What does Taiwan mean to you? And what is the essence of its beauty? We spoke to four local creators about how they draw inspiration from their daily lives, and use apps to portray Taiwan through their unique lenses.
“While looking for an answer, I realised that there really wasn’t one. Even the characters themselves were invented by people to begin with. “ – Ho Ting-an
There are some things in life that we take for granted, details so small that we don’t notice until they’re pointed out. One such thing is the Chinese characters we see every day – and the different faces they put on.
Bubble tea shops, for example, have been sporting signs and menus in retro typefaces for the past few years. Fried chicken stands, on the other hand, stand out with a more modern and dignified font. Still other vendors have different signature scripts, some that simply seem cuter than others.
To find out more about the many faces of these characters we walk past every single day, we first have to understand the role of the typeface designer.
Ho Ting-an sits at the crossroads of a handful of design communities. He creates visual masterpieces, fashion award-winning, internationally acclaimed typefaces that have been exhibited across the glove and lectures on his expertise. But at his very core, he identifies as a graphic designer.
Craft the answer you’re looking for
Ho’s unexpected journey towards typography success began with his penchant for designing brand identities.
“When you’re asked to design a logo, you’ve got to consider how to incorporate the brand’s Chinese name,” he explains. “One time, I was unable to find a font that suited my client’s needs and had to design one myself. It was during this process that I realised I was digging myself into a deep hole, which could easily take a lifetime to fill.”
Ho understood that only by learning the history and evolution of typography could he come up with something fresh in his design. From Chinese typefaces such as Ming, Gothic and Kai to English font types, he delved deep into the research himself as there weren’t any relevant courses in Taiwan.
“I didn’t set out to be disruptive. I simply wanted to create a database to show the clients my expertise in motion graphics,” Ho explains. With this idea in mind, he launched the Motion Type Project, which played with the different strokes and structures of Chinese characters. Going one step further, he subverted the forms, sounds and meanings of the words he picked out, to challenge the imagination of his clients.
From concept to project
Ho’s projects may look grand and complicated, but they all stem from tiny fragments of inspiration.
New ideas often come to Ho during his commute or at meetings: How should a character be animated to look fun? How can he turn his ideas into reality?
“Miro is one of my favourite creativity incubators,” says Ho. The collaborative online whiteboard app boasts an impressive library of templates, including post-it notes, sketch exercises and customer touchpoint maps – and he finds the Mind Map the most useful for extending his ideas to their fullest potential.
Take the Chinese character “馬” below as an example. Whenever Ho decides on a character to work on, he’ll create a mind map in Miro.
“Whatever the style of my project, I always start by jotting down my thoughts on all the fun ways a character can be manipulated. Miro is great for brainstorming, and I can go as far as I’d like by simply tapping the plus icon (+).”
Once he had gotten used to working on single characters though, he was inspired to create a short film where text takes centre stage. The idea was to combine the meanings and forms of different characters in order to drive the plot.
The beginning stages of his production were largely a matter of trial and error, and Ho needed nimble, flexible tools for the iterative process. That’s when VSCO and Notion came into play.
Using VSCO, he was able to make quick edits, changing perspectives, adding noise and adjusting halos. The resulting images were then added to the storyboard, which he created using an unconventional tool – Notion.
Within the app, Ho constructed a table filled with the graphics he curated, along with their relevant text descriptions, scene numbers and usages – similar to a continuity log on set. “But it’s hard to get the full picture from a table, so I’d switch views to show my images and animated GIFs as thumbnails,” he says.
Charting a path for Taiwanese typography
From aesthetic considerations to stylistic variations, Ho Ting-an has been pushing the boundaries of typefaces. He believes that despite the elements borrowed from other cultures, there’s considerable diversity in Taiwanese font designs, and local, original typefaces stand a real chance at ultimately coming into their own.
“This will come from the grassroots, drawing inspiration from the likes of traditional parades and temples. I think the best chance for Taiwanese typeface design lies in the Kai. Not the standard Kai, but Kai-style fonts in general,” says Ho.
Typefaces are woven in the fabric of our languages, and as we read, write and learn to appreciate them, that’s when the efforts of designers like Ho Ting-an will be recognised and celebrated.