Fundamentals of Chinese Typography: #1 Fonts Styles (Songti, Fangsongti, Mingti, Heiti, Kaiti)

Most of our Chinese typefaces tend to be few and far in between, apart from the random file names, type names, we find it often a baffling task to make sense of Chinese type. To open this new series of posts about Chinese type in greater detail, allow me to explain to you how Chinese typography is classified. This will help you to recognise, identify and be more precise when it comes to typeface selection. Here we go! 🙂

Let’s define some important concepts I’ll be using here first:-


Font Styles 字型格式: These are NOT to be seen as typeface / font. No, they are called STYLES, because they represent a tone, if you will, of how a typeface looks like. For instance, Garamond is a TYPEFACE, and it falls under the category of ‘Old Style’, for instance.

Fonts aka Typeface 字體: Arial, Comic Sans, Helvetica. These are what we like to call (the names of) fonts, and typefaces.

Typeface Style 字體樣式: Bold, Italic, Oblique, Thick, Extrabold, Bold Italic, etc. These apply to a specific typeface, and its variety depend entirely on the typeface itself.

It’s much easier to see it from the perspective of English typography. For instance, there are a few broad categories that typefaces can fall into:-


In the same manner, Chinese typefaces can also be classified into a few broad categories known as font styles.




As you may be immediately aware, Chinese typeface names usually carry much more info than English. In the typeface selector menu, you can instantly tell what font AND font style it is.

In the case of Fangzheng and Hiragano type face, we can see the specifications listed directly in each typeface name.

A Chinese typeface name is made up of the font name + font style + typeface style (if any) + language specification.

Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 4.19.21 PM

In other words, should you have the complete set of a particular typeface, you will have, literally, several very similar names in the menu. Unless you look carefully, you may even think that they are duplicates of each other!

Unlike English typeface where you basically use ‘Times”  then go to select “Bold”, for example, each typeface style (Bold, Italic etc) is completely redrawn and recognised as a separate typeface name listed on your computer. This can be confusing for many people, but know that its the same thing.

Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 4.24.31 PM

And of course, there are also bigger typeface families that have much more specific typeface styles as well.


Thankfully the classifications don’t get too much more complex from here. To understand the various classifications, we need to understand the Chinese writing system.




You can tell a songti very easily by its relatively thinner horizontal lines compared to its vertical strokes. There also ‘triangles‘ at the end of each stroke. This is to compensate for any possible ‘wear and wear’ that may occur during printing of that era.



Some characteristics of Fangsong include a uniform thickness of stroke width throughout the character, and are visually narrower and taller than its original song ti.



The main differences between Song Ti and Ming Ti lies in the way the characters are written, as shown below:-




Hei Ti has a standard, uniform thickness in stroke width throughout, and and looks much fuller and has stronger optical weight compared to other typeface styles.



Kai Ti can be easily recognised as its strokes mimic the fluidity of the calligraphic brush, with varying stroke width throughout the typeface.

I have covered the 5 main types of Ti (Font Styles) that you will commonly encounter. But of course, there will always be more styles for us to discover.


Chinese fonts behave similarly to English fonts, in that they can be classified into broad categories known as font styles. Understanding this is crucial to making sense of Chinese typography.

Within the typeface itself, there are also typeface styles, aka bold, italic, etc. In Chinese type, this may be seen as 小標、中標、大標、幼線、粗體etc.

Chinese fonts are more specific in their taxonomy; every listed font will only have one variant of each typeface (e.g. bold, light, regular will appear as SEPARATE listed fonts), unlike English ones where you can simply ‘select’ the typeface style within that same typeface.

The usage of different font styles suit different purposes (I’ll be discussing this in more detail in days to come).


3 cool stuff you CAN do with Chinese design / typography (but rarely English) – Chinese Typography Part 2/3

Hello there! I’m back with the 2nd part of the Chinese Typo series. Thanks to everyone who gave me their feedback, and I’m so glad you found these posts useful! Tonight I will show you 3 awesome things you can do with Chinese design. Some of them take advantage of the appearance of the Chinese characters, others leverage on the cultural and linguistic capabilities of the language. Enjoy!

