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Youth reviving the art of Khmer calligraphy in digital age

Nou Sovannarout (left) and Nouv Samnang work on a Khmer Typography Team design.
Nou Sovannarout (left) and Nouv Samnang work on a Khmer Typography Team design. Kimberley McCosker

Youth reviving the art of Khmer calligraphy in digital age

Despite technical hurdles, a growing number of young Cambodians are driving development of Khmer fonts

The members of the Khmer Typography Team act as a collaborative entity: they dislike one-on-one interviews, their designs are often achieved thanks to cooperation over coffees, and their fonts are freely available for download from their blog. With the exception of the two members who are monks, they sport matching T-shirts featuring their logo on the front and sample fonts in red or gold on the back.

Young, tech-savvy and unfamiliar with offices, the team are at the forefront of a surge of interest in typographical design in Cambodia taking place mainly online and in the coffee shops of the city’s capital.

Nouv Samnang, 28, the team’s unofficial spokesperson, explained that the group’s interest in bespoke fonts was initially sparked by a one-off workshop in Khmer font programming in 2008.

“At first, we designed [fonts] individually and did not meet,” he said over coffee this week. “But once we had created some new Khmer fonts, we created the Khmer Typography Team on Facebook to show people our achievements and receive comments and questions.”

Since its launch, Khmer Fonts’ Facebook fanbase has grown to more than 27,000 members, including many new amateur typographers who head online to share their first attempts at Khmer typography or to crowd source solutions to glitches in the Font Lab and Photoshop software that they use.

Members are also creating an unofficial archive of designs they like, sharing everything from the spidery swirl of Buddhist scriptures to the psychedelic ’60s slant of Sinn Sisamouth’s album artwork. One popular online post shows a blackboard in Banteay Meanchey province with letters chalked by a teacher: the woman’s handwriting is considered so beautiful that typographers are hounding her for permission to digitise the style.

Lettering by Men Vannak inspired by Khmer Kbach design
Lettering by Men Vannak inspired by Khmer Kbach design. Christine Schmutzler

To type Khmer letters on a keyboard involves multiple keystrokes, meaning that English or phonetic Latin script spellings of Khmer words are often used instead of Khmer script in informal communications. But Samnang, a freelance designer, said that over the past few years, young Cambodians had been embracing their own alphabet and were increasingly going online to share homemade posters and memes written in Khmer script.

According to Christine Schmutzler, a graphic designer who became interested in Khmer type after moving to the Kingdom in 2002, the surge in interest is long overdue. Prior to the Khmer Rouge, Schmutzler pointed out, Cambodian calligraphy and typography were thriving, experimental disciplines. “Old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s [show] an enormous diversity of styles,” she said. “There are letters made of Khmer Kbach ornaments [elements of traditional Khmer architecture], of bone shapes, or bold forms inspired by the contemporary Western style.”

As with all artistic disciplines, font making was suffocated by the upheaval of the Khmer Rouge years, during which time, Schmutzler said, books, documents and the expertise of old masters was lost to time. Few of the country’s cutting-edge fonts were revived after. “Therefore, research as well as teaching is very difficult,” she explained. “For creative work, inspiration from the past is crucial.”

The Khmer Typography Team are taking the lessons of the past to heart, and cite old handwritten scripts as their primary influences in making digital fonts. But it is a very modern innovation that has allowed their project to blossom: the 2001 invention of Khmer Unicode. Whereas previously any computerised Khmer font had to be made using programs intended for Latin lettering, Unicode allocates specific codes to Khmer characters, making the design process much easier.

The man behind Unicode is Danh Hong, a webmaster and graphic designer from the area of Vietnam known as Kampuchea Krom who relocated to Cambodia in 2000. In 2001, he programmed Khmer Unicode, and in 2002, he created KhmerOS: the open-source software that allows computers to run with Khmer script as their primary language.

A handwritten ‘house for rent’ sign with inked lettering.
A handwritten ‘house for rent’ sign with inked lettering. Christine Schmutzler

Danh drew diagrams and doodled continually as he explained the intricacies of Khmer type design. “It’s all about ratios,” he said, explaining that the fact Khmer characters go above and below the line, and are of different widths, makes it difficult to process them in standard font makers that rely on regular spacing.

The sheer scale of Khmer script adds to the challenge. According to Schmutzler, Khmer has “2,821 complex consonant combinations with stacked overlapping consonant feet and vowels” in addition to 14 standalone characters, making programming a complete alphabet extremely time consuming.

And financial incentives for the effort are not easy to come by. Because fonts, unlike computer software, are not protected under Cambodian copyright law, they can be used locally with impunity. Hong said that he frequently spots fonts he has designed in unexpected places, including on government documents and royal decrees, while the Khmer Typography Team reported that their more youthful designs were popular with KTVs.

But Hong insisted that, while there may be a lack of expertise, there is no lack in enthusiasm. With local provisions low, he said, he has even taken to organising trips to Thailand for young designers keen to learn more about how Southeast Asian scripts are being used elsewhere.

“We’ve started to see a lot of fonts, and people have started to understand that they are important,” he said. “But I don’t think the government has really changed their thinking yet.

“When the authorities understand about copyright, then they can protect us and we can become professional.”

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