30 July 2008
Jae-Joon Han
Jae-Joon Han

This week's Feature is the second of three parts of an article originally published in TYPO, Issue 31, Spring 2008, and has been republished with permission from the author.

Throughout time, the Hangul letterforms have adapted to the various uses and forms of expression, drawing from different influences to create new typefaces. This concluding Feature on the alphabet of Korea takes a closer look at its contemporary uses in Korean culture.

[Continued from part 2]


Modernisation of the traditional image via the revival of ancient letterforms
This approach reconstructs and improves types found in ancient wooden movable types, xylographic plates and movable metal types used in ancient documents. It strives to re-use these forms in modern context. Forgotten tradition and elegance naturally returns to life in street signs and related media.

Types based on individual handwriting
The legacy of calligraphy and handwriting enters the everyday practice thanks to digital technologies. New fonts are created based on the handwritten scripts of ordinary people and celebrities alike—poets, writers, singers and actors, and well-known calligraphers, and they are a commercial success.

Decorative and image-oriented types
This approach is interpreted as the result of two trends—the developing digital technologies and increasing focus on individuality and personal style. Picturesque, interesting types are different from the common fonts, and they may be considered a new genre of digital calligraphy.

Other experimental and avant-garde types
Usually, these are produced by designers or writers for their individual use or for small projects. Today, their use is still rather limited, however, they may point towards the future direction and potential of Hangul fonts.

Above: Various styles of web-specific fonts. These fonts are especially popular among teenagers.


Square (Tetragonal) frame
Square frame of a given size, used thanks to the influence of Chinese characters and also for reasons of comfortable setting of movable types. It is unknown since when the term is used, however, from the birth of Hangul up until 1980s, most types were set into the square frame which became a typical systemic element which helped to maintain the continuity of the traditional appearance of the script.

Non-square frame (Non-Tetragonal)
Term used as opposite of the square frame. It is also used in an abstract sense, meaning "surpassing the square frame". This term appeared in the 1990s and it is often considered to represent a movement which tries to make more use of the phonemic nature of Hangul. Generally, it may be said that the smaller number of letters forming a syllable and the simpler its structure, the closer the script gets to the non-square frame form.

Three-layer Hangul style (Sebeolsik)
The three-layer style name comes from the arrangement of the Kong Byeong typewriter, which printed letters in three layers—consonants in the first, vowels in second, and third for consonant clusters at the end of the syllable called finals. The three-layer typewriter keeps these three types of letters separate and thus faithfully reflects the forming principles of Hangul. The machine uses a simple process for letter production, where the keys of the keyboard are operated by arms of each letter type. When the key is pressed, the particular type is printed. The keyboard has three rows, same as the style of the letters. Three-layer style thus covers two different terms, one applies to the style of the alphabet and the second to the arrangement of the keyboard. The three-layer structure of Hangul connects individual letters corresponding to sounds into syllables. These types are also called "letters on a clothes line", "empty" or "jagged" type. Today, this type of font appears not only for typewriters, similar principle is utilised for digital composition. Letter input and the on-screen view-ing may differ from one to another, this is why this text uses the term "three-layer style" for all fonts of similar structure, regardless of the production process.

1. "Malgun Gothic" to be used in UI, developed for Windows Vista 2007.
2. Arita, a type family developed for the corporate identity of the Amorepacific company, 2005.
3. You-and-I typeface, developed for the corporate identity of Hyundai Card, 2003.
4. Kotgil (Flower Path) designed for vertical setting, 2005.


As we saw above, Hangul isn't merely a script used to note down the sounds of speech. In a way, it is integrated and expresses the relation between a sound and its meaning. It has an organised system and its key idea and principles are original. However, in the types widely used today for continuous texts, it is hard to find its original integrity.

When comparing script to the spoken word, we may say that it only expresses the correct, literary language. Types only corresponding to such correct form of spoken language do not express the characteristic, unique features of Hangul correctly, on the contrary. Letters referring to dialects and slangs are used with dilettantism, so the only result are obstructions of communication. The unique character of Hangul at the time of its creation goes without doubt, however, its contemporary style and future direction remains unclear.