1. You can use Chinese vertically! (Vertical Alignment)

As stated before, Chinese characters are similar in shapes in that they’re blockish and appear as “monospaced” characters. This means that unlike English, you can also place them vertically, and they’ll still read fine! In fact, for short phrases, vertically aligned text can grab a lot more attention especially in Singapore since most headers / taglines are presented horizontally.

HOWEVER, do note the following technical stuffs.

  • Chinese characters dom’t look very nice when the vertical space between them is large (left). And since most programmes still think the Chinese text is horizontal, you need to MANUALLY REDUCE the leading (or line-spacing).
  • For this reason, DO NOT use the “Type Vertical Text” tool to type them. Instead, use the normal Type tool. Draw the text box out to a roughly determined width that you’d want your Chinese characters to look like. Then begin to type your characters. Each new character should then “spill out” of the narrow width, down onto the next line.
  • A good lead will be the font size, or slightly smaller, depending on the spacial arrangement of the characters as well. For instance, the “一” is barely more than 1 thin line. So it’s best to shorten the vertical spacing between it and the next character below, so that it doesn’t look like 2 separate words, or detached.

2. You can modify each character to desired effect! (Character-specific modification)

For a word like “大人”, you can modify the “人” to achieve the following:

Of course, you can do a mixture to achieve a composite of effects as well. Why is this special to Chinese. Just ask yourself if you can modify the word “ADULT” and keep a straight face on. Haha.

3. You can play around with Sounds! (Homonymic Customisation)

Mediacorp has been toying with this for ages now, but it’s still a fun thing to try out. Since Chinese language has plenty of homonymic words shou4 (受, 瘦, 壽), or pa2 (爬, 扒, 琶). You can simply sub-out one character to make it instantly more interesting!

In the above example, the word 受 is replaced by 瘦. It adds a sense of liveliness and humor to the catch phrase. The use of character customisation on 瘦 also makes it visually stand out. A very commonly used method in Chinese magazines and newspapers (especially tabloids).

Caution though. While at this, make sure you don’t change the intended meaning of the tagline! (It did in the above one). And avoid making cliche changes. Or it’ll look just as cheesy as Mediacorp variety show names.

Okay that’s all for tonight! Thanks for reading!

In the last part of this series I will touch on the final 2 things you can do with Chinese design and typography. They include using the calligraphic and culture aspect of Chinese designs, and how Chinese can be used to formulate  effective taglines, perfect for marketing campaigns and advertisements.

Stay tuned!!

Beyond the Sim and the Sun — Chinese Typography Part 1/3

I’ve thought about this, and I’ve decided to give a 3-part series based on my knowledge and experience with Chinese design publications. I’m not an expert, definitely, but it’s my hope that you, the designer or the audience, will gain some insight and form some of your own as well. Chinese is a beautiful language, and it deserves to be standing proud on its own. 🙂

Most of you are familiar with these 2 fonts. They come standard in every computer, and hence, quite unfortunately, in almost every design as well.

P.S. The following fonts are shown in Traditional Chinese, but all have Simplified Versions. No worries!

There’s nothing wrong with these fonts; it’s just that they’ve been over used to the point that it looks very boring and repetitive. Unless you want your design to be one of the “rest”, try staying away from these fonts. But of course, it depends also on the PURPOSE of the font. If it’s for a body of text, it MAY (read: MAY) be okay to use them. Depending, but I still don’t recommend it. Because they’re much nicer alternatives out there.

1. Zongyi

This is a very commonly used font in popular entertainment magazines and shows, as the title might have already hinted to you. Zongyi font is perfect for taglines, titles, headers and quotes. It’s good for promotional purposes. But precisely so, you may wanna refrain from making your school report or assignment look too gimmicky.

2. Dahei

Think of Dahei as Helvetica Bold. It’s when you wanna emphasize stuff. Dahei is awesome for subheaders, bulleted points, bylines, short introductory text. But because this font has a thicker width, a body of Dahei text may prove too overbearing on the eye, so its not for large pages of text.

3. Zhunyuan

Zhunyuan is a less formal font due to its roundness and amicability. It’s really versatile; you can use it as a header, subheader, body text font — just about anything. I’d say Zhunyuan is the most useful font to have in your font library.

5. Youxian

Youxian, as its name suggests, is a very thin, light font. Like English light fonts, Youxian shines as a header (which has to be extra big to compensate for its thinness). When used correctly, Youxian exudes an air of exclusivity and class to your design. Good for fashion spreads and new-age designs. Do note that its legibility is not very high since the strokes are thin and are disconnected. So avoid using as body text.

Okay, that’s all for tonight. In the next part I will explain how to classify Chinese fonts and the design rules that usually work for Chinese fonts.


my take on chinese design 中文設計之感想

I can no longer stand the silence. I’ve always had a personal conviction that Chinese design in Singapore generally feels and looks like a 2nd class citizen. Most designs are primarily done in English, and then haphazardly translated into Chinese. Language can be roughly translated, but design isn’t like that. People cannot expect an English design to be merely lifted and converted into another language and STILL expect it to be as effective. Allow me to point out why.

English and Chinese are vastly different in their Written Forms.

Chinese characters are logograms (象形文字), which means they are written to LOOK like what they represent. And more than just that, ALL characters have a fixed width and height, and are BLOCKISH. Or what we call monospaced characters. There is no spacial separation (space) within words and sentences.

English characters, on the other hand, are totally different. They are variable in width. Just like in this blog entry, the letters ‘i’ and ‘m’ have different width. English letters stick together form a discernable word. An empty space tells you when a word ends / begins.

These differences between languages may seem small, but in design it’s enough to define two entirely different design philosophies already. In other words, Chinese design will have to be entirely rethought. Designers NEED to recognize that Chinese medium demands a entirely new approach to ensure the message is enhanced, not lost, to the very audiences they seek to speak to.

If I may, I would like to offer my word of advice to anyone who’s dabbling with Chinese design.

1. Give Chinese language the respect and coverage it deserves.

Don’t give your last ounce of design stamina to it. Don’t leave it to the last to do. If your tendency is to neglect it, them why not give it primary attention first. This way you can spare more time to thinking of how Chinese design works. It’s not difficult, it just requires you to care enough about the people who will see your design.

2. Please diversify your Chinese fonts.

I dare say that 80% of Chinese designs use only ONE FREAKING FONT. Simhei, or Simsun. I’m not sure if it’s due to laziness or lack of innovation, but they both behave like Arial. They both are so common they actually suck. Yucks! I will release a subsequent post JUST talking about Chinese font. So keep a look for them!

One thing about Chinese design is that, because of the uniformity of Chinese characters, you CAN (read: CAN) break the design rule by using 4 or 5 fonts! In a page! Yes!

Why so? Because even after the font is changed, the overall appearance is still the same. Simsun and Simhei, while being entirely different in themselves, look similar from a macro point of view. A design will greatly benefit from the having different fonts, the same way English design can benefit as well. Varied fonts can more accurately bring out the emotion of the design. Using a ‘standard’ font basically handicaps the aesthetic appeal of any design.

3. English design rules don’t apply in Chinese!

What are the common typography design rules? Leading, tracking, drop caps, font weight, presentation. Hierarchy. Are they such rules for Chinese design? Yes. But are they the same rules? NO!
For example:
1. You can track a English word, but not Chinese! You need a certain horizontal space between characters for them to be legible! This means that when using software like Word or InDesign, you have to do the extra work to track the characters properly! Because these softwares do a very poor job in tracking.
2. You can exploit the vertical writing ability of Chinese characters! Very few people will think of presenting Chinese vertically. Yet for short phrases and taglines, it’s immensely effective, simply because its the ONLY language that can be presenting vertically, with GRACE. Try it with English. It’s gross.
I will post a another post JUST on Chinese typography. I think it’s so important to understand this. It’s been neglected for too long. It’s crucial to Chinese design! Hope that you’ve found this post beneficial to you! 🙂

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