Thong Lor: The Way Back into Loop (part 1)

A type designer’s job is to make new fonts. But why is it necessary to keep making new
fonts? Don’t we already have enough fonts around?

To answer the questions, fonts may be likened to our clothes. The fact that people are
always wanting new clothes is not because there are not enough garments around. While
the basic function of clothes is to provide warmth and protection, or as an outer package for
our bodies, we also need clothing to express mood, personality or character. We use it to
show off our taste, status, trendiness or sense of fashion. And the more clothing items we
have, the more able we are to achieve these purposes.

In much the same way, while fonts are basically packages for communicating ideas, they
can also express mood, atmosphere and personality. Typefaces can evoke feelings such as
friendliness, happiness, fun, or casualness, solemnity and so on.

We see changes in clothing design all the time. Fashion may take on a trend following
changes in the weather, social norms or economic necessity. And because trends are
related to time periods, fashion can perform as a time stamp of events or passing epochs.
Here again, there is a parallel between clothing and typefaces. The birth of a font, its
popularity or its presence, is related to a time period. That is why we can tell if a typeface is
futuristic looking or having a retro feel.

Given the time-stamp characteristic of typefaces, perhaps the type designer should be
tasked with designing to mark his own epoch. Imagine how convenient it would be if we
could identify successive time periods simply by looking at a range of fonts. And how
disappointing if there are gaps where the identifying fonts could not be found.

Such gaps are what we have found. For some twenty-odd years, there have been very little
development with Thai fonts in the “loop terminals” genre. Most of the looped fonts
introduced in the period are either makeovers of fonts a decade earlier, or lacking a
discerning feature to qualify them as time stamps for the turn of the century.

The design team at Cadson Demak recently came up with a looped design that we think is
fitting as a time stamp font for the said gap up to the present. This is the font Thong Lor.
In its first decade of operation, Cadson Demak was noted in typography circles for its trend-
setting custom font designs for business conglomerates. Among the number of successful
fonts produced by the company, their design tended to gravitate towards the “loopless
terminals” genre. This had led many font users to regard Cadson Demak as a proponent of
the loopless style of type.

A shift of design focus was thus contemplated, and as the company grew into its second
decade, Cadson Demak decided to turn towards designing more with-loop faces — more, in
the sense of ground-breaking innovation, rather than simply increases in numbers of output.

In 2014, Cadson Demak’s effort in this direction culminated in Thong Lor, a new design that
managed to reinvigorate the use of the loop. In order to appreciate how Thong Lor differs
from the staid looking typefaces on the market, it is necessary to digress for a brief review of
the contemporary history of Thai type, especially the loop terminals genre.

Printing was introduced to Siam as early as the 17 th Century, but its active growth did
not begin until some two centuries later. The technology for moveable type printing of
the Siamese script was developed by enterprising Western religious teachers who
employed the local text for the spreading of Western concepts in Bangkok, such as
the printing of gospel pamphlets. Other uses for this printing method quickly followed
including publication of educational materials and government documents. By mid
19 th Century, the printing industry was well established; printing presses were
installed and metal type for the Thai language routinely cast in the Kingdom.

The legendary physician-cum-missionary Dr. Dan Beach Bradley may be credited
with being the first caster of Thai metal type. His earliest work, a face called Bradley
Square, featured even-width strokes, large loop on the terminals, and straight
horizontals. This construction was most likely derived from the handwriting form
made by court scribes using broad-nib pens. Bradley did away with the sloped axis of
this traditional style by turning upright the letterforms and fitted them in straight
rectangular bounding boxes. This departure in form most likely sprang from the need
for more compact glyphs to facilitate mould making and casting as well as the manual
compositing of the metal slugs. In addition, the uprighted metal elements would have
better strength to withstand the pressures from continuous printing. But such
development in form could also have been due to Bradley’s familiarity with Latin type
which feature two vertical stems held together by horizontals that may be straight or
curved — or the ‘roman’ style typically set as body type. Regardless of the design
approach Bradley had employed, the systematic construction of Bradley Square
proved so functional it became the conceptual ground rules for Thai type design of
that era and continuing so to the present.

Not long after the launch of Bradley Square, its curved version was introduced.
Bradley Curved had a softer look than its predecessor due to its adopting curved
upper horizontals instead of angular ones. This feature proved so popular it became
standard in the design of practically all new comer fonts thereafter.

Thong Siam and Witthayajarn were two notable examples in the immediate wake of
Bradley Curved. Thong Siam had one distinctive glyph in the letter Yo Ying where its
pedestal was joined to its upper body — a neat treatment that later became standard
in the design of this letter. Witthayajarn managed to extend its functionality by being
so much heavier that it could conveniently double as display type, not being limited to
body-text setting.

Then came “Farang Ses” the first Thai typeface with thick and thin contrast.

Commissioned by the Assumption Printing House under the management of ZLouis
MorierZ, the font was employed in the production of Thai textbooks. Its design
concept was emulative of Latin letterforms having thick verticals and thin horizontals.
The thicker stems not only added to the strength of the metal face mitigating wear
and tear, but also gave rise to more attractive printed texture. Many known issues in
letterpress printing were systematically solved, such as the use of ink traps, or the
allowance of a tiny aperture on the loop, to prevent ink smudges or clogging up of the
printed characters. On closer inspection, its character set was found to contain some
out-of-form glyphs. This shows that in addition to an array of characters constructed
according to form, the designers of Farang Ses appeared to have carried out tweaks
on the individual glyphs as well. With that kind of painstaking care in its crafting,
Farang Ses never failed to win admiration for its superior design as well as its
functionality. And all this came from a design approach that was Latin-based, which
differed in many ways from the Thai forms of that era.

The superior form of Farang Ses continued to rule the printing industry for decades,
surviving technological change after change following the end of metal type. The font
was recast many times for new typesetting methods that came on the market
including photo-type, dry-transfer type, right up to digital rendering. With its enduring
presence, the shapes of Farang Ses became etched in the minds of Thai readers
thus predisposing them to familiarity with looped letterforms bounded in narrow
rectangles. These legacies of the metal type era, even though no longer relevant for
today’s design, were and still are regarded as inviolable principles for type design,
and many new fonts following the age of Farang Ses tended to maintain such narrow
glyph proportions. A few designs for with-loop fonts, however, have shown
remarkable new thinking although their letterforms have remained on the narrow side.
These faces include: Monotype Thai Medium 621, released in 1962; Tom Light, in
1976; Chaun Pim, in 1977 and DB Fongnam, in 1988. Each of the faces mentioned
was able to project the personalities of the decades they represented. After the
presence of DB Fongnam, however, the design of with-loop fonts have been all but
neglected and no worthwhile new choices have entered the scene.