The Roman Alphabet in Asian Design

While reading Jinnie’s comments on Rollbahn notebooks over at Three Staples (and, specifically, the German words on the cover), I was reminded of the differences between Asian and Western approaches to design – specifically, stationery design. You may have wondered yourself at one time or another about the nonsensical words often to be found on Asian stationery products.

Notebooks and other items produced in the West typically do not carry much textual information on the cover. The brand logo and product name are judiciously placed, and information judged to be essential is presented in a concise and pleasing manner, but otherwise the cover is kept free of clutter. When a text longer than a couple of words appears (witticisms in the line of “Keep Calm and Carry On”), it is almost always featured as the most prominent design element, and the rest of the notebook is designed around it.

In contrast, the Asian approach is neither here nor there. The cover carries some text, but which often has little bearing to the product at hand. This, I believe, is because Asian designers regard the Roman alphabet as not something to be used to transmit information but as a purely decorative design element. The name of the notebook (if it has one) has to go somewhere so that is not negotiable, but very often designers will feel more comfortable with several lines of small text underneath or in proximity to it. When I was working in Japan, I sometimes observed designers type in a line or two of random letters (xcnaspizmwepofh) in Illustrator or Photoshop, and then try to stretch and position it around the principal label; they would decide what words to put in only afterwards (which is where I came in).

This, in turn, means that any textual information on stationery products is not intended to be actually read; in fact, designers are counting on the fact that it will not be read but only looked at. This of course is the reason that such textual information is rarely presented in Japanese or Korean or any other local language – it will be exposed straightaway as the inanity that it is. Because Asians have to learn to read the Roman alphabet as a second script system, it takes more effort to read it, and text in English or any other European language rarely leaps to the eye. This problem seems particularly severe in Japan, where people are used to seeing foreign words transcribed for them in katakana.

However, English literacy is rising across Asia; hence the popularity of more exotic and visually chic languages such as French and German as a design tool. The point is that they are less likely to be read and understood, and therefore stay truer to their function as decorative elements. French boasts a set of elegant accents (à, é, ô); German has the umlaut (ü) and double s (ß), and the exciting possibility of using multiple capital letters within a sentence. Japan has always been much more Europhilic than either China or Korea, so that explains why we see much more of French and German on Japanese products (which unfortunately doesn’t translate into fluency in those languages).

Below are a couple of examples.

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Schöpfer is a line of notebooks from LIFE. I have no idea what it means. I think the second line means something like “40 (pages of) heavenly joy”, but I’m not sure, and anyway that’s not the point. The point is that they wanted something, anything, to fill that space up, and those words serve that function. What I find more problematic is the lack of basic typographical skills.

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Note the lack of spacing in “40sheets” and “Company,Limited”. This, more than anything, drives me nuts. Also, as you can see from the ugly text below the fountain pen nib logo, it is very, very hard to find good Roman alphabet typography in Asian stationery products. This is not to say that Asian designers lack the requisite skills; rather, this reminds you of just how difficult it is to acquire visual fluency in a foreign alphabet.

Here is one more example, from the notebook company Morning Glory of Korea.

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Here, again, there is a block of text just to… place some weight on the lower right hand corner, I suppose. I used to cringe every time my eyes passed over stuff like this in the past. But mercifully someone seems to have proofread it this time!

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Don’t get me wrong: I am not making fun of LIFE or Morning Glory (or any other company, for that matter). I love these notebooks, they contain some of the best paper for fountain pen use, and I will keep using them no matter what is on the cover. But I would just like to say to them: Leave well enough alone. Have the courage to leave spaces blank. And, if you must, fill it with colors, patterns, motifs, anything, but spare us this kind of nonsense!

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23 thoughts on “The Roman Alphabet in Asian Design

  1. I have to keep mentioning this, but when I first saw a Rollbahn notebook and read the text ( see http://pencil.land/?p=2066 ) it just felt so much like a Kraftwerk song to me.
    I don’t like spiral bound notebooks, but except that binding this is a good looking notebook. In the West they might have just put meaningless pictures on the notebook, which isn’t much better either.
    If the Morning Glory notebook is as good as their pencils, which I like, then it should be good value for money.

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    1. The Kraftwerk example is so funny :). BTW do any of the words on the LIFE notebook make sense to you? Are they at least grammatically correct?

      I don’t remember how Morning Glory pencils wrote like – the company produces a large range of products but they are still best known for their notebooks. They’re inexpensive school-supply material but the paper is treated just enough to prevent ink feathering and bleed-through, and is pleasant to write on. Kinda like the Noris of the notebook world…

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      1. It kind of makes sense.
        Schöpfer = creator and Himmlische Freude = heavenly joy, but “40 heavenly joy” seems odd. I wonder whether this has been taken from a piece of classical music (Sean might know). Like you say, they probably just wanted to use the Latin alphabet.
        Here’s something about the Morning Glory pencil ;^) http://bleistift.memm.de/?tag=morning-glory

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      2. 40 has to refer to the number of sheets so I doubt they were alluding to anything other than the writing experience. Anyway, I’m glad to get confirmation from a native speaker!

