TYPO Labs: Don’t fall into the Cyrillic pit (Workshop)

Julia Sysmäläinen explains how to avoid typical Western mistakes when designing their Cyrillic character sets.

Verena Gerlach

Julia Sysmäläinen explaining the differences in Cyrillic letter shapes. © Norman Posselt (Monotype)

For me, the second day started with Julia Sysmäläinen, a Berlin based type designer with Finnish and Russian roots, diving deep into the fine details and problems of Cyrillics.
This could be seen as a continuance of Amélie Bonet’s presentation yesterday.
Since I am not familiar with any Cyrillic at all, this presentation was quite eye opening to me. I guess, trying to design Cyrillic letter shapes myself, I would have done everything completely wrong.
Julia gave a great overview of the countries that are actually using Cyrillic. The Cyrillic character set of modern Russian does not cover all the letters used in Slavic languages such as Belarusian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Ukrainian, etc. For language coverage of all Slavic languages at least the characters shown in the image are needed:

Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 15.22.58

Besides additional language-specific characters in some languages local forms are found (example: Serbian and Bulgarian). When designing the letterforms the designer also should keep in mind language-specific character combinations that can create spacing problems (example: the ΪΪ sequence is quite common in Ukrainian).

Cyrillic is not restricted to the Slavic languages, and among the non-Slavic languages Kazakh and Kyrgyz are nowadays especially important because Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. It can be expected that Kazakh and Kyrgyz will in future be more and more frequent on packaging in combination with Russian and Belorussian.

In general, the letter shapes of Cyrillic are providing less ascenders and descenders, and they can be divided into three groups:

  1. Latin like
  2. uncomplicated
  3. complicated

A special delicate issue are the »double deckers«, that are quite different to the main letter shapes.
For designers that are familiar with the harmony and proportions of Latin and also Cyrillic letters, that to them just look like being flipped, are especially not easy to handle, since they should match into the whole system, and should not look just mirrored.

To underline the Cyrillic design principles, Julia showed a hilarious slide of a new display lettering in Moscow, where the cyrillic D was accidentally flipped: Even the Russians are not too keen on sticking to their own rules.


Julia Sysmäläinen

Designer and philologist  (Berlin)

Julia Sysmäläinen has Finnish and Russian roots. She is an experienced corporate and type designer and has worked as a design director in Erik Spiekermann’s agencies for over a decade. Since 2008 she also runs Juliasys Studio in Berlin, specialising on branding, custom type design and information architecture. Juliasys has done projects for Freshbooks Toronto, Monotype Bad Homburg, Mars and Propercorn London, Remes & Packart Helsinki, HarperCollins Publishers New York, Art. Lebedev Studio Moscow, The American Academy Berlin and visitBerlin. Juliasys partners are located in Berlin, Helsinki and Moscow.