Jessica Helfand | Essays

Why Is This Font Different From All Other Fonts?

Bagel, designed by Per Jørgensen, 2002.

Earlier this spring, our local art-supply store closed its doors, but not before slashing the prices of its remaining inventory. Among life's many temptations, the promise of discount art supplies looms large, so off I went in search of buried treasure. Actually, not so buried, as it soon turned out — more like a paltry selection of picked-over goods, until a chipboard assortment of "birthday letters" caught my eye.

Birthday letters? I think not. This is Faux Hebrew.

Chipboard Alpha Letters, 2007.

I came back to my studio, put the Faux Hebrew upright on my desk, and gave it a good long stare. Maybe it was because it was the week of Passover — overshadowed as a week without bread always is by the sugary delectations of Easter — so I let it go.

Except that I couldn't let it go. It really irked me. I spend a great deal of time in my studio and thus, spent a considerable amount of time over the next few weeks stealing furtive glances at my Faux Hebrew letterforms — which, it turns out, have a rather curious provenance. Joseph Anthony Bartolo created a font called "Hebrewish" because, as he explains it, "the only Hebrew Latino font I have ever seen didn't really live-up to my expectations." Of course, if Hebrewish does't live up to your expectations, there is actually a real font called Faux Hebrew, and it's not the one on my desk.

Which means there are even more, lots more like this. Yes, it turns out there's also one called Talmud, and one called Jerusalem, and a slightly more modified geometric version called — get ready for this one — CIRCUMCISION .

Circumcision, designed by Matius Gerardo Grieck, 2000.

Further research revealed that fake Jewish typefaces are sometimes grouped under the heading "foreign fonts" which brings us selections like Sholom, not to be confused with German type designer Dieter Steffman's Sholom and probably any number of typefaces from real Israeli type designers, quite a few of whom are rather gifted.

Clearly, some fonts are just too Western, and that's where modification — or in this case, "hindification" — can, when done well, can be extremely useful. What's less useful is the humor — which, just as it is for "Asian" or "Mexican" fonts, is highly questionable. And yes, it's all about appropriateness: fine to use Fake Hebrew for a deli; not so fine on, say, a yellow armband. Likewise, nobody questions a sign for a burrito restaurant designed in Hot Tamale, but what about when it's used for a border crossing sign in Texas?

Hot Tamale, designed by WSI.

I'm not the first to question the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of "type" ethnicity. (Ellen Lupton, Jonathan Hoefler and others have written about the faux naif qualities of Neuland, a font designed by the early Twentieth Century German designer Rudolf Koch, as the boilerplate "African American" font.) Nevertheless, the degree to which inappropriate things are both said and done (and worse, overlooked) with regard to ethnic, racial and cultural inappropriateness continues to rise, and this includes type decisions. Don Imus, who recently joined Mel Gibson and Isaiah Washington as the latest public figure to commit career suicide through bigotry, lost his job for referrring to the Rutgers Womens Basketball team as a bunch of "Nappy-Headed Hos." Granted, unlike people, typefaces have no feelings — so who cares if they're used without sensitivity and knowledge? But on some level, the line is a murky one: what's the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype? As a rule, the study of ethics aren't taught in our design curricula. But maybe it should be.

Posted in: Typography

Comments [47]

Great article. Although, I have to disagree with your assertion that ethics are not discussed in modern Design programs. It was hammered into me from my first year that designers have a serious responsibility to not abuse their position. My school (DAAP – University of Cincinnati) approached things from a more scientific perspective... maybe discussion of ethics is not done in more "arty" programs.

In any case, these sort of ethical situations are something every designer should be ready to encounter.
Lee Aylward

"Further research revealed that fake Jewish typefaces..."

You have described type that is not faux Jewish, it is faux Hebrew (as you mentioned earlier in the post). While the line dividing Hebrew and Jew is thin, one does exist. It may be more of a political point, but as a Jew, I feel it is important to separate the Jewish religion with things such as language, ethnicity, statehood, etc. I understand this article is not intended as an exercise in what it means to be a Jewish/Mexican/African American, I just had to point it out.

More to the point of the article, it would be interesting to see more uses of "ethnic" type used in inappropriate contexts and how that translates into racial and ethnic stereotypes. Hebrew for deli signage, sure, at least I know I can get a decent bagel and some matzah ball soup, but does this enforce a stereotype, I don't think so. It seems, at least to me, that "ethnic" type is used almost exclusively in the realm of retail where the designer has used the type to project cultural ideas on some sort of sellable good. Is this stereotyping or just lazy design?

Do these faux-Hebrew fonts "perpetuate a cultural stereotype?" Or do they merely borrow a general visual look and feel of authentic Hebrew letterforms? It seems to me that the Hebrew alphabet does have a particular and distinct visual character. Isn't it perfectly legitimate for a type designer to borrow that visual character and create a new typeface based on it? After all, that's what designers do all the time! Of course, that's not to say that these typefaces are any good (they're not).

