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“Georgian typography is now catching up” What’s happening in Georgian type?

Having released Graphik Georgian, we decided to learn more about today’s Georgian typography. What was lost during the first years of independence, why getting commission for a corporate typeface is easier than releasing a retail one, and what happens next — in the words of Georgian graphic and type designers

January 21, 2021

Milestone

June 2018 saw an important development for Georgian typography: after many years of exchanging letters, the Unicode World Standard included glyphs for Mtavruli, one of Georgian scripts which can be (although just barely) compared to capital letters in Cyrillic or Latin. The writing system always uses lowercase, but there is a style which Georgians apply as all caps, and that is exactly Mtavruli — without ascenders and descenders, all glyphs being the same height. It is widely used for titles, but the script used to have no encoding in Unicode. To emphasize a text in capital letters, one had to change a font.

Before the Mtavruli update, Unicode was already fitted with three Georgian writing systems: Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri, and Mkhedruli. The first two are ancient church scripts, now mostly used by Georgian Orthodox Church in iconography, religious wall paintings and elsewhere when it’s crucial to emphasize ancientness — pretty much like uncial and semi-uncial in Latin. In ordinary life, Georgians use mostly Mkhedruli — it goes back to the 11th century when the script was used in the majority of non-religious, secular texts, as it is easier to read.

Images from the National Archives of Georgia

As compared to Asomtavruli and Nuskhuri, which have both uppercase and lowercase letters, Mkhedruli always had only one case. It was not until the middle of the XIXth century that Mtavruli saw creation of particular typefaces for capital letters. With the use of Mtavruli, Georgian educator and writer Iakob Gogebashvili typeset his Deda Ena — illustrated children’s primer, later used for teaching children how to read and to write in all Georgian schools. Georgian typewriters were equipped with both Mkhedruli and Mtavruli, similarly with lower- and uppercase in other scripts. But since the 1920s Mtavruli was applied only in typesetting titles and other all-caps situations.

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Deda Ena, 1900. Titles are set in Mtavruli, as well as first letter of each new sentence

Mtavruli and Mkhedruli (above and below, respectfully) at H&M in Tbilisi. The bespoke Georgian font was designed by Akaki Razmadze

It was a number of type designers based in Georgia who have been able to make their case and persuade Unicode — whose experts initially argued that Mtavruli was the same as Mkhedruli, but bigger and without ascenders and descenders. In a voluminous application sent to Unicode in May 2016, they presented the argument based on the history of Georgian script, as well as on modern practices in terms of using different styles. Georgian users often combine Mtavruli and Mkhedruli. Mtavruli is seen on banknotes, coins, street signs and labels, in newspapers and books. But if one design had both styles, you had to create two separate font files. Today in some modern typefaces you can call up Mtavruli glyphs using All Caps.

Mkhedruli and Mtavruli in Photoshop

Lagging behind

“Georgia has its own script with a centuries-long history and tradition in printing and typography. However, our type industry is lagging far behind contemporary trends in this area, and this is probably the main problem that Georgian designers are still trying to fix to this day in the first place,” comments type designer Akaki Razmadze. He was among those who filed the Unicode application. Creating Mtavruli coding was only one step of many to be taken towards bringing Georgian typography closer to the latest technologies.

By the time of the USSR’s collapse, Georgian book printing was way behind this technology in Western Europe, agrees the Professor of Georgian Technical University Giga Khatiashvili, who has started his career as a designer in the 1990s: “It was primarily due to our archaic technology infrastructure. In Soviet Georgia, there were many interesting book artists and illustrators, they created their own type. However, it was mostly calligraphy and display lettering for decoration purposes. The foundation for constructing Georgian typeface design had been laid in the 1940s and 50s by Lado Grigolia, Professor at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts who designed some 400 pieces of work, now considered classics of Georgian type.” Besides the Academy of Arts, these works were also conducted at the Tbilisi branch of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNIITE).

Works of Lado Grigolia

But in the 1990s, says Khatiashvili, the country experienced a generation gap, and many practices and groundwork got lost. One of leading specialists, Anton Dumbadze who worked on mass-production typefaces, founder and head of Lab of The New Type, could have shared his experience with young designers, but he died in a tragic car accident. Another key figure was Besarion Gugushvili who was first to digitize a number of Georgian typefaces and thus contributed to the golden age of Georgian underground press (samizdat) during Perestroika. Gugushvili was appointed a Prime Minister of the independent Georgia by the President Zviad Gamsakhurdia — since 1993, after the end of Civil War, he lives abroad. Although other designers also started to work on digital fonts, by the second half of the 1990s they were able to digitize only a dozen of typefaces, mostly display ones. “The work was being hampered by regular power supply shortages. The typefaces were being developed by enthusiasts who sat in state institutions — where power supply was more stable. Digitalization of publishing houses wasn’t progressing. There was no demand for new typefaces. The need for digital fonts arose only in the 2000s, together with economic growth and development of the advertising market,” says Khatiashvili who designed typefaces for the first TV ad campaigns.

