Thai Typography: a Brief Investigation by a Farang

My new life far away from the previous home comforts of Cardiff is of a Farang (local non offensive term for a Westerner or even someone not local) backpacker around South-East Asia. I just spent the best part of 6 weeks in Thailand and can’t wait to go back again already. I slightly obsessively deconstructed and photographed Thai typography and design during my time there, I would like to box this investigation up by means of this post.

The Thai language is derived from Sanskrit and was according to tradition created in 1283 by the then Siam (now Thai) King Ramkhamhaeng. The style of the alphabet, typography and design is therefore from birth formed by Thai royalty, high art and its splendor. The use of gold, red, orange, decorative patterns and elegant indulgent scripts is commonplace from the government signage to a hand-painted sign.

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Bridge Sign in Chiang Mai

This sign in the middle of a bridge in Chiang Mai is like most of the permanent signage by councils or government, black or dark backgrounds with gold text, ornate patterns and set as a feature on the bridge. I love the way even a basic bridge sign brings splendour and wonder to the most functional of concrete everyday city items.

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School Sign in Chiang Rai

This sign for a Chiang Rai school shows the English translation these are the standard typefaces and design used for nearly all government offices, schools, universities, parks, libraries and other public institutions. The English and Thai font seem to match, I would need to investigate further, with the aid of a computer, to find out the name of the font and if this is the case.

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Sign on Bridge in Sukathai

This more unusual but still authoritarian looking sign has a very different typeface and from a glance does not even look Thai if not for the colours and style. The square overall shape but rounded nature of the typeface contrasts and forms a playful yet rigid form.

Thai type from what I have experienced is written character by character, with a very limited amount of spaces between words and never as a joined up script. Also interestingly each character is written right to left but still read left to right. A kind lady at our hotel wrote out the name of a train station for us in Thai so we could give it to a taxi driver. It is a little smudged but you can clearly see the flowing decorative style even in handwriting.

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Thai handwriting example

I wrote out all 44 characters of the alphabet, I am sure this looks like a child’s doing but unashamedly I share my first attempt. It was very insightful, if you start on the curls and finish on the straight lines it feels natural. My investigation was helped by downloading a Thai writing practice app for my iPhone called TH-Thai by iFutureStudio.com

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My First Attempt at Writing the Thai Alphabet

You can compare my attempt to the following alphabet I copied it from. This style of Thai typeface is the most normal and everyday one you see around.

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Thai alphabet

However the small curls on many characters and organic shapes have lead to many typefaces I have seen to look similar to Latin script fonts. Here is a very common looking Thai font with a handwritten style and the classic, very common block colour behind and drop shadow.

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Common Thai Typeface (close up)

The whole advert uses this block colour to stylise the whole advert and the images have this effect too. It creates a cut and glued together playful look which matches the content, I presume this is aimed at parents and children as a fun and quick fast-food. It is such a common effect for typography in Thailand that I forget, as I have been a designer in the UK a very different set of rules of style and taste exist in typography.

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Common Thai Typeface (whole advert)

In this advert for Ray-ban sunglasses a classy combination of a script style Thai font and a more modern sans serif Thai font is used.

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Advert for Ray-ban Sunglasses

I am not sure about the real names for different Thai typefaces but one massive distinction is apparent – if the curls of each character are open or closed. The above shows both.

Very modern and unusual typefaces have caught my eye, this example does not even have curls. It does have block lines for the tails of the U looking character, I find it hard as I can’t read Thai to match this stylised font to the alphabet I wrote out. I really like the modern simplicity of this typeface, it is so far away from most of the traditional Thai fonts I have seen.

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Modern Thai Typeface in Magazine Advert

This eye catching billboard is so simple and uses a distinct typeface, that I have not seen anywhere else. I would love to know what it advertised if anyone who reads this post can read Thai. The use of minimal soft colours complements the feminine font and give it a very rounded specific message which I do wonder if reflected in the content. A bold and confident piece of design.

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Modern Thai Typeface on Billboard

As all languages need to display information in a clear and formal manner, I think the following ‘No Smoking’ sign is a classic international symbol where the font is appropriate selected. Simple, bold and to the point.