I suppose it is possible that we actually need faux-Hebrew fonts to use in multi-lingual publications alongside real Hebrew letterforms. I can't say--I've never been faced with that design problem. And, I don't know Hebrew.

It it interesting that you one clearly trace the cultural associations for the faux-Hebrew fonts back to a particular source (the Hebrew alphabet).

But, can you trace the cultural associations of Hot Tamale back to a particular source? What makes it look Mexican or Hispanic (if that's what we are calling this look)? Is there something about the design that is CLEARLY Hispanic/Mexican, or is it simply the name? Would this font look Mexican if it were called, say, "Dirtwood" or "Olde Curlicue"? And maybe it looks "Mexican" simply because it has been used so many times for burrito menus. Maybe the Mexican look is merely a reflection of its predominant usage.

Mostly this post reminds me that there are a lot of bad typefaces out there. I just think that it's a little TOO hypersensitive to be thinking about whether or not a typeface's intrinsic "ethnic" character is or is not culturally sensitive. It's really all about how the fonts are used. And using an obvious font like Hot Tamale for a Burrito joint would just be lazy, bad design.
Rob Henning

I don't know if the fonts necessarily perpetutate a cultural stereotype, but I do find them appropriative and disrespectful.

I don't know a lot about letterforms in other languages, but having been a devout student of Judaism for a good long while I can appreciate some of the subtleties of the Hebrew letterforms, subtleties that as far as I know don't exist for our letterforms and don't translate well to our cultural paradigm. And while I'm not going to say that designers should never borrow forms from other cultures, I do recommend caution and research in doing so. Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese etc forms have meaning, and copying may be seen as a perversion. That worries me.

But, I don't know that ethics should be part of a design curriculum; what I do think is that designers should be culturally aware enough to pursue a study of ethics or sociology or history, etc on their own. I don't think design needs to do the job of liberal arts disciplines; I just think designers need to be more active in educating themselves outside of their fields, especially in areas where their work may be affected.
amber simmons

Did you notice that the designer of FF Bagel, Per Jørgensen, also designed a font called FF Falafel, which is probably even more offensive.
Teddy Blanks

I will probably be ripped apart for saying this but...'what makes this font different from all other fonts' is that real designers won't use it.

We wouldn't be caught dead using any of the junk fonts like it (unless we were making some sort of smart, subversive statement).

To me, these kinds of fonts are in the realm of toilet humor. In fact, I believe that they can help separate true professionals from the desk-top publishing set. Therefore, let these nimrods have their fun. 13-year-olds will scroll down on their list of free downloadable fonts and use them on flyers and such cementing its cheesiness and inappropriateness mixed in with free speech and the like. These fad fonts will be metered out in clumsy fashion until they peter out.

What I'm saying is - it's okay to wonder as to the deepness of these types of jokey/dumb wrong junk fonts, but how are they different than off-color "There's something about Mary" kind of movies? Some people think they're funny and some don't.

I don't think it reflects real designers and our tastes/perpetuations of this kind of sophomoric kitch. Everyone who already posted mentioned how they are poorly made and completely unusable.
Jessica Gladstone

Appropriating signs is what designers do;
How to use them is up to you.

This article reminds me of one Steve Heller wrote a while back in Print magazine. He basically was "the decider" when it came to who and when the Nazi Swastika could and could not be used. He intimated because he was Jewish and he collected Nazi memorabilia that it was OK for him to use as he saw fit. However, if one did not have the proper knowledge base or pedigree she or he did not have the right to use as they saw fit. I get a kick out of designers legislating ethics and morality particularly when it hits close to home. Perhaps it is a good thing, perhaps not!?
Brian Pirman

I am not in the least bit annoyed or offended by designers attempting to stylize letterforms with features of another cultures characters. Intermingling of letters between cultures has clearly been going on for milennia; to say that it should stop now for the sake of type designers ingratiating themselves to the PC police is absurd, if not outright idiotic.

But it would be nice if a little more thought went into the names. Bagel and Hot Tamale are pretty tacky names; Circumcision is awful enough that I am surprised to see MyFonts selling it at all.
james puckett

Dear Jessica
I don't mean to be rude or anything, but I can't help thinking you've made a bit of a mistake here : as far as I can judge from the picture above, your "birthday letters" look less like "Faux Hebrew" than like nineteenth-century "Western" woodtype. In fact, it looks a lot like Darius Wells's 1854 Gothic Tuscan Italian, a face whose inverted stress (thin vertical parts, thick horizontal ones) can remind Hebrew writing (from right to left with a broad-nibbed pen held at a very steep angle from the baseline, which creates the same kind of inverted stress).
As for the debate about Neuland and Lithos, I can just strongly urge your readers to be careful not to believe everything that's been said or written on the subject (Steven Heller and Rob Giampietro should check their facts before coming up with dubious theories about the genesis and various uses of particular typefaces).
Stéphane Darricau

The article "Typecast: meaning, culture, and identity in the alphabet omelet (which came first?)" by Sojin Kim & Somi Kim from Lift and Separate: Graphic Design and the
Quote Vernacular
asks similar questions. The article focuses mostly on the stereotypes perpetuated by restaurant signage. I must confess that I did have my undergraduate students read this and it engaged them in an excellent discussion on visual / typographic stereotypes.

"Intermingling of letters between cultures has clearly been going on for milennia; to say that it should stop now for the sake of type designers ingratiating themselves to the PC police is absurd, if not outright idiotic.

I appreciate this sentiment and part of me, the part that violently rails against the entire PC movement, wants to agree with you.

Perhaps it's cliche at this point to say that "letters are things, and not pictures of things" but for me the truth of the statement runs so deep that I can't ignore it.

If we're talking about just some joker who doesn't know a serif from a stick up his rear, then sure, let him be crass and make some badly shaped pseudo-Hebrewesque "font" and call it some ridiculous name. But if we're talking about actual type designers, people who stake their names and their reputations on making the very letters that give breath and life to words, to literature, to entire cultural movements, then I'm going to hold those people responsible for doing a modicum of research, and of having a knowledge and appreciation of the natural letterforms from which they borrow. Understand, then borrow.

I don't think that's PC. I think that's professionalism.

In fact, it looks a lot like Darius Wells's 1854 Gothic Tuscan Italian...

...which is sold by Adobe under the name Cottonwood as part of their popular woodtype collection.

Still, it's an interesting subject, regardless of how Jessica arrived at it.
Jose Nieto

This post is downright emo.

my question is how does one typographically convey the idea of a non-Latin letter form using Latin letter forms or vice versa ? is the mere idea of faux lettering itself a typographic crime ? or are there any fine examples of this ?

a year back while at grad school at MICA I took an experimental typography class taught by Ken barber from House industries . He gave us this experiment to work on where we picked one of four languages from a hat and then each had a typography assignment (He called the assignment "Borrowed Language") linked to it. Ken obviously wanted us all to avoid the usual cliche' but over course of the three weeks all of us realised just about how tough is it to represent a foregin language symbolically or the idea of a foregin language / culture using Latin typography and not touch on any of the cliche'

I don't believe these faces are offensive. Most are just English representations/adaptations of the original letterforms.

As was pointed out by some of the previous comments, the names should be the target of scrunity, not the letterforms. "Circumcision" might be pushing it a little, and there are definitely a lot of possibilites that could be down right bigotry. So, as designers we obviously have to take our titles into consideration. Stéphane insinuated that Neuland's background might be false. I would hope so. Although I've heard much more offensive commentary, the description given by Koch definitely would not fly today.

Names such as Falafel, Talmud, Jerusalem, or Faux Hebrew wouldn't be offensive to a person of moderate sensitivity. It's all about association when you're looking through your font library. If the projects calls for a take on Hebrew lettering with something that English speakers can recognize, a name such as "Jerusalem" or "Faux Hebrew" would give somebody a good inclination to check out that typeface. Say those fonts were titled "Bartolo" after the designer of "Hebrewish," most just pass it off as some serif or script from the 19th century.

Do you have examples of latinized Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese etc. fonts? And would those enable me to see this issue from 'the other' side?

(And is there any style difference between Latin and Cyrillic, or do they simply contain different letters?)
Jan Egil Kristiansen

This is a great post by Jessica and in my mind it raises all sorts of issues about imitation in so much of society today. I'm thinking in particular about faux design in its wider context: the Formica worktops that are supposed to look like oak; the "Italian marble" floor tiles made from that soft, warm plastic stuff. "Silverware" : the stuff with the coating that wears off after a couple of years. Then there's fake fur on fashion. The list can go on.

Let's consider the ethics and morality of so much of what we do and let faux designers knock out faux design.

Tim Masters

When it ultimately comes down to it, any serious designer just writes off these fonts because they are terrible. By almost every formality, bad. They're part of everything kitsch, right up there with the wallet-chain and Emo music.

But, I do feel these fonts are created for a reason—as a designer I see it as an unjustified reason. But when you see "Falafel" or "Shish Kabob" or whatever on the awning of a small corner kosher deli chances are the person who made that sign isn't a designer at all but rather the one serving you your matzah ball soup.

These fonts are made for people who, most fittingly, belong to reason #13 (and maybe #7) in Michael Bierut's article Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface. When non-designers (or crappy designers) are sifting through their Windows '92 type collection or Google-ing for their font choices because it's all they have/know what can we expect?

However, the fact remains that these fonts are 99.9% shit. But, we as designers have the ability—and hopefully drive—to educate as many as we can on this subject. Hell, maybe even offer our services for a week of free falafel!

Do you have examples of latinized Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese etc. fonts? And would those enable me to see this issue from 'the other' side?

There are a TON of fonts like this. There's a whole 'Foreign Look' section on http://www.dafont.com/ for them.

I don't consider any of them offensive. Just tacky.

But on some level, the line is a murky one: what's the difference between a celebrity making an unforgivable racist remark and a typographer making a font that clumsily perpetuates a cultural stereotype?

The difference is is not at all murky; I think we can make the fair assumption that the remarks by said celebrities were a direct product of their own racism, bigotry, and homophobia. On the other hand I see no evidence (and you present none) that the designers of typefaces derived from non-Roman letterforms meant to perpetuate cultural stereotypes -- or that their *product* had their origin in bigotry. If the basis for your argument is the irreverent cheeky names for the typefaces represent bigotry and racism, I think your implications are off the mark. I'm also curious as to which stereotypes you feel are being perpetuated -- you don't provide an example.

the degree to which inappropriate things are both said and done (and worse, overlooked) with regard to ethnic, racial and cultural inappropriateness continues to rise

Based on what data? Compared to when? The high watermark of the nineties? Just after 9/11 when racism took a back seat to nationalism? This whole argument feels muddled and fallacious.

Sounds to me like this was a case of a bit of hypersensitivity combined with a lack of knowledge of American wood type and the need to fill some space on ye olde blog.

Now, if you had said "don't you hate those crappy typefaces based on ethnic letterforms?" I'd be on board.
Scott McMillin

So, Scott: don't you hate those crappy typefaces based on ethnic letterforms?
Jessica Helfand

What is so offensive about copying the letterforms of another language? I didn't see anyone clearly lay this out. A poorly drawn typeface is offensive from a design perspective and names like "Falafel" are somewhat socially offensive, but I'd like to hear Jessica or someone articulate the point a little better. Is it about the ignorant, insensitve American global plunderer, who does not appreciate the history and significance of what he (or she, but generally he, right?) appropriates?

Though I am not a type designer, my love of letterforms is not limited to the Roman alphabet. For the Denver Zoo's Asian Tropics exhibit, I recently designed and illustrated some Indian art-inspired collateral that included some off-kilter hand-lettering, loosely based on Devanagari script. Though I am humbled by the subjects, I felt acquainted enough with Indian art, history, and religion to take this approach. It never occurred to me that someone might take offense at this type of work.
Jason Metter

Scott said:
I'm also curious as to which stereotypes you feel are being perpetuated -- you don't provide an example.

I think it's obvious. Just recently, Asian people (and many others) got angry at Rosie O'Donnell when she scrunched up her eyes and pretended to talk like an Asian person by pronouncing her "r's" as "l's."

Well, I think that what Jessica is referring to is kinda like that.
debbie millman

For the Denver Zoo's Asian Tropics exhibit, I recently designed and illustrated some Indian art-inspired collateral that included some off-kilter hand-lettering, loosely based on Devanagari script. Though I am humbled by the subjects, I felt acquainted enough with Indian art, history, and religion to take this approach. It never occurred to me that someone might take offense at this type of work.

Jason, if you consider yourself well versed in the culture you are borrowing from, then I don't think you have a problem. Some people will continue to be offended and shake their fists at any kind of intercultural borrowing, but on the whole I think those folks are yapping at ghosts. If you know what you're doing, and what you're doing has meaning beyond "i thought it was neato", it's all good.

All I want from other designers is a little integrity and forethought. I hope it isn't too much to ask for.

debbie millman said:
I think it's obvious. Just recently, Asian people (and many others) got angry at Rosie O'Donnell when she scrunched up her eyes and pretended to talk like an Asian person by pronouncing her "r's" as "l's."

What??? How does that have anything to do with typefaces? I don't think Jessica was trying to make a connection between typefaces and stereotyped Asian accents.

I think this whole article is a confusion between an emulation and racist parody. Just because you emulate the characteristics of a language's letters/characters doesn't make you a racist or perpetuator of ethnic stereotypes. If so, does that make Picasso a racist when he used African masks as an inspiration for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon?"

Scott summed it greatly:
On the other hand I see no evidence (and you present none) that the designers of typefaces derived from non-Roman letterforms meant to perpetuate cultural stereotypes -- or that their *product* had their origin in bigotry. If the basis for your argument is the irreverent cheeky names for the typefaces represent bigotry and racism, I think your implications are off the mark. I'm also curious as to which stereotypes you feel are being perpetuated -- you don't provide an example.

One of the more interesting intellectual motifs for me regarding commercial visual communications is a whole history in the US where it intersects with race and ethnicity, and has been yolked in ways that call upon and perpetuate culturally dominant ways of thinking about racial and ethnic minorities in the US.

As a 30-something Asian Americanist and as a designer, I now find the bamboo typeface, as we call it, which parodies Chinese and Japanese characters now fairly tiresome and predictable, like, an ethnic joke, mostly because the history of representations, generated by non-Asians before equal employment, regarding Asians in America, and by extension, the West, has regarded them as the butt of jokes, among a handful of stereotypical representations.

Non-Asian designers, believe me: you're not doing our community a favor by using this typeface or other stereotypical imagery like gongs, coolie hats, dragons, cherry blossoms, geishas, kung fu fighters, people bowing, chopsticks, bamboo trees -- the whole gamut of insipid, pre-modernist, orientalist imagery.

Has anyone noticed that these images seems stuck in some mythical feudal era and don't represent the state of the world today?

It doesn't matter how much tao you have in your step or that you have Chinese or Japanese characters tattooed on your back or use chopsticks. You're still drawing upon stereotypical imagery created by non-Asians about Asians, which still are occasionally painful, not funny, and not yet ironic for us. Perhaps in another generation or two after they have fallen out of vogue, like, say 50s and 60s imagery today.

What has always puzzled me is that there is a vibrant pop cultural tradition in Asia, but that non-Asians have generally not tapped into that vernacular, instead, constantly reaffirming their own tacitly stereotyped views. Like, say, Rosie O'Donnell did. She may not have thought she was being actively racist, but, she still drew upon racially stereotypical ideas in creating an utterance. It's the same thing in design. You're creating an artifact that draws on stereotypical ideas, even if you would never in your wildest dreams commit a violent hate crime.

Abercrombie & Fitch found this out when they were the target of Asian American ire years ago when their t-shirt designs bombed.

So too is there a whole history in the use of African Americans and Mexicans in commercial visual communications in America. No one remembers Little Black Sambo, which was temporarily revived as a Sanrio character before the black community, understandably, rose up in protest.

It's interesting to note, I think, who designs these things and what they say about the people who design them, who, after all, draw from a pool of commonly held ideas we call pop culture.

as a young not-so-clever designer not from a graphic/typeface design background, i really wish someone would give examples of good fonts which borrows from foreign scripts. show me a "culturally sensitive" font that informs the viewer about its background.

being ethnically Chinese, i did develop a disdain for cheap tricks of "excessive Orientalism", but i have to admit it works. it sends you that split-second message of wonton soup and not matzah ball soup. some call it lazy, some call it practical.

We should all just stick to Helvetica and leave it at that.
Tanner Christensen

This article is misguided on so many levels, I wouldn't know where to start; that is if I wanted to bother in the first place. And if I don't respond to any reactions, it means I'm not reading. Yallabye.

PLEASE, someone help my understanding.

Are we so obtuse or just ignorant?
Does one think that letterforms, or how they relate to language and culture, spontaneously occur?

Is the f'n world flat?
Holy crapola.

What else can I say to convey that we are so amazed that this discourse can occur here.
Is it against your 'great' taste to make forms which denigrate any 'God'.

Last week we decided upon an outside table at Bazaar, in Rotterdam. While enjoying our multicultural meal we softly admired the pseudo arabic lettering on a nightclub 100 meters to our diagonal. WE ADMIRED.

Cultures exchange. This is rich life.

Read a book.
Why would one write things like this?

Will you tell the beautiful women wearing headscarves that they cannot reference cowboys?
Where is the line drawn?

Will Dick Cheney draw it?

Step outside.
Outside in this big world and perhaps outside of yourself.

This post is amazingly counterproductive for designers, or at least for some of us...

What would Rushdie say?
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

All design has its influences. Done poorly, crass plagiarism, done well, respectful homage. What was it Wilde said about copying and genius?

For a typographic example of "good" orientalism, i.e. not too offputting for self-respecting designers, consider Georges Auriol's lettering of c.1900, made into a font for Deberny & Peignot, and the basis of Guimard's Paris "Metro" lettering.

To Westerners, it has a subtly exotic flavor -- the unconnected brushstrokes reminiscent of Chinese brush lettering, -- and the influence of the East on Art Nouveau and the Aesthetic movement is evident.
nick shinn

Has anyone noticed that these images seems stuck in some mythical feudal era and don't represent the state of the world today?

As opposed to images of Englishness or Germaness?

No one remembers Little Black Sambo

I must be no one. I remember reading the story as a child and I remember when Sambo's was a thriving restaurant chain rather than a single restaurant in Santa Barbara.

I find it rare that any graphic design is successful when the choice of typeface does obvious heavy lifting. In a sense it's like Dave Hickey's notion that Art is valuable stuff made from cheap material. How often does a typeface that screams "look at me" fail to get in the way of the real craft of design? In this sense, Template Gothic or Keedy Sans seem very much like the various ethnofaces.
Gunnar Swanson

If your design project warrants an ethnic flair why would you use a prefab gimmick typeface like any of the above for a logo type or layout?

I've always felt doing so was a cop out.

If you want something unique don't go looking for a pre-existing font to do your work, just create your own original letter forms for a project and leave these fonts for desktop publishers and secretaries who feel creative by using them.

Von Glitschka

That Von Glitschka dude is sure funny!

Ryan P. F.,

Congratulations on the most abstract post ever. (Okay, 'ever' might be an exaggeration.)

But, if what I understood in that poem-like post is actually what you meant, I think that in order to "pay homage" to a culture through letterforms those letterforms would better be served as an educated (aesthetically pleasing) examination of one's cultural and not a kitschy creation of stereotypes. Making a shitty typeface titled "Headscarf Helvetica" doesn't necessarily give the greatest insight to the Middle Eastern culture, per se.

I also don't think this discussion is counterproductive. Getting anyone to examine anything is always beneficial. How they use that information, though, is probably where your comment is better served.

The correct question to ask is how fonts (and other design elements) are being used. An Urban Outfitters t-shirt that uses an "Oriental" font to make a racist joke against Asians is offensive. A Chinese restauranteur using the same font on his menus is not (even if a design professional would consider it unforgivably obvious and lowbrow).

Everything is referential. The Roman alphabet in any form reflects thousands of years of cultural development. Every variation of it comes with "fingerprints" and cultural associations.

Can a particular font really be inherently offensive? Are the gorgeous Fraktur typefaces forever verboten because the Nazis (briefly) canonized them?

There's a puritanical, "Year Zero" aspect to the modernist tendency (in design, architecture, music, etc.) to condemn all references to the past as frivolous, decadent, or offensive.

It's neither necessary nor wise to always reinvent the wheel, and confine ourselves to design elements that contain no traces of history. It's not actually even possible -- unless someone wants to come up with an entirely new alphabet to replace the one we have.

I would tend to agree with Maximus. The things at fault here seem to be more about font names and font context, rather than inherent designer malice. Most of these fonts are poorly cut, and because of that most designers won't use them. But it is indeed ahistorical to dismiss cultural letterforms, and some company's do it quite well. I think Cafe Spice's mark is quite handsome and witty. It's all about the intent and the context. But thanks Jessica for a very stimulating reflection!
Matthew McNerney

Interesting discussion. Much like a car wreck or a Paris Hilton interview.

I get a great deal of online come-ons from India and China to have me outsource my design work. If I were to ever go that route would I be able to request that they set my headlines in Bagel? Or Helvetica? Or Trajan? What are my options here?
Mark Kaufman

How do design artifacts (ex. typefaces) enable self-definition and self-determination in relationships of unequal power?

I really appreciate this article and the discussion generated around it. When design is increasingly concerning itself with issues of diversity, the questions posed by Jessica are important to addressing the openness of the field.

How do the design decisions that designers make (our intentions) as they become manifest in specific environments (restaurant menu vs. job application) affect the receptions by diverse groups of people (positive, neutral, negative) to ideas of self and other, within a context where everyone is not given the same access to the agency to define themselves.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Helvetica story is that it was designed with the intention to get away from the national ethnic markers of many European typefaces. It is the Euro of typefaces. In the context of centuries of infighting among European nations, this was important in helping to define a new identity for Europe as international, not national.

Yet, that same Helvetica in the context of an African government form could be seen as colonialism. Through this so-called international typeface, Europeans are trying to transform the "disorderliness" of specific African identities into an imagined rational, ordered, European identity.

Ethics is about the mitigation or elimination of possible negative consequences of one's decisions. This requires the imagining of how design can hurt as well as help. Beyond PC-ism, the goal is to try and do no harm, especially to the weakest among you.

Dori Tunstall

The African context of Helvetica colonialism, which Dori mentions, is an important reminder of a large problem. In a number of the workshops we have given, specifically in Moscow, Russia and Katowice, Poland the ultra-conservative, politically correct and complacent laziness displayed in the attitudes among armchair type designers and typographers functions as a cultural eraser. What we see in regions such as this are droves of agencies plastering Helvetica in messages(massages) of watered down Western-ness.

Young design students in these areas are pushed to eradicate any references to local/regional culture and expression. This is not a factor of teachers or mentors but of Western pressure and what they see as a 'hip' 'functional' style, no matter how ineffective the end communicational product becomes. Oh, yes it also requires much less thought, skill, experience and time to create banal messages which strive to be (cough) objective, but nevertheless fail to communicate much of anything.

We have had a number of students actually tell us that they think they have no cultural design (representational) legacy to build upon. Poland and Russia both have extremely rich histories of poster design, and graphic communication! When the same students, drunk with neo-modernism, have a moment of clarity the results are not only uplifting but mark a moment of personal/cultural reflection while providing a path to richer communication and design vocabulary.

If the bottom line of this post was supposedly ethics then maybe the vision is far too close to perceive the larger perspective. If you create or wear a shirt which propagates cultural stereotypes in such a negative manner that it is actually culturally harmful, then shame on you. But I hardly think this is the case. It seems reasonable to lay the greater shame upon those who use this opportunity to preach non-design, less expressive communication and formal conformity.

Testing boundaries is much different and healthier than erasing the complete interior.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

As mentioned above, the original Chipboard letters aren't Hebrew-inspired, but the rest of the references are. As a designer, student of typography, and Hebrew calligrapher, I'm not offended by these typefaces, I just think they're lousy. They're truly awful renderings of the Hebrew letterforms, badly adapted to the English alphabet. The logo for HE'BREW does a marginally better job, and benefits from only needing to work out appropriate treatments for 5 letters.

I've had clients who wanted something along these lines, and I've never found a font that could do exactly what was needed - I've always looked at the letters involved and tried to find the closest and most identifiable visual elements in the Hebrew alphabet, and then drawn them by hand.

