Canada’s New Typeface Unifies the Country’s Many Languages
If the United States were to have a typeface, it might be something like Highway Gothic, the sans-serif, designed by Ted Forbes, that’s plastered across our nation’s road signs. Or maybe Helvetica, the famed font found just about everywhere, including your cereal box’s nutrition label. Some people, the ones less impressed with the government’s competence, might even say Comic Sans.
While the United States has yet to determine its typographic identity, its northern neighbor recently chose one. Canada 150, created for the country’s 150th birthday, is a typographic family that unites the Latin characters of English and French with the syllabic characters of the country’s many indigenous dialects. It is the work of Raymond Larabie, a typographer who says he sought to create a font that might help bring together Canada’s disparate cultures. “I just thought, well it’s a birthday present for Canada, it kind of has to be inclusive,” he says.
Canada 150 is an expansion of Larabie‘s free typeface Mesmerize, a geometric font with sharp, pointed angles. Though it’s not perfect, it does come with an interesting evolution. To expand the original typeface, Larabie studied the syllabic characters of the Cree language and other indigenous languages of what is now Canada. The written Cree language, created in 1840 by missionary James Evans, is marked by geometric glyphs, each of which stands for a syllable. Though distinct from their Latin counterparts, Larabie says most of the syllabic glyphs are a “Frankenstein-ing” the original Mesmerize typeface. Many of the syllabics look like a modified version of an M or U or C, with slightly wider apertures. “The triangular shapes have a lot to do with the A,” he explains. Canada 150 is among a handful of typefaces to bridge multiple languages, which includes Huronia, another multilingual typeface from Rosetta Type Foundry that blends Latin and Inuktitut symbols, the latter of which are derived from the Cree system.
David Březina, a principal designer at Rosetta, explains that creating a typeface for a multiple scripts requires a deep knowledge of every script you’re designing for. “You need to know the conventions of all scripts involved and make them work together in a way that is not detrimental to any of them,” he says. The key is to harmonize the different shapes, which requires a certain level of sensitivity, he adds. “This is particularly tricky as sometimes people tend to overdo it and impose conventions from one script to another to get nicely looking system,” he says. “My personal opinion is to impose less and try to make the scripts look equal, equally important by default in the font.”
Canada 150 isn’t the country’s first semi-official typeface. In 1967, typographer Carl Dair released Cartier, the first Latin character typeface created in the country. The governor general commissioned Dair to design the typeface for the country’s centennial celebration, and Dair worked on Cartier for 10 years before it launched. Even after a decade of work, the typeface still had weight and stroke inconsistencies, and so in the late 1990s, typographer Rod McDonald streamlined the original typeface making it more digital friendly.
Formally, Larabie’s work is far from that of Dair and McDonald. If both are meant to reflect Canada, it’s clear that they’re speaking to two different generations. Then again, one typeface can hardly encompass a 3.8-million square-mile, culturally diverse country. Canada 150 is a blend of geometric and humanistic features. Or, as Larabie puts it: “It’s pragmatic. It doesn’t look tough and imposing.” Sounds like the Canada we know and love.