Artemy Lebedev

§ 183. The secret of Chinese design

December 28, 2015

Chinese design is well-known all over the world for its ridiculous texts and monstrous typefaces, equally ugly in any language.

Text quality is easy to explain—the Chinese are bad at foreign languages, so they use dictionaries and machine translation. No doubt that if the reader tries to translate a Chinese text using a dictionary, they’ll get a similarly poor result.

Many tried to find the answer to the question “where do the Chinese get such ugly fonts?” The hieroglyphs are pleasant to look at, but Latin and Cyrillic characters are always shamelessly hideous. Cyrillic texts get far less attention, because Cyrillic is used by ten times less people across the globe.


The answer has always been right under our nose. Chinese fonts come preinstalled on our computers, and they have been there for quite a long time, since the beginning of the 1990s. We just never choose them from the list. Otherwise we’d notice that all the characters except hieroglyphs are ugly as sin.

All Chinese fonts are produced by one company, SinoType. It has only a few clients and doesn’t even have a website. But that’s not a problem, because the clients are Apple, Adobe, Microsoft and Google. All these companies’ products feature Chinese fonts designed by this one company.

One font contains tens of thousands of hieroglyphs. All Latin and Cyrillic characters (including both uppercase and lowercase letters) together make up a couple of hundred symbols. When SinoType started, they put European characters in their fonts only for the purpose of compatibility. The company had no money, using existing fonts was not a possibility, so their type designers half-assedly redrew Times and Garamond, so that European characters won’t be displayed as tofu.

Housekeeping tip

White boxes that appear when there’s no image for some characters in a font are called “tofu” because of their striking resemblance to the bean curd of the same name.

⎕⎕⎕ ⎕⎕ ⎕⎕⎕ ⎕⎕⎕⎕⎕⎕⎕

Clients that order Chinese fonts live in the world where there are hundreds and thousands of typefaces. But the Chinese only have a couple of dozens fonts. The Americans could never imagine that someone would use technical symbols in typesetting, and it has never occurred to the Chinese to use all the riches of European design each time they needed some Latin characters. That is why they continued to use the same five typefaces, where non-Chinese parts are ugly as hell.

It’s no secret that China is an eager source of fake European goods. Now the time has come to strike back—let’s copy Chinese design!

Let’s take any text, for example: “As beautiful as is the dawn over the rice fields, so ugly are the Chinese Cyrillic fonts,” and run it through a machine translation system a couple of times.


Chinese fonts are monospaced, which means that all hieroglyphs fit into a square box of the same size. A monospaced Cyrillic text doesn’t look good, so any self-respecting Chinese designer would squeeze it together to minimize the spaces. That’s it:


It’s ironic how the European civilization itself encouraged one and a half billion people to use improper Latin. Furthermore, it failed to timely acknowledge and fix the problem. Only last year, the first font aimed to provide a consistent look across all languages was released, with Latin characters and hieroglyphs designed to look equally beautiful. But even when this font will be installed on all computers in the world, it’s worth remembering that it will still be the only one. Ugly fonts on Chinese products will haunt us for many generations to come.

Adobe and Google cooperated to create a superfont that supports all languages, but failed to come to an agreement and each released it under a different name (Noto and Source Sans). The Google’s version is fuller and freer.

In the meantime, let’s continue to master Chinese design.

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