The Development of Vietnamese Vernacular Typography

The evolution of typography is a brilliant reflection of history. For as long as humans have started to write, typography has developed right alongside it. We sat down with Giang Nguyen, founder of Saigon-based design agency, Behalf Studio, on their journey with Vietnamese typography and rising up to the challenge of historical preservation through type.

Disclaimer: The interview included was conducted in March, 2022.

Behalf Studio is a design agency based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam established in 2018 by graphic designer, design educator, and creative director, Giang Nguyen. Though their practice focuses more on branding, Behalf Studio began to take a more experimental approach to their work. Dabbling in digital experience campaigns, exhibition work, and installation art, their portfolio showcases a wide range of creative outcomes all founded on the same exploratory approach. Their aim is to avoid replication of one solution to a different problem and clinging to one design style. Behalf Studio holds annual key performance indicator meetings to determine what they want to achieve at the studio beyond just formal client work whether it be a non-commercial, self-initiated project, a grant project for small business or charities and nonprofits. They also hold and moderate talks and seminars on creativity and sustainability, especially social sustainability and cultural preservation. “Republish is one of the initiatives that behalf is more well-known for,” Giang explained.

Republish is a research-driven type foundry by Behalf Studio that focuses on Vietnamese typographic remnants and is especially reflective of their exploratory approach to design and their value of cultural preservation. As of now the foundry has published five open-source typefaces–‘Patriot (Kháng Chiến)’, ‘Finesse (Mỹ Nghệ)’, ‘Đanh Đá’, ‘Barber (Thợ Cao)’ and ‘Westgate (Cửa Tây)’. The origins of Republish actually date back years before the founding of Behalf Studio all the way back to 2013 as part of Giang’s master’s thesis project around historical preservation with a focus on typographical language. Giang was interested in looking at the value in things people often ignore or take for granted—something like typography. “At the time,” Giang began, “people were eager to modernize and I started feeling a sense of melancholy as nostalgic elements in the city were getting taken down.” The name of the project refers to how the foundry is experimenting with and “republishing” Vietnamese vernacular type.

The works of the Republish foundry were showcased in the form of installations and even generative art. Their exhibition Republish: Typography As… showcased the Republish typefaces in all their distinct contexts and development with installations framing typography as manifestations of dialogue, interpretation, spontaneity, rhythm, process, fabrication and landmark. Their collaboration with the sign-painter whose work inspired the typeface Finesse for their second exhibition is particularly impressive. The work consists of 12 hand lettered panels with parts of a whole poem.

Each typeface designed by Republish is derived from a piece of vernacular type members of Behalf Studio resonate with and come equipped with a well-researched essay on the source-material’s history and origins. The Westgate typeface, for example, was derived from the lettering on the west gate of Saigon’s Bến Thành market. he chose the typeface because it greatly helped him understand and transformed the way he looked at Vietnamese diacritics (the marks placed above or below the letter in accordance to tones, accents as well as the meaning of the word) Rather than adding the diacritics as a sort of finishing flourishing to the letters, the letters are instead modified to fit the diacritics which was very refreshing to Giang.

“And Finesse,” he continued, “ was actually chosen and done by a student turned staff member of mine. I mean he took a look at that and went crazy with it!” The Finesse typeface was derived from the oblique style lettering on a watch-fixer’s cart and refined by designer Hoang Le. The development of the Finesse typeface felt very spontaneous in contrast to Westgate—there was little drawn out pondering on the thought behind choosing the type specimen but Hoang became slightly obsessed with it and came up with multiple different versions of the typeface. “[Hoang's approach] reflected a very much sign-painter’s approach to things,” Giang elaborated, and this greatly parallels the source material. In their investigation on the type specimen, they found that the sign was actually hand-painted by an 80-year-old lettering artist by the name of Hoài Minh Phương. Every single typeface in the Republish roster has their own tale and were chosen with good reason.

Of course no endeavor is without its unique challenges and designing and refining these fonts? Easier said than done. The most significant issue was time. “Initially we were like, ‘Yeah let’s make three typefaces a year!’” Giang chuckled. In reality, cranking out typefaces for Republish involves a lot of labor. He showed one body typeface that was still in the works; the printing date on the paper jots the year 2020—a full two years prior to the interview. Alongside the design labor involved, every typeface also has some pretty intense research being done concurrently. This contextual exploration and the writing of said exploration also involves a lot of collaborative effort. To help, Behalf Studio commissioned writer James Selkin to help them thoroughly investigate and communicate the history and refining process of each typeface. The bulk of the essays are written by James. Then, both him and Giang would go back and forth on editing the essay contents and structure. Just one article would take months to complete because of how research-heavy the Republish project is.

When Giang was asked what the criteria were for a typeface to be “worth” preserving, he explained that the person who picked the typeface to preserve, whether it be himself or any other designers from the Behalf team, must have a personal connection or be “moved” by the font, whether it be from a design perspective or the context of said type. However, they must also consider what they want to do with the typeface to make them interesting. It was important that there was room for experimentation with each chosen specimen. Designers had to be able to look at the source material and see how much further the type can be pushed–it was imperative that the fonts weren’t just tracing the specimen. “There was always thought behind, ‘What is special about this type?’ and we had to make sure it was worth pursuing,” Giang remarked.


