I came across an article today about some sign designers working in China. The title alone, “Graphics That Bridge a Linguistic Divide”, was enough to raise a red flag (pun not intended), because for many it will evoke the widespread myth that Chinese characters transcend languages.
The designers were describing the making of a large sign for the “Suzhou International Exposition Centre” (苏州国际博览中心 Sūzhōu guójì bólǎn zhōngxīn).
Here’s a good example of the problems with their remarks:
“The last two characters for Centre–it’s interesting they went with the British spelling–are actually redundant,” Calori says. “Often you see the seventh character–it means ‘middle’–for center. But the client also added the eighth character, which is the symbol of ‘heart.’ The heart is the middle, so they reinforce each other. This was a total embellishment.” Adds Vanden-Eynden: “They wanted the warm, fuzzy heart center, as opposed to the cold, hard center of hell.”
This is so wrongheaded and absurd it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The client didn’t add the eighth character (心). It’s used in writing the word for “center,” which is zhōngxīn (中心). The only thing “fuzzy” here is the thinking behind this nonsense. It’s possible, though, that the designers aren’t responsible for this way of thinking; few Chinese people are aware of how their own writing system works and thus tend to believe such crap.
Colors: … “There are certain colors, you don’t use. White, for instance, is the color of death. It’s like directing people to a funeral.”
Well, yes, white can have that connotation. But white is the background color of the sign! Are the designers saying they wanted to direct people to a funeral? Of course not. The reality is that white has that connotation only in certain contexts. So what’s all this talk about leading people to a funeral? Sheesh.
Letters vs. Characters: … “Each character is really an idea,” Calori says.
“They’re called ideograms.”
Although some people, through ignorance or force of habit, might use this unfortunate term, the fact remains that Chinese characters aren’t ideograms.
The pullbox giving “character dissection” is also an embarrassment. Almost everything there is wrong or at least misleading. They couldn’t even get many of the tones right.
But the article isn’t a total washout. A few points are of interest.
Sizing: English characters tend to be heavy compositionally, while Chinese is complex and delicate. “So we always size Chinese twenty percent taller to give it balance,” Vanden-Eynden says.
Type Position: The Chinese characters appear here in the “superior” position, on the left side. “In Hong Kong, before the handover, English always appeared first,” Vanden-Eynden says. “On the mainland today, Chinese is always in the superior position, but the Chinese still want English on all their signs, even if there are no tourists around, because to them it makes it look like [they are part of] the 21st century.”
Fonts: Due to the seemingly infinite nature of Chinese, there are a limited amount of usable fonts. “Unlike here, you don’t have 10,000 readable options,” Vanden-Eynden says. “You have what they call the big five type faces.”