Everyone type.today spoke to agreed that even today there is little demand for quality Georgian type design. According to Razmadze, many marketers still believe that a logo is the most important thing for a brand to have, so typefaces are “still not paid enough attention.” Khatiashvili uses stronger language: “Common type awareness is in a horrible state. Many graphic designers don’t know how to use type properly. Not every Georgian publishing company has employees capable of decent typesetting.”

Progress and Rebirth

“With several large companies who understand the importance of type design in Georgia now, I believe that more will come to this conclusion,” expresses his optimism Akaki Razmadze. According to him, in recent years in Georgia typography, as well as other areas of communication design, has been developing at a fast pace and underwent massive changes. “There’s been more interest towards type design. There are still not many people working in this field, but with the increase in demand, we witness more students express interest in the matter,” says Razmadze. Giga Khatiashvili also observes the increase in embracing type design: he mentions that the country currently sees regular educational events on the topics linked to typography and extensive activities on digitizing typefaces from old books and dictionaries.

Razmadze admits that there are no type foundries in Georgia today, “it’s just separate type designers working individually.” He is planning to establish his own studio, hoping that there will be other type foundries popping up as well. Among his colleagues, Akaki highly appreciates young Lasha Giorgadze and Alexander Sukiasov, as well as the work of the experienced master Merabi Getsadze.

Manana Arabuli, founder of a graphic design studio Black Dog, also collaborates with Getsadze: “Merabi is our key contractor. In Georgia, there’re little type designers to work with, but we try to use our own typefaces in our projects.” Among other things, Black Dog were pioneers in resuming the tradition of Georgian typography and restoring typefaces used in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In their project Rebirth, designer Malkhaz Yashvili designed seven typefaces based on lettering works in Mtatsminda Pantheon of Writers and Public Figures. Since the reference material only had the letters used for the name of the late person, other glyphs had to be redesigned from scratch.

Seven fonts of the Rebirth project, designed by Malkhaz Yashvili

Bespoke branding font for the city of Kutaisi. Designed by Merabi Getsadze

Display font based on lettering from a 1950s Georgian circus poster. Designed by Merabi Getsadze

Display font inspired by labels in the Tbilisi Museum of Silk. Designed by Malkhaz Yashvili

Designer Lasha Giorgadze, working at the Tbilisi BetterFly DDB agency, expects the expansion of the market: “First of all, I think, there are not enough sources for Georgian fonts, and what we have in the market today is chaotic and not well-organized. Normally, designers use free fonts, while major companies who need typefaces for their projects order custom fonts from us and they are not used to buy retail ones. I, personally, design and use every font specifically for each of my projects.”

Latin-to-Georgian logo adaptations, Giorgadze’s personal project

“However, we see an increasing number of Georgian typefaces,” continues Manana Arabuli, “including through the support by large companies. For example, TBС Bank is conducting its third open competition of Georgian typefaces called Georgian-A. In 2016, I was on the jury in the first stage of the competition where I discovered for myself the incredible Zurab Miminoshvili. He had a rather low profile until the moment he won in a bunch of categories. The competition accepted only design applications, not font files. Later the winning designs were digitized at Geo Lab, now they are available for free downloading. However, the digitalizations were not very high-quality — ideas are good, but outlines are not always up to the mark.”

Fonts by Zurab Miminoshvili, awarded at Georgian-A in 2019

“Georgian typography is now catching up. To keep this going, it is rather important that there are Georgian versions of popular typefaces — something in very high demand among designers,” concludes Akaki Razmadze. On the streets of Tbilisi one can often run into Georgian Helvetica, designed by Razmadze himself during his internship with Monotype. It was also him who developed Georgian versions of other popular typefaces, FF Meta and Sabon.

Neue Helvetica Georgian

FF Meta Georgian

Graphik Georgian

Graphik is a variation on European sans serifs and Swiss lettering of the early and the middle of the 20th century. It was developed by an American designer Christian Schwarz from Commercial Type, a type design enterprise. Late 2020, Graphik saw the release of its Georgian version, developed at CSTM Fonts with the support of Tbilisi-based type designer Alexander Sukiyasov.

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Graphik Georgian. Designed by Yury Ostromentsky (CSTM Fonts), native consultation by Alexander Sukiasov

“Making bilingual projects, we certainly lack typefaces with proper and decent versions of both Latin and Georgian scripts,” says Manana Arabuli. “It is often the case that in Latin part of the project we use one font and we use a different one in its Georgian part. And it takes time to find a match. We need more Latin typefaces equipped with Georgian glyph set, which is why the release of Graphik is good news.”

“I was glad to hear that there will be a Georgian version of Graphik as well,” agrees Razmadze. “I really like the clean grotesk shapes designed by CSTM Fonts. It is also nice to have Mtavruli letters which is now a crucial part of Georgian typography. There are some alternative glyphs as I see, which is also perfect. I must say, though, I’m not really sure about some shapes.”

Manana Arabuli also agreed to comment on the typeface: “My first impression of Graphik Georgian in large size was that it was not really my thing — letters are too frivolous. But then I realized it was intentional — for Latin and Georgian sets to look as an integral whole. In text blocks, Graphik looks great — you can tell that the authors put a lot of effort to keep high legibility, which is a rare thing with Georgian body typefaces. My favourite is the Bold, though.”

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