Because the project is self-initiated without a sponsor and the typefaces are open-sourced, the project doesn’t financially benefit Behalf Studio directly. However, they do gain something as a business because through Republish, Behalf Studio is able to build connections with designers who use Republish’s open-source typefaces in their work. Giang pushes his team to test all possible uses of the typefaces in a variety of contexts from generative design to digital artwork to exhibitions to art installations. He explains that they have that freedom to explore because there’s no client tied to the project that may not see exploring those avenues as financially worthwhile. He feels that Behalf’s approach to Republish and type design can be attributed to being “outsiders” to the world of type design. “We don’t claim to be full time type designers, we’re designers who do type,” Giang clarified. He explained that though the designers at Behalf are familiar with and enjoy designing type, as far as their type design training goes, there’s nothing too intense. Through Republish, the Behalf team hopes to add value to display fonts: “You can make a display [font] that is great, that has a story that has a concept and not just something you pick up from DaFont.”

Republish is clearly a labor of love but, “It’s one of those things that we almost hated,” Giang wryly remarked, “the [Republish] project has become renowned enough that several venues want to have it featured but each time we’re also trying to add something different and new to the display to avoid becoming stagnant. Whether it be merchandise, artworks.” Giang also proudly explained that during exhibitions for Republish, everyone involved is credited. From the creative director to designers, producers down to the interns, everyone’s name is written down as part of the project and everyone involved is happy to see the project going places.

The project goes beyond just making typefaces—there is a real concerted effort to preserve a culture and pass down Vietnamese history through typography as a medium. You can really feel the gusto and care the Behalf team has poured into the Republish project—clearly exhibited in the thorough research and attention to detail that went into this foundry.

For Giang, when dealing with preserving culture and history in type, he advises designers to first reckon with said culture’s honest history. Personally, he feels that there is a sense of “cultural insecurity” in Vietnam. He elaborated that in Vietnam, and perhaps other countries with a similar history fraught with the legacy of colonization and resistance, there’s a sense of being terrified of losing what is considered as the “authentic” local culture. However, as a result of said colonization, most Southeast Asian cultures are a consolidation of cultures. Vietnam’s history includes an extensive list of colonial rule by multiple foreign powers including China, France, Japan then France again, this time with American military backing during the Vietnam War. This turbulent history has no doubt left a mark on Vietnam’s culture and creative scene. “We’re so attached to what is ‘authentic’ that we don’t really look at the fact that what makes Vietnamese culture is the amalgamation of these multiple different cultures,” Giang expounded, “a sense of overlaying cultures together that makes our culture so interesting.” He believes that it is a matter of admitting that we have those influences and instead of trying to pursue this one single “true” cultural identity.

On typography as an archival tool, Giang believes that there is something valuable in digging up old specimens as a way to create new typography, “It’s very human in the digital era.” Specific to Vietnamese typography, he feels that the design involved is very much craft and less “principle”. He explains that due to colonization, Vietnam doesn’t really have an original alphabet. Due to Chinese and French occupational forces, there’s very little documentation of “true” Vietnamese typography. As such, the few remaining Vietnamese type specimens available are incredibly precious. For Giang, the ability to observe and study the available type specimens is a great way to look back on the past and push us to create something completely and utterly new.

Giang is glad to see Republish be so appreciated and be of use to numerous designers in Vietnam. However, he does hope the typefaces are used in a broader scope. The fonts originate from a specific context and the usage has also remained within that same context – vintage or period pieces. “Which is great,” he quickly clarified. He appreciates and understands why Republish’s roster of typefaces are often used to pay tribute to a specific era but Giang is keen to see Republish’s typefaces applied in more contemporary designs like in art zines and digital art—used in artworks where designers would usually favor Futura or other Bauhaus-influenced fonts. Now that Republish has made their fonts available on Adobe Fonts, the Behalf team would love for international friends to use their fonts in their designs. Giang reiterated that he doesn’t want the original Vietnamese context of the fonts to limit the contexts it could be used in. He wants designers to know that if they understand and appreciate the origins of Republish’s typefaces, “then you should be able to use the typefaces in your own way.”

Many things can be learned from Republish's journey with vernacular typography and typographic revival. Indonesia is rich with culture and has a complex history that is worth preserving through design, but this pursuit must be done diligently and critically. In developing the Republish foundry, Behalf Studio emphasized the importance of comprehensive research. There is great potential to develop typography from various type specimens originating from various regions in Indonesia. The function of the work created in this vein does not stop at the realm of design, but is also an effort to deeply familiarize ourselves with culture and understand a nation's history through a more critical lens.

Behalf’s comprehensive understanding of their type specimens is what makes the exploration and development of these fonts truly impressive. Through Republish, Behalf Studio was able to not only preserve but immortalize these valuable glimpses into Vietnamese history. You can download the open-source typefaces from the Republish foundry and read up on their history through the Republish site here.

About the Author

Kireina Masri

Kireina Masri has had her nose stuck in a book since she could remember. Majoring in Illustration, she now writes, in both English and Indonesian, of all things visual—pouring her love of the arts into the written word. She aspires to be her neighborhood's quirky cat lady in her later years.