonts for DynaComware in Taiwan, he caught a girl from another department writing. ‘Her writing was very cute. My gut told me it had great potential as a font. At the time when Song, East Asian Gothic Typeface, and regular script were the basics, it seemed like a breakthrough. I took her into my department and asked her to write characters, which I then dissected and analysed to develop into the typeface today.’ He joked the girl was punished to copy more than a thousand characters. And he became the eye for this pearl as he helped her develop her career in font design. To this day, she is still a font designer.

He returned to Hong Kong and became a teacher in 2008. Chinese font design had gained popularity over the 11 years he was gone, but he was still the only teacher who taught Chinese font design at university.

Despite the environment, he never loses hope. He always manages to find one or two students who share his interests. When he comes across such students, he adopts the modern approach of apprenticeship – by working together with the students, he teaches them all he knows. Many of his students became font designers. Julius Hui, a student who assisted him in designing Xin Gothic, has won multiple international awards as a font designer. He is also the creator of Sora Mincho. Another student Adonian Chan, on the other hand, devotes himself to preserving the classics and has published a book that studies the local BeiWei Zansyu.

A Lesson for the Teachers

The beauty of words is often manifested at school. Mr Or offers unique insight into everything font, even for something as minor as signs. Designing signs requires a vivid imagination and an emphasis on visual distance. Signs have to be designed from the students’ perspective and must be noticeable even at the turns of corners.

He points at the sign he designed for the Jockey Club Innovation Tower at PolyU. It is made with Xin Gothic, minimalistic, and easy to read. It serves both the purpose of a sign and the beauty of fonts. These little characters carry with them thousands of years of knowledge. Times change. Beauty does not.