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Ethiopic script in digital realm

Ethiopic script in digital realm

Even though digitization has opened up typography and allowed anyone with access to design software to create a unique typeface, Ethiopian languages and scripts have not yet joined the digital age. Ethiopic was not part of the Microsoft package until the Windows 10 update and iOS 11 for Apple. Yet again, designing a functional typography for Ethiopian languages which follow the geez script is not also an easy task, writes Hiwot Abebe.

Omar Yassin Mekonnen is an all rounded digital artist who works in graphic design, illustration and typography. He has created six fonts in the past two years but says the market is only just seeing the value in what he does. He recently sold his typeface OmrAnbessa to Typography is like fashion, in that there is need for new and fresh designs that ‘fit’ a particular aesthetic. There are more advertising agencies and marketing firms in Addis Ababa today than there were a mere five years ago. This has created design competition in certain markets (e.g. beverage industry) but has left many sectors lagging behind.

Latin script has hundreds of typefaces; and typography in the English language has become bigger and more mainstream. The mass disdain for Comic Sans, the decline of Times New Roman as a professional or academic font, the ubiquity of Helvetica in signage are all font news headlines that received wide coverage.

Pervasive in web presence, street signs, books, advertising, posters and other written media, fonts are at once hard to avoid and easy to ignore.  Ethiopic script is the name for geez fidel typography. It is the basis for Amharic, Tigringna, Geez and other Semitic languages spoken in Ethiopia. The most available Ethiopic typefaces today are Nyala, Power Geez, Jiret, Abyssinica SIL and WashRa.

A handful of free Ethiopic/geez typefaces can be found with a simple Google search. Most of these are designed by westerners passionate about typography or with some vested interest in Amharic typography. Andreas Lasren designed Gidole, a minimal and slightly geometric Sans Serif font inspired by Nyala and Abyssinica SIL. He had grown up in Ethiopia but forgotten how to read and write until he decided to create the typeface “in an effort to contribute to a rich and friendly culture.” When describing his inspiration he says a lot of the good Ethiopic typefaces are calligraphic and highly detailed, while most available fonts today evolved from ancient bible scripts. These serif fonts appear rigid and traditional or are simply incapable of visualizing the text’s concept and intention.

Semegn Tadesse co-founder of Arma Advertising Agency says Ethiopic letters are difficult to manipulate because of the varying sizes. Typeface is not about the design of the letters alone, he explains, but it is also about the space between the alphabets, the shapes of the letters and the likes. There are over 250 geez fidels necessary to complete a typeface including numeric and punctuation. He says this number can go up to 900 if the fidels include other languages that follow geez script like Tigrigna, Sebatbet or Me’en.

According to Semegn, a lot of the designers that dabble in typesetting find building a full typeset daunting. He says most designers go for stylistic lettering and forget about functionality. In the classic typeface style of Ethiopic script the letters will be of variable height. “Fixed height styles are generally used for advertisement and not publishing. This becomes a problem in long prose or when attempting to alter the text into bold or italic formats.” Posters advertising concerts or a new album have specific typography but the designer is expected to create only the specific words needed to complete that project. Working on 250+ geez letters can take up time that could be spent working on a different, more profitable project, according to Semegn. Omar sells his fonts through personal connections or recommendations. His customers are usually companies looking for exclusive custom-made fonts which he provides for 20,000 - 25,000 Birr. This allows these organizations full access and ownership of the license of the typeface. Single user licenses go for an average of 2,000 Birr.

Omar’s process in developing typeface includes identifying parent shapes of the alphabets. After deciding on a serif (which he says is easier to do) or sans serif (which is more expensive) font he draws each fidel and character. He then scans the drawings into adobe Illustrator keeping the anchor points consistent. The following phase focuses on spacing and curling of the letters, perfecting the spacing and creating the style of the font. This includes regular, condensed, italic or thin typefaces and mapping the alphabets in Unicode. Unicode is an international encoding standard for use with different languages and scripts that assigns unique numerical value that applies across all digital platforms.

Designing geez typeface is difficult because geez alphabets are very diverse. When building Latin fonts, designers often identify alphabets that are close approximates of each other such as n, u, h, or o, p, b, d. Letters must fit into grids used as a basis for the rest of the alphabet. The width of a line, the curvature, space within and between other alphabets must be uniform and carefully measured. Geez fidels are harder to design because of the inherent difference in shape and size. For instance, the space takes compared to the thin can make designing geez typeface a headache.

Some propose decreasing the number of fidels or altering the shapes to create a standardized set of alphabets. Fisseha Atlaw, inventor of the first Ethiopian word-processor in DOS called Dashen in 1985, in an interview with says, “I got to love all the fidels, it was like I was flirting with them. Each of them has their own character. I had wanted to eliminate some of the "redundant" sounds like the three different ‘ha ‘fidels, but I learned that they sound redundant only in Amharic, but not in Ge'ez or Tigrigna.”

Even though digitization has opened up typography and allowed anyone with access to a design software to create a unique typeface, Ethiopian languages and scripts have not yet joined the digital age. Ethiopic was not part of the Microsoft package until the Windows 10 update and iOS 11 for Apple. The font part of the windows package may lack compatibility with browsers like Opera or software like adobe. Texts unrecognized by a certain program appear as boxes or question marks, widely known as tofu. This problem is of course commonplace when considering the vast number of languages and scripts around the world.

Google’s Noto (short for No More Tofu) is an expansive typographic family that supports 800 languages, 100 scripts and has no tofu. Languages that have Latin alphabets or are widely spoken in digitally advanced countries including Hindi, Russian and Mandarin Chinese are supported by Unicode. According to a recent Wire article, Unicode only recently approved Tibetan and Armenian languages and many more remain unreadable. Google’s Noto project plans to give every Unicode-enabled script a font, and to ensure those fonts feel like part of the same typographic family. Semegn says certain fonts experience popularity in design circles until another typeface comes along. Zelan used to be highly trendy until it was replaced by Ethiopic noto sans.

Semaydocs is an optical character recognition startup that works on software that recognizes printed characters and converts them into digital information that can be stored. They digitize Amharic texts found in books, company achieves and physical data storages, which can be especially useful for banks and government agencies. A difficultly they face, says co-founder Michael Tsegaye, is that Amharic has size and shape variations meaning only specific fonts can be identified and digitalized by the software.

Creating legible and functional fonts that are also aesthetically pleasing is a job that awaits designers. Semegn says there is the need for good designers who are capable of withstanding the tedious nature of the work. Understanding design rules in combination with the nuances and complexities of a language and its script needs formalized training. Addis Ababa University’s Alle School of Fine Arts offers degrees in Graphic Design. Students in that program are made to construct and deconstruct the alphabet, reimagining its visual future.

The digital availability of a language is indicative of its evolution and ensures its longevity. While software designers like Fesseha and Larsen have paved the way for designers like Omar and startups like Semaydocs, formalized educational opportunities that anticipate technological developments are necessary in Ethiopia. Enriching Ethiopic script and other written languages that do not yet have Unicode designs is important in these technologically advanced times. Ethiopic script Unicode was the joint effort of few individuals in the early 2000s passionate enough to create a digital footprint for geez fidels. Designers, ethnographers, linguists and software developers have to work in tandem to safeguard the continuance of Ethiopia’s diverse scripts and languages into the 21st century, it appears.