Make it Gungsuh, please – Korean typography

Written by on March 6, 2012 in Arts

What was the standard joke among graphic designers again? “When all goes wrong, go for Helvetica”? Or something of the sort. It especially depicts the designer’s dilemma in typography, and when it comes to Korean typography? The dilemma deepens even more.

Typography is a late bloomer in the history of Korean graphic design; some say it was due to the vast area it had to cover in using both Hangeul and hanja characters, some say it was due to difficult technical issues of having to design several variations of one letter depending on its position when written. (11,172 letters have to be designed in total for one font design. Hangeul is not written linearly, one letter per space, but is written compositely: one space is composed of several letters to create one syllable.)

Historically, the use of Korean was banned during the Japanese Occupation so any development of Korean typography was impossible, and later on, going through the Korean War meant many fields of design were put off until other more urgent matters were dealt with.

It was in the 1970s when Korea started to rise up from poverty that interest in typography started to bud, but it was only in recent years where various designs started to bloom. Until the 1990s, most fonts were analog, i.e. made for print, and there were only a handful of Korean fonts compared to the thousands of designs available for the Roman alphabet. (It is also probably the reason why many brands and logos were designed with the Roman alphabet. It would have been considerably cheaper than to have a designer come up with an original font design.)

As computers were widely distributed and developing fonts became easier, the analog-based fonts were quickly joined by digital-based fonts. In the past decade, a slew of designer fonts have been showing up on the market, with many being distributed free of charge.

So what are the equivalents of Times New Roman, Arial, Century Gothic and such? The basic Korean fonts are:

The first three are based on traditional handwriting, i.e. Korean calligraphy. When you first learn how to write Korean, this is the type of writing your penmanship would be graded on, although now you learn how to write with a pencil instead of a brush dipped in ink. (Learning proper ink calligraphy is still a standard in elementary school, but now done in art class.)

Gungsuh (궁서) is the closest in design to traditional calligraphy. It’s the font that would be used in guide pamphlets for the ancient palaces and museums, for example. Whenever there is a traditional twist needed, it’s the font that carries the most weight. Batang (바탕) is the Korean Times New Roman. Classical, but not as heavy as Gungsuh. It is the font that public offices and organizations would mostly use in their documents. Myeongjo (명조) is similar to Batang, but is not as popular a digital font. It is the standard font for printed material, mostly books; school textbooks are mostly printed in Myeongjo, for example.

Consequently, the above three fonts are mostly used in documents that either require a traditional or official feel. Printed documents of a serious note from schools, companies and organizations would use these fonts on reports, certificates, awards, and official letters.

Recently, due to the retro movement in design and trends, Gungsuh has been being used quite a lot. It is also used frequently in an ironic sense; something ridiculous and light-hearted would be written in Gungsuh, just to add a faux sense of authority, like subtitles in a satirical TV variety program.

The latter three: Dotum (돋움), Gulim (굴림), and Malgun Gothic (맑은 고딕) are the favorites on the web. Devoid of the stylistic touches of traditional calligraphy, they make for easy reading, a necessity on the internet. Not only the internet; they are mostly used for computer based texts and documents: email, cell phone texts, business presentations, etc.

Dotum means “stand out” or “enhanced”, Gulim means “rounded”, and Malgun means “clear”, which explains the characteristics of the fonts quite plainly.

There are also the “parent fonts” to the basic fonts which all have “che” () added to their names such as Dotumche (돋움체), Gulimche (굴림체), and Batangche (바탕체). It causes some confusion when typing, even more so as there is hardly any visible distinction in Korean. When using the Roman alphabet, however, the difference is acute: it is a matter of spacing. While the basic fonts are typed according to the letter’s size, the letters of the “che” fonts all occupy the same sized space, whether it is a slim “l” or a wide “w”. Consequently, the “che” fonts are not that widely used other than in Korean.

Besides the basic fonts, there are other widely distributed design fonts that are commonly used, from the self-describing “Headline” to the woodsy “Mokgak”. Many Korean typography companies are churning out more and more designs, giving people more options to work with, and adding much needed diversity to print and other media. Advertisement, brands and logos, and other designs have benefited greatly. Cover designs of two books published by KOCIS show a great example of basic fonts and newly developed ones creating a very pleasant visual balance:

In an effort to further Korea’s development of typography, major portal site Naver has an ongoing campaign for development and free distribution of fonts, and another major portal Daum distributes its “Daumche” font for free:
Naver font package:
Daum font “Daumche” : (middle of page)


About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul