Note on Helvetica Thai

➜ As we are on the threshold of joining the Helvetica World family of fonts, there are a couple of issues we need to address before we can go about designing a fitting version of Helvetica Thai. The most important of these concerns the decision whether or not to go for a sans serif style – that is a Thai font without the familiar loop terminal – if we are to emulate the crisp and clean looks of the Latin Helvetica.

As we all know, a great percentage of typographers might regard the loop terminal as the defining characteristic of Thai glyphs without which they would lose their Thai identity. After all, this has been the standard design “wisdom” to follow when it comes to crafting Thai body-text glyphs. So if we are to come up with a no-loop version of Helvetica Thai, we would certainly need some good reasons for doing so.

There is another prevailing notion that a loop terminal helps to improve readability just as the way a serif does for a Latin font. If we were to stick to this concept, then using the loop terminal for Helvetica Thai would seem contradictory to the underlying concept of the original Helvetica; by eliminating the traditional serif, the font quickly made its mark soon after its introduction. That was during the 1950s (thanks to the achievement of Akzidenz Grotesk from 1890s). The enduring popularity of Helvetica speaks for itself about readability. Given the lapse of five or six decades, the world is now much more receptive to letterforms without serifs, or a tiny circle at the end of a stroke, in the case of Thai fonts. In Thailand, the preference for everyday fonts, guided by the reading behaviors of people, has also changed to a significant extent. A great number of contemporary Thai fonts are enjoying their increasing popularity. And given this willingness for change, the push for a no-loop Helvetica Thai could be easier to accomplish today than it could have been, say, two decades ago. Here, we could see the parallel between the introduction of the pared-down letterforms of Helvetica in Europe and the prospective version of Helvetica Thai without loops in the near future.

But design-wise, it takes a bit more than the reasoning above to settle for the no-loop approach. An easier method we could have done is to build on what we had for “Anuparp” (a recent font by Cadson Demak for Linotype) which are loop terminals on uncluttered letterforms. That approach, however, would entail the disadvantages of poor space economy and too much a departure from the international Helvetica looks and feel.

There are other fine points to be considered. The skeletal form of the characters will have to be neutral, with absence of strident angles that may produce uneven texture when the font is mixed with its Latin counterpart. Some Thai glyphs may require certain detailing to prevent reading confusion between pairs of similar forms. And where possible, the Helvetica Thai glyphs should have the lean, pared-down looks of its Latin predecessor.

Allowance for building up a family of weights and styles is another design criterion. The idea of font families has long been adopted in Thailand. Thai moveable lead type had typefaces in different weights, probably to match similar fonts for English text in those days. The development of font families, however, was largely neglected during the era of phototypesetting, only to be revitalized with the advent of desktop publishing. The pull-down font menu, where fonts are shown in groups of similar forms, has been instrumental in helping to renew the concept. But then again, development had been slow. Early Thai digital fonts tended to be unimaginative offerings with single-weight and single-style, such as Regular which could also be slanted digitally. With the computer’s expanding presence in the graphic industry, the idea of font families quickly took hold, and more font weights and styles, including Bold, Light and Italic had been added.

Lacking a sufficient range of styles, Thai designers of yesteryear resorted to mixing and matching fonts. A design tradition then flourished whereby display type was cast in a heavier font, body text in another lighter face and blurbs and captions in yet another. The ghost of this design notion lives on until today, and many Thai designers still see their designs as separate type blocks each requiring a different typeface.

Being a large family, the Helvetica boasts a wide array of weights and styles. This would make it difficult for the prospective Thai counterpart to match. The weight requirement alone would militate against having loop terminals. This is because, with any increase in weight, a glyph with loops tends to lose its form, while gaining space and bulk, faster than one without. For this reason, the the step increases in glyph thickness has to be kept very small. It could be seen that for many Thai fonts with loops, the difference in thicknesses between Regular and Bold is barely discernible; and it is more so in reverse type. In short, the no-loop approach should prove a more practical option when it comes to designing Helvetica Thai, especially as it would allow for better flexibility for expanding the font’s range of weights and styles to meet future needs.