When and why did Hangul become so complicated? This question needs to be analysed carefully. Regardless of the form and function, it is difficult to explain mere principles of letter creation using the present form of the script. Let's say that this young script has met so many obstacles throughout its short history that this evolution was inevitable. It was suppressed by both local and foreign rulers ancient and present. Negative influence came both from Japan as its ruling power and from China and the Chinese way of writing. Then, strong influence of the Western culture and the Latin script came, and brought along advanced technology such as the phototypesetting machine, the typewriter, and, finally, today's digital world of the internet. Facing such obstacles did not permit the users of the script to analyse its situation thoughtfully and to decide about its future development.

Above left: Style focused on the modification of the existing square frame types for vertical setting for use in horizontal setting. Inside of
the framework of the square frame system, it strives for pronounced, unique expression.
Above right: Three-layer styles of Hangul. Attempts at various interpretations of the construction principles and characteristic features.

Today's situation is a bit different, though. Together with the advancing globalisation, movement trying to promote the script among minorities strengthens, and the awareness of the script grows sharply. However, in the future, it will be necessary to re-evaluate the present inorganic approach to the script. The present, way too complicated form of the script does not permit its further evolution nor the appreciation of its true value. It will be necessary to maximise the script's functionality, and thus to question the utility of the present structure. Why should be Hangul limited to the square frame? Why does one style contain varieties of each letter form? It is necessary to abandon the idea that today's form of the script must not be altered thanks to its unique roots. Only with this approach will Hangul evolve into a perfect structure which will improve the written communication.

Above left: Typefaces of various expression with flexible structure.
Above right: Typefaces designed to evoke the feel of handwritten letters.

It would be useful to pay more attention to the three-layer structure styles. It seems that this path of development could lead out of the dead end valley in which the script currently lingers. The three-layer style makes a clear distinction between consonants, vowels and finals, it is simple and well-organised, and it complies with King Sejong's original intentions and the princi-ples expressed in the Hunmin Jeongeum. It is system-atic, highly original, yet fresh and pure. The idea of dividing the letters in such a way did not fall out of the blue sky. One only needs to look at children who have just begun to learn the script and at the way they work with the space to see that the three-layer styles are the most natural for this system of writing.

Above: Personal-image and decorative, expressive typefaces.

Three-layer styles are justified both historically and formally. Sejong created the script based on natural rules and principles, and the three-layer styles respect the nature of the script. At a certain time, these styles were rejected due to their alleged disorderly character, however, today, its influence spreads rapidly. The main advantage of the style is the continuous low of the horizontal baseline, and the fact that it gives sufficient space to more complicated letter forms with several root elements. For the past twenty years, the three-layer style has been widely accepted in design teaching, and new fonts based on this letter style keep appearing every day. However, this development needs certain necessary support in order to continue. We must strive to improve the present form of the style, to emphasise its key features and to remove irregularities. Also technological development must continue, as the present system mostly accommodates for the square frame style setting. As a result, it is rather difficult to put the existing three-layer style fonts into practice and to fully benefit from its advantages. However, a limited number of individuals will hardly succeed in fulfilling such goal, so it is necessary to also provide the support of the government and large corporations. With such, the three-layer style should become the standard, default one among the remaining varieties.

Above top: Aigma. Type evolved using the mathematic precision of the Hangul script.
Above bottom: Geumnuri type. Three-layer type emphasising the structure of Hangul divided into initials, finals, and medial syllables.

Although Hangul does have a glorious past, it had to succeed in sometimes hostile environment. Its philosophy and principles are unique, however, its present form is unsatisfactory. This is why the final success of Sejong's revolutionary act depends on contemporary Koreans and Korean graphic designers. They have a unique, ancient design guide at their disposal, left to them by Sejong the Great. We shall see whether this five-hundred-years old script shall be reformed based on newly discovered ancient texts, or whether it will continue to struggle its way forward as an inconvenient, complicated system of writing.