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“By hook or by crook” What’s happening in Armenian type?

Armenian script has been there since 5th century, but we hesitated until last December to release Graphik Armenian. How Armenian type design was born? What’s happening in Armenian type today? How Armenian type reflects Armenian culture at large? Here’s what Armenian type designers have to say

January 14, 2021

aram

  • Aram Gyumishyantumo.org
  • Graphic designer. Vice director of the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies and the educational program Tumo Studios. Former creative director of the publishing house Yerevan Productions, art director of the Yerevan magazine

What is wrong with Armenian typefaces? The market is rather empty, there are few of them. We have the need for typefaces, but we haven’t been able to motivate type designers to work on such a small market. Most new typefaces are created as part of practically volunteer efforts, not bringing profit. The reason is that, sadly, we still fail to recognize that typeface is no different from any software that you use as a tool and that you have to pay for. Due to the limited market, Armenian type is developing very slowly. For instance, there is this ancient calligraphic hand, erkatagir, or ‘ironclad letters’, firstly introduced by Mesrop Mashtots Mesrop Mashtots (362–440) was a cleric, hymnologist, theologist, and language scholar. Known as the inventor of Armenian script and the founder of Armenian literature, Mashtots is venerated in Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholic Church himself in the 5th century. In the Soviet period, this script was utilised as a base for developing a classical printing type; most books published in Armenia were set with in it. If you have a Mac, you can have a look at this font, — it’s called Mshtakan. To this day it is still the easiest to read. Armenian typefaces have this problem that all of our letters are arc-shaped, therefore certain of our typefaces are literally putting the reader to sleep. Whereas Mshtakan is a dynamic typeface, each of its elements looks pretty well in the rhythm, almost as well as Latin. It is long outdated, — but there is no decent contemporary alternative to it.

mshtakanMshtakan was designed by Michael Everson, American linguist and type designer, major expert in computer encoding of scripts

Another important thing is poor engineering in lots of typefaces designed in Armenia. They often have serious troubles with various glyphs, ligatures, and so on. Therefore, we might perhaps have 200 typefaces, however 150 out of them would be only display or low-quality. Meaning, that leaves us with 50, tops, that you can do something with. So, we don’t have much choice. There is Fedra Armenian, the corporate typeface at the Tumo Center where I work. Khajag Apelian has a good typeface, Arek, used in the Yerevan magazine. It’s a good thing that Google has launched Noto Armenian. I’m actively using it, as it is relatively predictable. Something can be found in the DejaVu font library. Manvel Shmavonyan from Paratype had several typefaces he did in Armenian.

Fedra

Fedra Sans Armenian was designed by Peter Bilak and Tatevik Aghababyan. The project was awarded Bronze in Best New Design at Granshan in 2010

noto

Noto type system is designed at Monotype for Google Fonts. The end goal of the project is covering all scripts in the world. The Armenian set was designed by Elena Papassissa

You have to be rather careful while making a choice. There’s always a lack of weights. Normally, an Armenian typeface has a small family: regular, semi-bold, italic, semi-bold italic — and that’s it. There is also this problem that sometimes designers are trying to adjust Armenian typefaces so as they match Latin, Cyrillic, or Greek, to make them fit in, — while Armenian letters have their own, particular anatomy. And you should better draw Armenian version in the first place, and then adjust the Latin one to it. Back in Soviet days, Latin script was less influential, — while type designers were more competent than they are today. Armenian typography’s development was rather intense back then. There are certain Soviet typography books still used in Armenia, such as Fred Afrikyan’s The Art of Letter-Type, and his catalogue New Classical and Formal Armenian Fonts.

Fred Africkian, The Art Of Letter-Type (1984). Photos by typeaffair / Flickr

So, we have this conflict: design studios are not willing to produce typefaces, even though they need them, since the efforts won’t pay off. It is very common that Armenian designers do lettering to use it in packaging, for example, or for titles, — and apply standard fonts for anything else. And there are very few quality, multi-purpose options — for a text layout, with a large amount of glyphs, ligatures. Probably, we need state subsidies for designing typefaces. I even think there’s already been some steps made in this direction. For one, there is a company called GHEA Fonts, headed by Edik Ghabuzyan, founder of the Granshan Non-Latin Typeface Design Competition. At one point, our authorities decided to release two of his fonts for public access, for using them in all official paperwork: GHEA Mariam serif, and GHEA Grapalat sans serif. It helped the government clear all the document flow of non-Unicode typesetting and solve this problem when you opened a contract and saw only jumbled text symbols. Another option that could work, other than government support, is to use symbiosis of scripts — to develop Latin typefaces which would be relevant in the market, and draw Armenian versions for them. This is the way the Greek company Parachute works. They design Greek and Cyrillic sets for their typefaces, even though customers mainly buy their fonts to use Latin version.

