Language and Alphabets

Recently, I had a project to work on that incorporated a phrase repeated in about 12 different languages. The client sent over an email with the text in each language. Some were recognizable to me, some I could take an educated guess about and others… no clue.

I set up this project in InDesign. Any phrase in a Latin alphabet, even though I might not be able to read or say the word, it was viewable in the font chosen by the client – Calibri. Cyrillic phrases were also readable in Calibri. The issue came from pictograph type of alphabets.

I have to admit, I never knew how many different alphabets were out there. There must be hundreds if not thousands. Searching for fonts that would display the text (even if I wasn’t happy about the styling), wasn’t easy. Typical ones like: Chinese, Korean, Arabic, etc, have fonts that are part of either Adobe software package or Mac OS X. Others aren’t as lucky.

Through trial and error, I narrowed down the missing translations to 3. Those last few were stubborn ones. On the suggestion of a co-worker, I copied the text and pasted straight into a Google search. That helped to identify one more. Then I stumbled on a site that helps with such things. Surprisingly it is created by Xerox and is called Language Identifier. This little gem identified the remaining languages.

Language Identifier

Lessons Learned

I learned a handful of things through this process. Some will be useful moving forward when I encounter similar projects. The Language Identifier is definitely worth bookmarking.


There are some fonts that support many different languages. By trying some standard system fonts, I was able to narrow down the list of missing translations dramatically. Calibri was able to provide characters for many of the different alphabets. This helped many of the words to have a consistent look. Another good choice is Arial. With Arial, I was able to make a number of the pictograph style fonts viewable. I know Helvetica (my default) has support for many different alphabets, but apparently what I have installed on my computer doesn’t provide this support.

Open Source

Open source projects are fantastic. While searching for font solutions I stumbled across Noto. Noto is a collection of open source fonts in many different character sets that all have a consistent look. Surprisingly, there are both serif and sans-serif options available for most alphabets.

Noto a font for all the world's languages

Having all the fonts look coherent was my biggest stumbling block once I had identified all the languages. Since the client wanted to make use of Calibri, having a consistent look just plain didn’t happen on this project. I got close on most of the phrases, but there are a handful that look totally unincorporated into the design.

Right to Left

Some languages are written right to left as opposed to how most languages based on the Latin alphabet are written left to right. In my particular project, I was dealing with Arabic. When I copied and pasted from the Word document I had and into InDesign, The Arabic looked “off” even though it was rendering. I tried several different fonts that supported Arabic characters and got the same results. Finally, it dawned on me that the text was backwards. I wasn’t at all sure how to change the direction of one line of text and not all the others. Just on a whim, I thought maybe I could just mirror the text box. Voila. My Arabic now looked correct. Do I know it is correct? Nope. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but to my untrained eye the shapes looked right.

The biggest lesson I learned is keep plugging away and never fear the unknown.

Bill Cunningham

He who seeks beauty will find it.

Bill Cunningham

I watched a documentary about a photographer recently, Bill Cunningham New York. Bill Cunningham had a circuitous route to becoming a photographer, even though he wouldn’t call himself a photographer.

He started as a fashion designer. His specialty was making hats. Over time, he started writing for a small magazine in New York. This morphed into a career as a photographer. In his urge to capture moments in time, he turned to a camera as a faster means of capturing moments.

Today he has two columns in the New York Times. He writes about fashion with his camera. One column is about society events and the fashionable people who attend these events.

His other column is about everyday people on the street. He documents people he finds fashionable or anti-fashionable. He is great at spotting the most interesting person in a city of millions. From these people, he even finds trends as they are happening.

Bill is a very interesting man with a great moral and ethical code and a minimalist approach to life. His apartment, at the time of the documentary, is very small. It houses only a homemade bed, worthy of the most elite hobo, and more filing cabinets than you can count. In these cabinets he houses images from throughout his career. This house has no closet to speak of, no bathroom (he uses a communal bath down the hall), and no kitchen. His clothes are anything but fashionable but highly utilitarian. He travels the city on a bike.

Most interestingly, he still uses a completely manual film camera. Unlike artistic photographers though, he gets his film developed a a local photo-mat. He brings the uncut negatives to the Times’ office where his art director scans the images and lays out his column. 

Lastly, he never gives in to a code he lives by. Early in his career he decided to never accept food or drink at any of the events he was working. By all accounts he has stayed true to this. Why doesn’t he accept these things? He saw his colleagues being swayed by the people they were there to document, and he never wanted to have this happen.

Room 237 – The Shining

Room 237 Movie Review

Many years ago I read The Shining by Stephen King. I was both scared and intrigued by the book.