In general, there is no "need" for these typefaces, except as a shorthand way of conveying the cultural context. You would never use them alongside actual Hebrew text (as speculated above) - in that sort of multi-lingual application, you'd try for a well-designed English typeface and a well-designed Hebrew typeface that both share similar design sensibilities, although one may be serif, one san-serif, etc.

I also have to confess that I honestly never thought of the yellow star as part of the context for this kind of typeface. Interesting thought... I would be surprised if examples of this type of adaptation didn't pre-date the Nazi usage, though.

We all have our own, preconceived — and often inaccurate — notions about what represents certain cultural aesthetics; this is evidenced by the very example of the chipboard alphabet, which, as pointed out, was more likely inspired by nineteenth century woodtype than Hebrew letterforms.

Making simplified generalizations and associations does not necessarily indicate malicious intent; in fact, I'd argue it's part of our natural (and perhaps flawed) method of processing/storing ideas as humans. Does a yellow circle surrounded by radiating line segments really look like the sun? Do stick figures look like people? Could most people accurately describe and/or draw the American flag from memory? As a matter of practicality and efficiency, we typically do not store or recall most information in complex, accurate detail, but rather use streamlined representations that disregard nuances — a form of "mental JPEG compression" if you will. Considering this, it is not difficult to imagine how caricatures of cultural aesthetics can innocently materialize.

As professional designers and communicators, it is expedient but completely unacceptable for us to rely upon such informal, vague caricatures, both for the sake of accuracy and the sake of art. We should all invest in, read and keep handy our Phillip Meggs volume and always be sure to research every project. But in the event that a designer does rely upon caricature to guide a design, I wouldn't automatically label the approach racist, which implies malevolent intent. "Racist" is a strong word and should not be bandied about, lest it begin to be taken too lightly. Ignorant, provincial, oblivious, lazy...these seem more appropriate terms in the absence of evidence that a designer had intent to demean.

Though Stéphane scolds Giampietro a few comments up, I personally like his article in the TDC's Fall/Winter 2004 issue of Letterspace. For me, it offers a solid account of the use of type within a greater design and marketing framework that was deliberately created to oppress.
Leila Singleton

There is a particular non ethnic group for whom all discussions relating to ethnic bigotry are necessarily ironic in that the mere argumentation against racism is in itself racist.
What? I hear you ask. Well i come from a specifically non ethnic background. Both parents are from different countries, i was born in a third country, moved to a fourth country between the ages of 2 and 20, moved to a fifth where i spent two years, then a sixth where i spent 15 years and now live in a seventh. Whats does this mean? It means that in all these countries i have been referred to as the outsider. "you are not from around these parts are you?" is the first or second sentence directed at me from anyone i meet. When asked what ethnicity I am, i cannot say that i am any at all. Not only have i borne the brunt of racist jokes wherever i went, the irony is that not actually belonging to any race none of the racism directed toward me was of any value. In addition to this what i have noticed is that those that complain most regarding racism tend to be those that are the most racist themselves. American africans tend to be the only ones that can use the N word, those of the jewish religion are the most anti-semitic (especially considering that arabs are semites) and so on and so forth. The whole question of racism revolves around the issue of patriotism, and those of us who have no "ethnicity" tend to view this whole racist question as similar to religious differences, with the only result being hurt, pain, and at worst death. It is time to realise that the only reason that racism exists is an innate need to feel accepted, or part of a group by the individual, and both country and religion give this feeling in the form of acceptance into a group by merely being borne into it. A goruping od this nature provides a foundation, yet what value does that foundation really have. Humanity will not progress past these most base necessities nor progress into any a society where bigotry does nto exist until these boundaries are eliminated. Yet, this poses another problem in itself, homogenisation. Do we realy want to be clones or individuals.
So whats is right or wrong about racism? Morality eventually is in the eyes of the beholder, there is only a right or wrong depending upon your viewpoint, and it is only because of this that we have such a rich experiential pool to draw from. Vive la difference. and if i may afford a suggestion from a person that has never felt offended by a racist remark ... chill out man.

I am the designer of Bagel, shown at the top, and Falafel, which is also mentioned in the comments. I am rather puzzled by the fact that fonts like those two can be this controversial. (I know this thread is old, but I didn't discover it until now.)

One Teddy Blanks stated back in June 2007 that Falafel "is probably even more offensive" that Bagel, but he didn't say why. I presume that Blanks is not Arabic, so he should not be personally offended. To claim that Falafel is offensive is to claim that stereotypes about Arabs are by nature negative – indeed, it would logically be an insult to even ask somebody if he or she is an Arab, be it the case or not. Also it presupposes that Arabs have no sense of humour, which is not the case. The same goes for Jews.

Furthermore, do things like lettershapes belong to anyone? Is the Arabic alphabet the property of all Arabs exclusively, and do I steal when I borrow shapes from it? I recently released the font Drakkar, which is based on Runes – is that okay, or am I being disrespectful and insensitive towards my own Viking heritage?