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Thai No Smoking Sign

Many informative signs use an even more authoritarian typeface and the following screams rules and safety specific content. While I have no idea what it says, I saw this on a train and it reminded me more of the historically Russian and Eastern Block style of font.

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Safety Sign on Thai Train

The following are a few more modern and eye catching examples I have seen, I am sure this is the tip of the iceberg.

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Examples of Thai Typography & Design

I have now grown fond of the playful style of Thai typography and will certainly be more adventurous in my own designs from this experience. Here is a small montage of some of the colourful and bold Thai type I have photographed on my travels.

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Thai Typography Montage

This investigation into typography has inspired me to be more aware of this artform again but my education is limited. I would love to learn more and see if what I have found is a true reflection of the times. If anyone can share more examples of exciting Thai typography and design, has comments or further insights, I would greatly appreciate it and be delighted to have your input.

You can read a dedicated travel blog of my boyfriend Ryan and I’s adventures, we called it The Vagabond Tribune mainly written by him with photos and other techy editing by me.

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8 thoughts on “Thai Typography: a Brief Investigation by a Farang

  1. This is really interesting Jenny-especially from the perspective of a graphic designer. We never stop learning-I hope I never do.

    • It has helped me love typography again, never thought looking via a different alphabet would be so inspiring. I never want to stop learning, now I have moved onto Vietnamese, I can count to 999,999, loving it.

  2. I really enjoyed your post! Seemed like you had a great time there!

    Just a minor correction to your post, Thai alphabet is actually written from left to write, not right to left. The person who wrote the name of the train station to you is probable left-handed.

    • Thank you for your comment and I am so glad you enjoyed reading my post.

      Ops I made the wrong assumption about how it is written, it does make much more sense for the letters and lines to be written from left to right. I really appreciate your time to tell me the correction.

  3. The ‘safety sign’ on the train is actually an advertisement for throat lozenges – Dequalinium Chloride to be precise.

    The colorful pic with the tents and guitars says ‘Farm Festival’ — Thai often uses English words (written in Thai script) in advertising, to keep the message short and memorable.

    • That is great thank you. I like it even more being a throat lozenges advert, powerful and direct, it will safely fix your throat.

      We tried to find a way to go to the Farm Festival but it really was on a farm 🙂

      Thanks for reading my post.

  4. Hi! Very interesting article, I love how you studied the design even without knowing any thai. Good sense of investigation!

    Happens that I am currently learning thai so I checked for you what says the pink curvy girly ad :

    บริษัท เขตลานนา จำกัด (Brisath Khetlaanna jamkat) – Khetlaanna company Ltd.

    เขตลานน – Khetlaanna

    ศูนย์จำหน่าย รถจักรยานยนต์
    ทุกรุน ทุกยี่ห้อ (Sunjamnai rothjakreuyanyon, thuk run thuk yiiho) – Motorbikes dealer, every model every brand

    It’s so funny that a motorbikes dealer chose such colors and fonts to communicate! We would never do that here (in France)… you’re right, I too thought first it was a cosmetic store or something super girly…

    And here is the text displayed on the Rayban ad :
    ก่อนตะวัน จะลาลับฟ้า
    “Before the sun…” but I can’t translate what’s next coz I am still a beginner…

    Hope it will be useful for you to understand better thai design (though I know you posted this article a year ago… I may be a little late ^^)

    • Wow thank you so much, your Thai is amazing. It is such a beautifully written language, it must be great learning it. My attempt at writing it was so difficult.

      Looking at design and coming up with your own imagination of it has caused me many hours of fun. Design is only a tool by a person, people all think so different. That is thought provoking why design for a motorbike dealer has used fonts and colours, that I think of as girly. Maybe it is directed at girls, or maybe many people think of their motorbikes as their girl, or maybe these colours are not girly in Thailand but mean something completely different to them.

      Thanks for your effort and time, I am really happy to understand and rethink again about Thai design from your input. Good luck with learning Thai, peace and love.

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