Shuyan Wu

East vs West: A Type Exploration

Type study · Final Studio project · research & documentation


How we think shapes our written words. Our written words shape how we think.

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An appreciation for letterforms that started from the letterform symbol exercise grew into this Final Studio project that explored the compositional principles, underlying philosophies and graphical qualities of Chinese characters vs the Western alphabet through twelve weeks of research and documentation.

The resulting 120-page process book was curated and presented along a 5-panel wall. Below are sample pages highlighting some of the topics explored.

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Asymmetric harmony vs uniform geometry

Chinese characters place a premium on asymmetric harmony. Basic strokes arrange themselves to form complex, organic, yet balanced forms and counterforms. No character is perfectly geometric or has parts that assert equal visual dominance – e.g., the left 木 (tree) is smaller than the right 木 in the character 林 (woods), and even the simplest character 一 (one) is not written as a perfectly horizontal line, but with a slight upward tilt and/or a thicker stroke ending. This striving for asymmetric harmony reflects the Chinese believe that there needs to be diversity and contrast to effect a spirited, dynamic yet harmonious world.

Western alphabet, on the other hand, is characterized by balanced, geometric forms. Each letter is constructed from a simple combination of rectangle, triangle, circle, semicircle, and/or line. The relative proportions within and across letters are adjusted to achieve visual uniformity. The geometric construction of the Western alphabet gives rise to a more rational and efficient writing system that partly accounts for the relative ease of foreign speakers to learn the alphabet and of the digitalization of typefaces.

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Type arrangements

Each Chinese character sits in its own square box. The square box represents the earth, and each character – with its asymmetric yet harmonious strokes arrangement – represents the dynamic spirit that situates above. The "heart" of each character lies in its center (i.e., the center block if one were to divide the square box into nine blocks); the density to which strokes gather in the center affects the overall look of a Chinese typeface, similar to the importance of the x-height to Western typefaces.

Alphabet letters, meanwhile, are arranged next to one another along linear tracks like musical notations. Whereas a harmonious arrangement of strokes is key to the visual balance of each Chinese character, letterspacing and wordspacing are key to the visual balance of the alphabet.

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Unfolding passages

Chinese passages progress one character at a time from left to right or from top to bottom, with each character emerging like a blossoming flower. There is no concept of word spacing in Chinese since each character is a standalone unit, so characters align like regimented soldiers. Only punctuations provide the occasional spacing.

Western passages unfold one word at a time from left to right, with each word growing out in a straight line as one letter immediately follows another. Compared to Chinese passages, Western passages have a stronger rhythmic quality thanks to word spacing that is akin to musical pauses between words of various lengths.

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Small differences matter

Subtle variations in the curvature, angles and proportion within each letterform add up to typefaces with distinct personalities – e.g., a dot stroke (点) can take on the shape of a teardrop in a calligraphic serif (宋体) or a geometric line in a sans serif (黑体); the ear on a "g" can assume a graceful drop in Didot or an upward chisel in New Caledonia.

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Writing or drawing?

There is a strong gestural quality inherent in both the look and the writing of Chinese characters – each character is written in one fluid, sinuous motion as if one is making a gestural drawing, and each character embodies a living, breathing spirit.

Gestures are perhaps less present in the writing of Wester letters, but it is nevertheless easy to identify the gestural quality inherent in individual letters, especially when one compares across different typefaces – e.g., some are delicate, some are sturdy; some are forceful, some are unassuming.