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Typeface Review

Balkan Sans

Reviewed by David Březina on March 13, 2013

In Cyrillic and Latin scripts, there are many letters which, when written, look the same. This is something that has intrigued many designers. While some might insist on enforced separation, Nikola Djurek and Marija Juza have reconciled the situation with ingenuity.

The concept of the Balkan Sans type system is quite simple — it represents equivalent letters from both scripts with a single glyph. For example, one tall letter exists when the form is the same in both scripts, while two short letters are stacked when the form differs between the Latin and Cyrillic. After all, these are not two different writing systems; these are two writing systems that overlap. (At least, in former Yugoslavia, it seems that way.)

Besides being entertaining, it’s a cultural thing.

Croatian and Serbian are very similar languages that, however, use different writing systems. According to the authors, this series of fonts “… demystifies, depoliticizes, and reconciles them for the sake of education, tolerance, and, above all, communication”. This is what particularly strikes me about Balkan Sans — it’s not just a self-contained set of refined forms. In a situation where differing scripts are used to separate people and communities, the type says: “Well, it is not all that different, is it?” Please note, this is not just a witty cultural poster, it’s a typeface! It can be reused to tell the story many times; it even demonstrates it every time you type with it.

The fonts are well encoded, so they can be used to translate Croatian Latin to Serbian Cyrillic and vice versa. Got an email in Serbian and can’t read Cyrillic? Change the font and, voilà! Now you can read it. This type system could become a great educational tool.

Now, if you had to stack letters from two scripts, which one would you put on top? To be fair, Djurek and Juza designed different styles: in one, the Cyrillic is on top, in the other, the Latin is uppermost. And, of course, Balkan designers do need a stencil version (just in case they ever need to design a warning notice for a minefield or, hopefully, something more peaceful).

David Březina is a type designer and typographer, writer and lecturer, director of Rosetta typefoundry, and the impresario of the TypeTalks conference. You may know him as a designer of the award-winning type family Skolar. So far, he has designed typefaces for Cyrillic, Greek, Gujarati, Devanagari, and various extensions of Latin.

11 Comments

  1. Thomas Dang says:

    Interesting concept but it’s difficult to read and the kerning leaves something to be desired. I’m certain that it would not be practical for any type of translating besides short phrases.

  2. Brilliant! Ingenious! It makes wonderful, and useful typographic art out of two alphabets. I don’t find it at all difficult to read – the brain is so much more elastic than people give it credit for.

  3. Thomas, I think short phrases are exactly what it was designed for.

    Nikola Djurek is one of the few type designers who consistently innovates. It’s remarkable that something this inventive immediately followed the very clever Delvard Gradient, a release that probably deserved to be on our list in 2011.

  4. John Hudson says:

    This seems not only innovative, but in its way courageous. During the split up of Yugoslavia and the resulting war, nationalists on both sides, but especially in Croatia, denied strenuously that ‘Croatian and Serbian are very similar languages’. Every effort was made to exagerrate their differences, and there was even a move to rid Croatian vocabulary of ‘foreign’ words of Serbian origin. In a graphic way, the Balkan Sans project demonstrates the linguistic reality of the former Yugoslav states: that although there are regional differences in usage, these are languages that are so closely entwined that the primary difference between them has always been the script in which they are written. Today, now that the political settlement of the former Yugoslavia seems mostly stable, a project like this is not as controversial as it would have been in the 1990s, but it still seems in a modest way a brave act.

  5. Hrant says:

    Some designers want to believe they can directly affect political change — remember the First Things First delusions? Other designers think their greatest role in this world is to make pretty things for their own sake. To me, good designers, good people make things like Balkan Sans. If you’re not obsessed with political change and you can look away from your own navel for more than a few minutes as a time, you might just be able to make something that reflects a positive political desire. Bravo to Juza and Djurek.

  6. Dino says:

    Personally, I love this concept. It’s amazing, rather innovative and lovely as a whole, but I fear you might be reading too much into it. If this had been an attempt at typographically reconciling the Balkans area, the text would’ve been written in both Croatian and Serbian. However, this sample is written in Serbian exclusively.

    As far as the language differences go, which John Hudson seems to be an expert on, they do exist. Serbian and Croatian are both lexically and semantically different on many levels, and while it’s easy for a Serb to understand a Croat, and vice-versa, having one of them write a grammatically correct text in the other’s language would end up as a disaster (and that’s if we ignore the differences in the alphabet).

    The world seems fine with making a difference between British English and American English, and honestly, those are negligible when compared to differences between Croatian and Serbian.

    I dislike the way this font is presented. Typography, no matter how powerful, cannot reconcile cultural differences. What this font is about is reconciling two very similar alphabets. It does it amazingly well, and that’s where the story should end.

    Any problems Croats might’ve had with Serbs, and the other way around, should’ve been reconciled a long time ago. Not by typefaces, but by people themselves. Most of them, in fact, are. They younger generations seem to be doing fine. Older generations remember too much, often things that hadn’t even happened, at least not in the way they are remembered, but that’s a completely different story.

    What strikes me as ridiculous are the sensationalist articles and commentaries done by people who seem to completely fail to understand both of those cultures. There is absolutely nothing courageous about a Serb liking a Croat, or vice-versa. It’s the same as a Spaniard liking a German. Or at least that’s the way it should be. The war has long past, and it’s time to leave it there, where it belongs. Instead, why don’t you just comment on the ingenuity of this well-designed font?

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. Indeed, it is a typographic concept commenting on culture and we should be careful neither to overestimate nor to underestimate it. The role typography plays is subtle, but important thanks to its penetration within the culture.

    Just for the sake of the article: it does not say the languages are same, but “very similar”. The parable with translation is perhaps too far fetched, but I had scripts in mind when I wrote that (i.e. translation from one script to another, Croatian Latin => Serbian Cyrillic), not languages. And I am not sure to what presentation you refer to in your fourth paragraph specifically, but in the whole article I deliberately talked about scripts being reconciled and the quote I used from the authors is referring to the scripts too.

    Different scripts do separate people! In fact, there are many instances of when they have been intentionally used that way.

    I would not suggest neglecting the differences between US and British English.

    Including only Serbian samples is a mistake.

  8. Hrant says:

    Dino, typography is clearly a part of culture. Any role it plays in culture as a whole is necessarily positive or negative — never irrelevant.

    As David says, typography has been used to divide or unite people, I would say from day one. This has usually been at the level of scripts, but sometimes even at the level of typestyles — consider the famous Nazi flip-flop concerning blackletter. In fact I have trouble thinking of any region on this planet that has escaped the politics of writing systems. Think of how many times Azerbaijan has switched alphabets. And here’s an example from my culture: even the way one chooses to capitalize the letter ‘Ւ’ causes some people to say “ah, he’s a goddam Eastern/Western Armenian”. The Soviets created that mess back when they controlled Armenia, in order to drive another wedge between homeland and diaspora, making the former easier to control. And the West is certainly not innocent of such manipulation — look at what the French did to Vietnamese! They made it into the Carmen Miranda of writing systems.

    When you say “Or at least that’s the way it should be” I think you’re tacitly admitting that people appreciate having a past, which to me means reality doesn’t tolerate designers simply making pretty things and getting others to admire them; I think “just comment on the ingenuity” is exactly what we shouldn’t fall for. People don’t forget their past because of pretty things — and that’s a good thing, because that reduces future mistakes, plus it motivates you: people with no past have much more trouble finding a purpose in life. There is no escaping the sadness of the past, but there is also no escaping its glory. And a designer, being a problem-solver should try to play a positive political role (without however suffering from delusions of grandeur).

    BTW, why do an unusual proportion of Hollywood villains have a British accent? And typestyles are like the accents of visible language.

  9. In the meantime, in Zagreb 20,000 protest against use of Cyrillic in Croatia.

  10. Uroš says:

    Liguistically speaking, Serbian and Croatian are not different languages (that are similar), but different standardized varieties of the one Serbo-Croatian language.

    Please keep nationalistic politics out of this discussion!

  11. Hrant says:

    Why keep politics out of typography, when the latter can play a positive role in the former? A tool left unused is a wasted opportunity.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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