Manop Srisomporn The Documentary (Part 1)

The light on a laser printer kept blinking, attracting attention of office workers in Prakit FCB’s computer room. It didn’t take long for someone to observe the blinking light, pick up a stack of papers and inserted it into the printer’s only tray, confident that it was the correct paper size. That light came from a plain-looking, though handy device hooked to the printer that would flash whenever a document was being processed, informing the staff of the required paper size. Speaking of it today, this simple and convenient indication device made by Manop Srisomporn decades ago may seem a bit obsolete, but at the time when no other black and white laser printers could do the same, it benefited dozens of his co-workers.

‘His house was flooded regularly, and to avoid having his house in a pool of water while he was at work, he invented this neat little analog sensor that would float higher responsively to the water level. Once it reached a certain height, it would automatically trigger the pump,’ recalled Kajornsak Jindalak, a close friend and colleague who was utterly impressed by one of Manop’s nifty creation.

Manop Srisomporn, or more commonly known as Ajarn Manop (‘Ajarn’ is the Thai equivalent of ‘teacher’), was born on the last day of November in 1938, and spent most of his childhood peacefully in Payao, a rural city in the northern region of Thailand. Little did he know that decades later, he would be one of the early pioneers of modern Thai typography who would help shape the structure of letterforms we now use and read everyday.

Manop always had a knack for drawing since he was little. And it was his homeroom teacher who, upon discovering his talent, advised him to attend Poh Chang College, an old and prestigious art institution in Bangkok. He didn’t have any idea what it would be like nor did he care much about its fame. Being a place where he could draw endlessly and express his fascination with art was enough to motivate him. After high school, he instantly and directly stepped into the art world. However, his first step towards design would be quite different when compared to designers nowadays.

Studying and working simultaneously is obviously tiring but it does offer invaluable experience. As a hard-working and well-organized lad, Manop chose to study at Poh Chang during the morning sessions and worked at Olan Bangkok throughout the afternoon, supporting himself until he graduated in 1962. It was at this company that he learned to design posters, illustrate, and draw types for various commercial projects.

Walking along the streets in the 1960s, one could appreciate the fact that sceneries weren’t polluted with billboards and posters like today. Moreover, the advertisements had a unique charm to them. Contrary to what we usually see, each letter, whether it was Thai, English, or Chinese, was rendered by hand. It exhibited the sort of craftsmanship and attention to detail rarely seen in modern ads.

‘In the past, we didn’t have computers or anything to speed up our process. All types had to be drawn by hand, manually. It was very inconvenient,’ said Manop. On the positive side, this painstaking process solidified his understanding of letterforms while impelling him to continually sought for better and more efficient tools. It virtually defined his perspective and approach to his work.

We all know Manop Srisomporn as a master typographer but through his friends, colleagues, and family we can understand him as a person, and why he was, and still is, loved by all who met and worked with him.

To everyone who knew him, he was a ‘gentle’ man, a calm and reserved fellow, who was adequately suited to head Prakit FCB’s computer department. And if any poor soul could anger him, he or she must have done something seriously unforgiveable.

Even the honorific title, Ajarn, was given to him in response to his actions and behavior, and not from any certificate. ‘How many people would actually give up their time to teach and advise someone they haven’t even met?’ asked Anuthin Wongsunkakon, ‘When I first started designing type, I went through a lot of troubles. Eventually, I got Ajarn Manop’s number and just called him out of the blue. And it was frequent enough to completely get on someone’s nerves.’ This whole-hearted kindness also distinguished him from his contemporaries who prefer to fence knowledge within their own perimeter.

It may have been a coincidence, or possibly fate, that brought Manop to Diethelm in 1968. There he met Dieter North, a foreigner with an overwhelming interest in Thai letterforms. Dieter wanted to create dry transfer decals of the Thai alphabet, but it wasn’t such a simple task. Producing them require a considerable amount of investment and they weren’t popular enough for anyone to take the risk. However, this did not detered Dieter who strongly believed in the future of Thai dry transfer lettering and promised to cover the expense himself if the project were to fail. So began the design and production at Diethelm with Siamwala being responsible for its marketing.

After 20 month in development, the first set of dry transfer letters called, ‘Manop’, was officially released under the Dutch brand, McCanorma, in 1970. Its birth, however, did not ignite the local market as Thais were unwilling to pay for ‘type’. Additionally, it was priced at 20 Baht, which wasn’t so cheap at the time.

It took a while for dry transfer lettering to turn popular. After designers began to see the potential and variety of this new tool, it became widely used in the industry and influenced other mediums of communication as well. Most of the public road signs were based on ‘Manop 5’. Even today, if you look carefully enough, you could still find them along the roads. Who would have thought that something so prevalent across the entire country could be based on a typeface designed for the dry transfer lettering system.

It was unfortunate, however, that type did not yet function properly as a commercial product. And many type designers, including Manop, weren’t justly compensated. With the lack of standard, type was seen as a cheap commodity without any real value. Thus, Manop 5 fell into the same boat, and it continues to sail until today without any tangible rewards. Such widespread use of a typeface could make its designer proud, but the lack of profit could discourage him as much.