Not long after reading the book, I rented a video copy (VHS at the time) of the movie. The movie was made in the early 1980’s by legendary film maker Stanley Kubrick. As much as I enjoyed the book, I was equally disappointed by the movie.

Fast forward 20-some years later, I became intrigued in seeing a documentary titled Room 237. What first intrigued me was the image used for the movie on Netflix (on the left). The image is very stunning graphically. It is both simple and complex. The image pay homage to the hedge maze in the movie, the fact that the hotel is historic, and needing a key to enter the room. 

I finally took the time to watch the documentary. It is very different from documentaries I have seen in the past. The style is an interview style, but you 

never once see the interviewer or the person being interviewed. The documentary incorporates a series of film snippets from The Shining as well as other movies. Some are by Kubrick and some aren’t. The style is very disorienting much like the movie is at times. 

The film never gives a clear direction for what the documentary maker concedes as the underlying premise of the movie. There are several opinions presented. Some of the interviewed people think the movie is somehow tied to the story of Hitler and the atrocities he visited on the Jewish population in Germany and Europe. Another opinion thought the movie was representative of the plight of the Native American and the genocide of many tribes during the early years of the USA. The last, and in my opinion the weakest but most intriguing, was that Kubrick used The Shining to tell his personal and business struggles during and just after the US government hired him to fake the film footage taken during the moon landings.

There were compelling arguments for each case. I am still not sure I which one I buy, if any. They were all entertaining. Particularly entertaining were the paranoid ramblings of the gentleman trying to convince the audience that Kubrick faked the moon landing footage. 

If you have Netflix streaming and a free couple of hours, check it out. Worth a look for documentary junkies like me. 

Paula Scher


Our most recent project we were tasked with picking a famous designer and making a brochure about them and their work. To sweeten the thinking pot, we were also asked to design the brochure in their style. To further complicate things, our professor asked us to consider highlighting a designer who’s style we didn’t necessarily like. 

I took the bait. 

During my initial research, I discounted the typical designers that I love: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, George Nelson, etc. I also decided that I wanted two other things in my choice: a female and a living designer. 

Most of the examples the professor has are males. Why follow that narrow path? I wanted to research a living designer because… that is just how I role. No seriously, a living artist’s work seems much more alive and vibrant. Same for designers for me. That is not to say that some of the other great’s work can’t be seen as viable and even still ground breaking. It can. 

After viewing several females and their work, I settled on Paula Scher. I didn’t love her work, but I did like some of it. However, none of it is in a style I would typically pursue. Particularly most of her posters for The Public Theater

Digging a little deeper, I found out that most of her work is based on the idea of using type as illustration. I love that concept! Her most intricate work are her maps. They are huge (according to the photos I have seen). Lots of text all over the maps. Lovely use of text. 

I am a slow reader, and for the turn around on this project, I was happy to find several videos online of her lectures and some interviews. My favorite one was a short documentary by the late Hillman Curtis.

After much research, I started to formulate my answer to the problem posed. Usually I have a hard time finding the right colors. This wasn’t the case. Seeing Paula speak and getting a feel for her personality, I felt that she has a warm personality and she seems to be a likeable person. I decided that a sunshine yellow would be my primary color and a sunny grey would be my secondary color (this project was limited to two color “spot”). Yes grey can be sunny! 

I found a nice portrait of Paula on one website, and luckily a lot of her work can be found in high resolution (but small dimensional size) on her Behance site. These images were perfect for the size that I needed for the brochure. 

I wanted to mimic her The Public Theater logo on the front of my brochure. The rest of the side of the brochure that makes up the front, inside flap and back of the brochure came together quickly and easily. I used a photo of one of her maps as a very faint background image. A nice quote under her photo made up the flap. 

The inside of the brochure was much harder. I had heard in one of the videos I watched that she came to hate the Helvetica rub-down letters from her college days. Couple that with the fact that sans serif fonts are prominent in her work. I thought that it was fitting to use Helvetica as the main font. Normally, I would pick a complimentary serif font for the headlines, but I decided to stick with sans serif throughout to closely mimic Paula’s style. I picked a nice fat, League Gothic, for the headlines. 

After seeing her maps, I decided to try and use dots in some way inside to reflect the subway maps on her New York maps. First, I thought I might try to connect her works with lines and dots. That didn’t work too well. After a few other iterations, I decided that having some dots but in a more abstract way was more appropriate. I put a row of dots behind the headlines and the area showing several of her pieces. 

It was a fun project, and by picking someone who’s style I didn’t necessarily love it opened my mind a little to trying new things. A pdf version of my brochure can be found below: