Malayalam fonts: Beyond Latin font metrics

This year’s annual international conference organized by TeX Users Group — TUG2020 — was held completely online due to the raging pandemic. In TUG2020, I have presented a talk on some important Malayalam typeface design factors and considerations.

The idea and its articulation of the talk originated with K.H. Hussain, designer of well-known fonts such as Rachana, Meera, Meera Inimai, TNJoy etc. In a number of discussions that ensued, this idea was developed and later presented at TUG2020.

Opening keynote to TUG2020 was delivered by Steve Matteson, about the design of Noto fonts. He mentioned that Noto was originally envisaged to be developed as a single font containing all Unicode scripts; but that was changed due to a couple of reasons: (1) huge size of resulting font and (2) the design of many South/South-East Asian characters do not fit well within its Latin font metrics.

This second point set up the stage nicely for my talk, in which we argued that a paradigm shift from established Latin font metrics is necessary in designing and choosing font metrics for Indic scripts, in particular with Malayalam as a case study.

Indic scripts have abundant conjunct characters (basic characters combined to form a distinct shape). The same characters may join ‘horizontally’ (e.g. ത്സ/thsa) or ‘vertically/stacked’ (e.g. സ്ത/stha); and Malayalam script in particular has plenty of stacked conjuncts even in contrast with other Indic scripts. This peculiarity also makes the glyph design of fonts challenging — to balance aesthetics, legibility/readability and leading/line spacing. Specifically, following the usual x-height/cap-height/ascender/descender metrics used in Latin fonts put a lot of constraints in the design of stacked conjuncts. We propose to break away from this conventional metrics and adopt different proportions of the above- and below-base glyphs (even if they are the same characters, e.g. സ in the double conjunct സ്സ), still conforming to the aesthetics of the script yet managing the legibility and leading.

Fig. 1: Malayalam stacked conjuncts beyond conventional Latin font metrics.

Details of this study, argument and proposal can be found in the slides of the presentation available at the program details as well as the recorded talk now available on TUG YouTube channel.

TUG2020 presentation.

The conference paper, edited by Barbara Beeton and Karl Berry will be published in the next issue of TUGBoat journal.

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