        Morning Glory is not a dedicated pencil maker and my impression is that instead of marketing a line of regular models consistently, they sell various “fancy” models for short periods of time (usually the more colorful and cute kind). These kind of models change all the time and it’s difficult to keep track of or even remember a particular pencil.

        BTW do you still listen to KBS World Radio? I should do that sometime, just to see what it’s like ;)

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      3. I still listen to the German service of KBS Radio (and Radio Taiwan International), but certainly not as often as I used to. There doesn’t seem to for anything these days… They also offer podcasts and apps, so it’s even easier than ever before.

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      4. I find reading easier and faster than listening, so I was never very much into radio programs or podcasts, but this is tempting. Thanks for letting me know!

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  2. Thank you for this post! This is an interesting topic. A while ago a German magazine has written about the popularity of Roman letters and German words in Japan. Some designers and manufacturers went so fas as printing words like “GÄRTNER” (gardener) in a sans-serif font on t-shirts and sold them successfully. If I remember correctly it was the angularity of the letters which appealed the most.

    It comes as a relief to hear that missing spacing and other typographic flaws drive you nuts – I loathe it too!

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    1. If you are a stickler for language, life in Asia can be difficult sometimes – in the end my friends got annoyed with me because I was always pointing out misspelled words on chalkboard signs in coffee shops ;)

      And Gärtner! See? Another cool umlaut!

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  3. You explained my discomfort so much better and in depth than I ever could. :) Thank you for your insight; I enjoyed all the points you brought up in regards to design and typography. I was reminded of the quotation marks around “Mitsu-bishi” on their pencils. Why is one of them backwards? WHY? *gestures wildly with fists*

    Is it just me or do the LIFE notebooks remind you of piano lesson books?
    I wish I can try some Morning Glory (nostalgia!) pencils and notebooks. They’re kinda hard to come by for me. But man, blocks of text like that really annoy me.

    I confess though, the umlaut does look cool ^_^;;

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    1. Jinnie, good catch! I never realized it until you pointed it out :)

      I can send you some Morning Glory when I go back to Korea early next year. Hopefully there will be some new cute stuff :)

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      1. It’s incongruous, because of the place the 9850 has (in my head at least) as an ordinary thing on which great attention has been lavished.

        (I think of the quality of the lacquer, the deep even imprint, and even the printing of the “HB” grade, so that it’s always visible however the pencil rests).

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      2. Maybe they left it like that on purpose. Not to say they made a mistake on purpose, but rather that it was printed like that the first time and they didn’t change it in order to preserve the “original” vintage look maybe? I checked my old Mitsubishi 9800s and they have the same inverted quotation marks too (interestingly, the 100th anniversary Tombow pencil is the same).

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      3. It’s amazing to see that others too talk about typography on pencils :-)

        Regarding the quotation marks which look incorrect to those familar with Western typography: Is it possible that the Japanese designer who created this lettering was just not familiar with these quotation marks and hasn’t used them as such but as pure decoration or for emphasis? After all, the Japanese have totally different ones.

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      4. John, Gunther, this is just my guess but I rather think they were copying the imprint on German pencils. Looking at old A. W. Faber and Staedtler pencils on Bob Truby’s Brand Name Pencils site, I see that A. W. Faber uses quotation marks like the one found on Mitsubishi pencils; with Staedtler it’s much more varied (normal, one side inverted, and one side inverted and on the baseline, which I understand is the orthodox way to use them in German). Japanese pencils were trying to emulate German pencils in every way, remember.

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      5. Now the question is, why did A. W. Faber and Staedtler print it like that? ;)

        Re the “Berthelt”: I thought this was the proper way? Or does the second quotation mark have to be inverted too?

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      6. Re your first question: I just don’t know :-(

        Re “Berthelt”: According to today’s standards and with a serif font the correct ones would be shaped like “99” near the baseline and “66” near the ascender line.

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      7. Oh, you don’t have to, Sola! I’m sure I can get some if I try hard enough :D
        I didn’t know German pencils had funky quotation marks too. At first, with Japanese pencils, I wondered if it had something to do with outdated software or printing tools (just pulling this out of thin air) but seeing German pencil examples makes me doubt that.

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      8. I know, with Japanese pencils the printing changes so rarely you could suspect something like that ;)

        Re Korea: the stationery selection is not the best but the good thing is that it changes and expands all the time. I’m looking forward to seeing the changes!

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  4. Could be, Sola.

    Whilst I don’t think it’s the case for these pencils, it reminds me slightly of the artistic traditions in which imperfections are introduced intentionally (because “perfection belongs to god alone” if I remember correctly).

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