What is the strength of Armenian typefaces? The good thing about them is that Armenians are very protective of their language and wouldn’t stop drawing new typefaces. They learn as early as at school that our alphabet and our language are at the heart of Armenian national identity. In some way we are losing our language — in the large Armenian diaspora each generation speaks less and less Armenian and therefore doesn’t use Armenian letters for communication. However, Armenian people fight for preserving their language by hook or by crook. Sometimes we even see some weird situations arising, where this protection becomes somewhat unnatural.

khajag

  • Khajag Apeliandebakir.com
  • Khajag designed Arek, a typeface that was awarded the Grand Prize at Granshan 2010 Design Competition, and was among the winners of Letter.2, the second international type design competition organized by ATypI. He currently operates under the name Debakir, Armenian for printed type, he teaches design courses at the American University of Beirut (since 2012) and at Tumo Center in Yerevan

To understand the state of Armenian typography and type design, one has to understand the demographics of Armenians. Roughly there’s around 10 million Armenians around the world. Out of which, around 3 million live in Armenia, 1 million in Russia. USA, Canada, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria are also countries with strong Armenian communities. But you notice the numbers are quite low. And more than half, if not less, of this number of people actually end up using the Armenian script in their daily lives. All this to say, the Armenian script does not have as many users as Latin and this affects the development of the script in terms of technology. It’s a kind of supply and demand situation. Demand is low, supply gets low automatically. Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft or Adobe will care about your script if they can make sure that they will get something in return. Only recently Apple included the Armenian keyboard. Adobe still doesn’t support the language. I still get frustrated that I cannot hyphenate Armenian text automatically with InDesign because the application does not support the language.

Having grown up between Dubai and Beirut, and being raised in an Armenian family, I have an affinity for different languages and writing systems, which I have applied to the development of typefaces in many scripts, including Arabic, Armenian, and Latin. Armenian isn’t really a complex script in comparison to Arabic for instance. Armenian has a lot of similarities with the Latin, regardless if the effect is considered “good” or “bad”. It is what it is.

Today, there are two distinguished centers of Armenian type design — Armenia and the Diaspora. Or perhaps I would say Eastern and Western Armenians. What I notice that happens in these two “worlds” (it’s actually something Hrant Papazian pointed out in one of his talks): Armenians in the diaspora have a very strong “mission”, which is to preserve the Armenian culture, in order to survive and one day go back to our lands. Regardless if this is realistic or not, it’s something that has been in our lives, in our systems. We have been taught and raised to be survivors. If you look at the work produced by Armenians in the diaspora, it’s much more routed in its history, backed with arguments that affect the shape of some letters to make it look “more Armenian”. Whereas in Armenia, the state of mind is entirely different. There is a country and a culture that is not threatened. The urge of survival is not as strong. This results to an aesthetic that is “free”-er and can borrow a lot of shapes from the Latin or the Cyrillic. And sometimes this can create small clashes of preferences and debates around the idea of “What is Armenian?” or “Is this considered contemporary or traditional and old?”.

There aren’t many type designers proficient in Armenian script. And there’s a very low demand of high quality Armenian typefaces, in comparison to what we’re used to in the Latin or even the Arabic world these days. Nevertheless, the awareness and interest in this is rising. A lot of foundries are considering including Armenian adaptations of their current libraries. I was consulting Peter Bilak on the Armenian adaptation of the Typotheque library. Ping Armenian is the first release of that series. Rarely but surely some big corporations are taking into consideration our script to include in their systems and applications. Some institutions are funding projects to support the script as well. I would say generally this is still not enough. We have a very rich culture with a beautiful potential to delve into research and draw beautiful and high quality letters. I try to spread my knowledge to recruit Armenian type designers. I have been giving a series of workshops on the matter at Tumo Center with kids aged between 12 and 18. Overall I’m hopeful.

Arek by Khajag Apelian

ping

Ping is Typotheque’s most global font project yet. Apart from Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, the typeface is now available in Hebrew, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, and Armenian (and there are more scripts coming.) Ping Armenian (as well as Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek) was designed by Peter Bilak, who was consulted by Khajjag Apelian and Gor Jihanian

Graphik Armenian by Khajag Apelian is the first Armenian typeface on type.today

edik

We have very few typefaces, especially when it comes to quality ones. It’s not like with Cyrillic or Latin, where we are talking about tens of thousands now. Starting from Mesrop Mashtots and to these days there are not even over a thousand typefaces, digitized and usable on computers. As for quality typefaces, it’s not more than one hundred.

During the collapse of the USSR, we were witnessing a computerisation boom in all areas, including type industry. Armenian type masters who hadn’t a proper knowledge of computers, — Fred Afrikyan, Henrik Mnatsakyan, Khachik Samvelyan — were not prepared to this, so it was several enthusiasts who decided to step in: Ruben Tarumyan, Pavel Dalakyan and myself. We were really willing to assist our people in this difficult moment. Back then, Armenia was in fact too busy with other things going on to handle the type situation: politics, Spitak earthquake, war in Nagorno-Karabakh. We designed our typefaces without even assuming that one day we would be selling them. We just gave our works away to publishing houses and entrepreneurs, so they could print books, newspapers, and magazines in Armenian language. And it was very poor quality typefaces. Me, for one, I wasn’t a type designer, I was a mathematician and programmer by profession. I’m sorry, but now when I look at my first typefaces, it makes me sick. Later, over the years, we figured out what it was all about, and so now, I believe, we are producing proper typefaces.

Sans-serif Grapalat and serif Mariam are the standard paperwork types in Armenia

As it happens, I am almost a monopolist in Armenia. Two of my typefaces, GHEA Mariam and GHEA Grapalat, are now considered national: they are utilised for all the paper flow in our republic. Three of my typefaces were purchased by the city administration of Yerevan: GHEA Yerevan, GHEA Yerevan Sans, and GHEA Erebuni. Most of our media sources are using my products, too. But there are also very good typefaces by Anzhela Pogosova, Grachui Grigoryan, Lianna Simonyan. All of them earlier worked at our Book Chamber that has a specific type development department which I headed, and they constructed highly decent and proper Armenian typefaces.

I am a professor at State Academy of Fine Arts, teaching students how to make fonts at Fontlab. For seven years now, we have had a specific separate discipline Type Design at the Department of Computer Design. So now there are plenty of young and really talented students who are trying hard, creating new typefaces. They participate in international competitions: for example, Pangram Competition organized by Kharkiv Academy of Fine Arts. They also submit their works to our Granshan, sometimes even making it to the prize level. As a matter of fact, it is not easy to win the prize on Granshan. For the first two years, we were somehow fostering local designers, but then decided to set the international bar of quality and strictly hold on to it: it doesn’t matter who the author is and where he comes from, what is important is their work. We have ten categories in our competition, and among these there is a separate category for Armenian typefaces — and it embraces both mass market and display typefaces.

The initial goal of Granshan competition — we have been carrying it out since 2008, — was to correct our own mistakes and to clear Armenian type design from what we had done with it with our own hands earlier. We decided to do an international contest to attract the attention of foreign designers. Many of those started making Armenian typefaces: Carolyn Puzzovio from the UK, Ecuadorian Juan Casco. We even received works from Mexico. But mostly the evolvement of our type design has been happening here in Armenia. However, we have only 30-40 smart designers at most. And Armenia’s market of typefaces is still not well developed. Here, people more often rather engage in piracy ways of acquiring fonts than buy it. Some designers go to court to protect their rights. Take the same Tarumyan who pressed charges several times and a couple of times actually won the case. My typefaces also get stolen, but I ignore it, because I don’t want to get myself in the mess of judicial proceedings. Large publishing companies find me by themselves and pay properly. As regards small publishers, they are trying hard to make ends meet, and I am not willing to go after them. And, for the most part, everyone uses what they have. I’ve not yet heard about someone commissioning a typeface.

Our typography is divided in two: type design in Armenia, where the majority of designers are based, and the one in the international Armenian diaspora — where such designers as Hrant Papazian, Khajag Apelian, Gor Jihanian, several other successors, live and work. In the diaspora, Armenian type is developing in a slightly different way; we have some minor discrepancies with them. Like, they are drawing հ (ho) the old-fashioned way The ho in Graphik, Noto Sans and in historical calligraphic styles
ho
 — borrowed its forms from the Medieval writing style poluerchir and rounded the letter’s left main stroke. But in roman faces, their հ doesn’t look very nice. So, for example, Noto Sans, — the Armenian version of which was designed by the Italian, Elena Papassissa, — is simply not seen as a quality typeface in Armenia, even though it is really good in its Latin script part.

Each, even the smallest community within the national diaspora, runs its own publishing house. Books, newspapers, magazines in Armenian language are published all over the world: in the US, Canada, in the Middle East. Websites in Armenian are created everywhere. However, type is not just about printing and contents — it is also a highly important element of design, and the current need for decent typefaces is very acute. This affects the level of today’s Armenian design, as without high-quality and properly selected typefaces there can be no good design. We are thinking about launching another international competition, a contest of typographic posters, graphic communication, graphic design, with an objective of raising the level of those things in Armenia, bringing them closer to current global standards. We intended to start as early as this year (2020 — Editor’s note) — but the COVID-19 has interfered with our plans. Yet, we will definitely bring this idea to life soon.

gor

  • Gor Jihaniangor.design
  • Independent type designer. Holds an MA in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, where he began his active engagement in the research and development of Armenian typefaces. Gor is passionate about sharing his script expertise through type consultation and education, previously conducting a series of type design workshops at the TUMO Center in Yerevan

In the early ’90s, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of digital fonts, there was an innovative spirit shared by programmers, designers, and linguists who were working tirelessly to ensure the Armenian script and language would be adopted into the new computer technology. A number of fonts were produced in the newly independent Armenia and throughout the Diaspora with this same goal in mind. A devastating period of blockade and war brought stagnation — the effects of which are still felt today.

Armenia, the country, has a small population of around 3 million people and across the Diaspora, there are about 7 million — making for a relatively small market. In terms of cultural heritage, the immediate challenge of how language is transferred, especially in the Diaspora communities worldwide, makes the design of new Armenian typefaces absolutely imperative.

Two years have passed since the Armenian revolution and we are at another turning point. There is a new generation of designers and cultural workers coming up who have a positive vision of the future, and they understand the importance that type and typography can have in it. Technology is constantly changing and the fonts haven’t been able to keep up. There are not many new Armenian fonts being released and what is there is not enough to handle the challenges facing the language today. I work almost exclusively on typefaces which support Armenian and Latin. In order to perform in a global context, it is crucial that contemporary Armenian typefaces develop as part of multi-script type families. That’s why one of my favourite projects was collaborating with David Jonathan Ross to design Fit Armenian.

The super-display Fit was conceived by David Johnatan Ross, who designed Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek sets. Fit Armenian, designed by Gor Jihanian, was inspired by headstones in the ancient Armenian cemetery of Surat (India)

In Spindle, Gor Jihanian combines Armenian set, inspired by ancient manuscripts, with reverse-contrast Latin from old-time American ephemera

Вyron was Gor Jihanian’s final student project at MATD Reading

In Armenian type design, there is only a handful professionals, however, a growing number of people are embracing the script through the lettering arts. If people would ask where to find quality fonts, and I would point them to independent foundries that I admire for championing world scripts — Typotheque, TypeTogether, Rosetta. I appreciate work that progresses and challenges the script while respecting its traditions — among my favourites is Arek by Khajag Apelian. Its approach of distinguishing scripts and styles, as well as, novel use of OpenType features was influential when I was a student and still continues to be.

From the beginning of the first Armenian printed book in Venice in 1512, Diaspora communities spearheaded literary progress. The fascinating history is documented in John Lane’s book The Diaspora of Armenian Printing, 1512—2012. Hrant Papazian has an insightful article about this situation — an analogy of two islands: one landlocked, the other the size of Pangæa. While one island is searching for exchange with the West, the other is struggling to transfer the language to the next generation. I come to type design with a sort of unique perspective because I have one foot on each island. Quick biography: I was born in Armenia, raised in Los Angeles, moved to Colorado where I completed my undergrad in architecture. After graduating in 2012, after 20 years, I travelled back to Armenia — a trip which was supposed to be a few weeks turned into several years and brought me closer to the people, history, and language. It was there that I discovered the need for Armenian typefaces which led me to the MA Type Design program at the University of Reading. After the program, I returned to Yerevan with a unique opportunity to teach type design to a talented group of teenagers at the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies. Currently, I am in a state of flux, constantly living and travelling between the US and Armenia. I see this situation as an opportunity for connecting the broad experiences from the global type network with on-the-ground experiences of the local design community.

The number of design opportunities in Armenian is relatively small, putting pressure on studios to focus their creative energy on other markets and scripts. When projects do arise, there is still the reality of not-enough-fonts which is reflected in the diversity of the visual language. But a benefit of designing for a relatively small user community is the potential for an effort to have a meaningful impact. There is also the opportunity of connecting and receiving feedback directly from the design community. It’s like a small village, word spreads fast. I’ll never forget, one evening, I was walking down the street and spotted Fit Armenian used on a tote bag. I rush over to ask them if I could take a picture and half-way through an awkward explanation, the person cuts me off and says, “Oh, you’re Gor!”.

All the designers answered our questions in spring and summer 2020

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