Multiple trips to Japan and constant frustration at being unable to read the language sparked off two research projects which were exhibited in Shanghai in the summer of 2010. One of the three typographic styles used in Japan is essentially phonetic, and is called Katakana. It is the script often used to translate western words, names and logos, and once understood enables the reader to ‘sound out' the phonetic symbols more easily.

We started experimenting by fusing phonetic English with the Katakana, which you can see illustrated in the examples above. The word ‘superhero' becomes four distinct sounds in Japanese - Soo Pa Hee Roh - and by placing the sounds in the Japanese type it makes it more readable. On the right, the word ‘blue' becomes two sounds - Boo Roo. (We couldn't help wondering if a ghost and a kangaroo also added something into the mix).

We called this phonetic Katakana ‘Phonetikana’, and here you see some examples and a full alphabet on display.

After the relative success of Phonetikana, and expressions of interest from our contacts in China, we decided that we would next look at Mandarin. But written Chinese is a combination of a vast amount of different characters, some of which have gained phonetic meaning, some of which are based on original pictogrammic forms, and some which are combinations of multiple characters (called radicals).

After several rounds of research, we decided to take basic and essential Mandarin and fuse the characters with pictograms, which we called ‘Mandagrams‘. By returning some of the characters to their original visual meaning (and extending some into completely new territory) we were imagining what a simplified tourist alphabet could look like.

So rather than struggling in a restaurant to differentiate between Octopus, Fish and Monkey when all you wanted were eggs and vegetables, a set of Mandagrams would get you out of a potentially tricky situation.

Both the Katakana and Mandagram projects were exhibited in this purpose built cube, positioned by a busy street corner in an up-and-coming part of Shanghai.

You can read more about our typographic approach to these projects and read blog posts on the projects here and here.