Some commenters in this thread even have a go at Lithos. I mean, Lithos is a great piece of work, but while it references Greek lettercarving, it is often seen on Jamaican travel posters and the like. Who would have thought that, and who does it hurt? The Greeks or the Jamaicans? Teddy Blanks, maybe?

I have had no negative reactions from Jews or Arabs who have seen my two fonts. They usually say thing like "oh, look, the a is really an m, and that word resembles an actual Arabic/Hebrew word, how interesting!" Admittedly, there have not been any designers among them, but the fonts have been complimented by designers, too, regarding the quality of the drawings. I really can't see in what manner they are "poorly made".

Falafel, which was the first of the two fonts to be made, was born from my fascination with the attractive graphic shapes of Arabic that sometimes resemble latin letters. So I decided to try and make a latin font out of them. I sent a sample to FontShop who liked it and proposed to distribute it, and they asked me to do another, Hebrew-based font to make up a package. The names, Falafel and Bagel, were decided on by me and FontShop together, with the intention of being non-controversial. Actually, I had originally called the "Arabic" font Suez.

The two fonts are not big sellers, so I have only seen them in use once each: Bagel was used on a poster by a Jewish colleague of mine, and Falafel I spotted on a T-shirt sporting some very sensitive political message along the line of "who is a terrorist, and who is a freedom fighter?"

I consider my two fonts good design efforts which may be useful to some, although proper designers would hardly use them. I don't, for one. Intellectually they are unambitious, even cheesy, in their fascination with "other" scriptures, I admit that willingly. They do not venture deep into the respective cultures, they are just light reflections, but they offend only those who want to be offended. We are talking about fonts, not complete and exhaustive depictions of peoples or individuals.

Jennifer Helfand states: "... fine to use Fake Hebrew for a deli; not so fine on, say, a yellow armband." Well, that's up to the font user, not the font designer. I once saw a Nazi flyer set in Helvetica, is Helvetica now evil? Is Max Miedinger now evil? And did the message of the flyer become true, since Helvetica looks so neutral and trustworthy? Oh, and is Helvetica offensive to the Swiss? Does it rudely dish out the stereotype of the bland, boring, neutral Helvets? Are clichéd Viking movies offensive to Scandinavians? Are Turkish held pizzerias offensive to Italians? Are Roman held pizzerias offensive to Napoletanos? Do type designers and pizza bakers really wield that kind of power?
Per Baasch Jørgensen

My first thought at seeing this article was, "This is a new topic?" My second was, "It must be because faux-Hebrew fonts are new territory..."

As an Asian American, I grew up surrounded by "design" maneuvers such as faux-brushstrokes, or what some of us baldly label as "chinky fonts." The thing is, these fonts try to tell you who you are - i.e., Asians love calligraphy. And along with it come a host of associations: "ching-chong," kowtow-ing, buck teeth, karate, and so on. (I seriously put it to anyone: Who doesn't think something like "ching-chong" or hear a gong sound when they see a faux-Asian font? Decades of reinforcement by TV commercials and films should have effected this.)

I don't find it merely "cheesy," as some commenters have put it. I find them to be racial characterizations that I have been trying to escape. Despite the purportedly innocent intentions of faux-Asian fonts, brushstrokes do not speak to me. I've begun to resent the implication that they should. To those that claim that fonts are about having a sense of humor, I say that after 33 years, I have ceased to find it funny. Maybe the novelty is cute for a few years with some ethnically-associated fonts, but for others, the jokes are so stale that they stink.

What might also be taken from the example of faux-Asian fonts, which have a long history of unpleasant use, is that often these ethnically-associated fonts are used as the mouthpiece of an ethnicity, by and to people who are not of that ethnicity (i.e., by whites and to white audiences). Asian Americans don't need a faux-Asian fonts to tell them that there's Chinese takeout in those boxes. That's been done for the white reader.

Some Mexicans and Chicanos hate the "fiesta" typifications behind Hot Tamale, some African Americans hate the "primitivist" pigeonholing behind Neuland. Others might embrace them for some reason or another. Yet perhaps we can all admit that font choices are not neutral territory; that they are not just on a continuum with cheese on the left, and pleasing lines on the right.

Typos = "to beat, to strike, an impression, a mark, a mold..."
Stereos = "firm, solid"

The big irony in this discussion is that type designers could claim a lack of real agency behind the power of what they do. Because this is about design's capacity to perpetuate stereo(types), and because every commenter is, I'm guessing, a (typo)grapher or designer generally, it's really about your capacity to perpetuate stereotypes, your own senses of complicity, guilt, and claims to innocence.

The use of stereotype-perpetuating types may not be an act of out-and-out racism, but perhaps we could recognize that some find them upsetting in their cumulative use. If you now know that some people find them upsetting, why would you risk marginalizing some of your audience? It's just something to think about when attempting to represent race and ethnicity through design, which is a loaded idea to begin with.

where can i find free faux hebrew font downloads

Jobs | June 14