See this city’s voice


I see voices in this city.

It’s an endless chatter wherever I walk. Just out of Orchard Road MRT station and the sight of WISMA ATRIAscreaming greets my arrival to Singapore’s shopping district. And as I stroll down, boutiques like Mango, Louis Vuttonpurr out to me on one side while a Filipino-accent Lucky Plaza calls out across the road.

Like speech bubbles in a comic book, signs are the visible voices of the city. Whether it is the myriad signage adorning storefronts or the ubiquitous green reflective street signs that direct us with a state-like voice, each is set in a typeface, or font, reflecting their unique voice.

While a sign’s words tell us what it is, its typeface speaks. Typefaces are about form – a dressing that gives words extra meaning. Just think of it this way: imagine the street signs now set in Rotis Semi Sans were re-set with a typeface inspired by comic books like Comic Sans, would they say or even mean the same thing? If you’re lost in this city, will reading a street sign ‘Orchard Road’ in Comic Sans assure you that this was Singapore’s shopping district?

Typefaces have their roots in handwriting, which is unique to each one of us. They have since evolved from a style that imitated handwriting using quills and broad-nib pens to rigid-looking letters such as those with angular-heads and feet, known as slab serif that reflected the machine-like precision of the Industrial Revolution.

Today, digital typefaces come in all shapes and form but they can broadly be classified as serifs or sans serif. A good example of the former would be typefaces where the strokes of each letter has a slight projection like Times New Roman, the default font of every new Microsoft Word document until recently. The latter, as its name suggests, just means letters without the projections like Arial, another popular typeface in Word.

At the heart of typeface usage is the expression of the relationship between form and content. When Singapore Tourism Board (STB) wanted to brand the city as Uniquely Singapore, it commissioned a typeface to reflect the city as “The best of the modern world and rich cultures to deliver enriching experiences for the discerning visitor”, says its representative.

The result: “A melting pot… A bit of Chinese, a bit of Jawi, a bit of Tamil script and then everything in English,” describes Karen Huang, a designer who used to blog about typography in Singapore on Snog Blog.

But branding a city with a typeface is not unique to Singapore. In 2005, Norway built itself a visual identity of Norway-ness when it adopted Aeroportal, a typeface inspired by European, British and Scandinavian sensibilities that expresses “friendliness, simplicity and credibility” for its international communication.

Further back in history, the Nazi Party imposed the blackletter typeface as its official “voice” for its propaganda materials. Also known as Gothic, the typeface is a counterpart to the same architectural style. It was a convenient nationalistic symbol for the Nazis as it claimed that German chauvinists had appropriated this style to represent Teutonic virtue during the late nineteenth century.

But the Nazi’s had conveniently ignored the international origins of the Gothic style when they championed it as quintessentially German.

The contestable definition of typefaces shows that typography behaves as how people create them to be, says visual communications professor Yeoh Kok Cheow. It is no different from other social structures like race, sex and class. “Typography as a form of communication in which we express ourselves with, has become the gateway for visual and cultural markers,” he says.

So unlike STB’s choice of typeface, a designer like Chris Lee would beg to differ. “If there is a typeface I would give to Singapore it would be Gill Sans,” wrote the founder of local design firm Asylum when asked on a forum what typeface represented Singapore. Like this city, Gill Sans, actually popularly associated with all things British (see the British Broadcasting Companies’ logo), “is efficient, modern, safe and uninteresting”.

But it is not just what type of city Singapore is. Divya Manian, the founder of Flickr! group SingaporeType observes that most shop signage here use Helvetica or Rotis Serif. The former’s neutral look was popular with corporate types for but has since become popular culture when a film about it was made to commemorate its 50th birthday in 2007. Rotis Serif is from the same family of typefaces that adorn our street signs and was the body text of our national newspaper, The Straits Times, before its recent redesign.

“Choice of type reflects, in a way, the openness and creativity of a society,” says the web designer. “I guess everyone in Singapore is trying to ‘play safe’ in general and that shows up in the typographic landscape too!”

But there could be a practical reason why such “predictable and dreary type prevail” in a tech-savvy city like Singapore says Prof Yeoh. “The most visible typefaces used are noticeably Helvetica or Arial as these are readily available in the computer program related to the processes of digital typesetting and reproductions.”

Perhaps the most standardised and visible use of type in any city is found in its street signs. In August 2001, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) replaced Singapore’s old silver street signs with its current reflective green ones.

According to LTA, the typeface choice – Rotis Semi Sans – was made after it conducted several tests and found that the legibility of the new signs improved by 20 per cent in the day and 100 per cent at night as compared to the old ones.

While typographer Peter Williams agrees the current signs work better, he attributes it to the use of white words on a green background. Typographically speaking, he considers the signs a “failure”. The wide spacing between each letters, says the design editor for local tabloid my paper, makes people read the signs as individual letters instead of words. Huang also says that Rotis Semi Sans is too “delicate” such that the individual letters’ variation in strokes makes it hard to read from far.

When asked why the choice of typeface, LTA’s representative said Rotis Semi Sans was probably picked to replace the previous Interstate because it was also used on its corporate logo. “It’s as simple as that, don’t read so deeply into it,” he says.

Such ambivalence towards typography is not surprising. While a city’s choice and usage of typefaces may reflect its culture, Huang reminds us, “Ordinary people don’t care, that is what designers need to remember.” At most, people recognise basic differences in type categories, she says. For instance, a bride might ask for a script-like font for her wedding invite or a boss trying to tone down a harsh e-mail might use Comic Sans.

There is a visible lack of old typefaces in Singapore, says Huang. “I think it’s got to do with all our upgrading, retrofitting. As a result, it’s very hard to find old, non-digitized typefaces around.”

But this city’s voice is not just younger, it has become less diverse over the years. Reflecting the state’s policy, the English language dominates this city’s voicetoday. Only in older signage does one find the other national languages of Chinese, Malay and Tamil. In fact, the only time one finds all four together is either signage that warn us of “Danger” or those in MRT stations.

The recent chase for the tourist dollar revived today’s street signs in Chinese and Tamil that accompany the English ones in the respective ethnic enclaves here. This trend is most telling in the brown signage pointing to tourist attractions that also have Japanese on them – a good sign of where our tourists come from!

If the state can make use of typefaces to build a tourist identity, can the rest of Singapore build community identity with type too? Imagine Punggol’s street signs set in a waterfront-inspired typeface, the industrial area of Tuas littered with signs in mechanical typefaces or the Arab Street quarters with a typeface created by the fusion of its emerging indie culture and historic Arab roots.

In 2002, the Design Institute of the University of Minnesota attempted to do that when it asked six teams to design a civic typeface to represent the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Pauls in the USA.

One of the teams was LettError, two Dutch designers who had never been to either city. As they put it, “How to make a typeface for a city I had never seen – or worse yet: how to make a typeface for any city?”

But that did not stop them from creating the winning entry Twin: an interactive typeface that keeps changing to real-world conditions such as temperature changes and traffic conditions.

As the designers explained: “It doesn’t force one particular style on a diverse group of people. Instead it becomes a machine with which each person can play with and find something that is appropriate.”

Indeed, that perhaps best reflects what typography is all about. Not only does it make the city’s voice more diverse and colouful, it gives each of us a unique voice to speak so that we can hear the voices of this city.

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T_sa_251This article was first published in Singapore Architect #251.

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