Hangul is a writing system of the Korean language. Designing Korean Hangul fonts is different from designing Chinese characters or the Latin alphabet. Hangul is put together into syllabic building square blocks consisting of phonemic letters. Let’s look at Illustration 1, above, at the first syllable “한” (han) as an example. The consonant “ㅎ(h)”, the vowel “ㅏ(a),” and again the consonant “ㄴ(n)” are combined to form a syllable “한(han)” in a block-like square format. These elements are combined both horizontally and vertically which is different from the linear arrangement of Latin Alphabet. This is not a unique aspect only pertaining to Korean, but it’s definitely unusual.
The six Hangul typefaces shown in Illustration 1 all belong to the styles of sans serif (in Korean, also called “Gothic”) typefaces. These typefaces illustrate the difference in the structure and design of various Hangul typefaces clearly, by excluding other design variables such as serifs. While the shapes of each phonemic letter in this illustration may be similar to each other, the typeface changes drastically depending on the positional arrangements of each letter within the syllable. This structure of the syllable is called a module, an especially important design consideration when constructing a Hangul typeface.
1. Era of Movable Metal Letter: Traditional Square Syllabic Module
Illustration 2. Hangul movable metal type, source: National Museum of Korea
As you can probably see in the Hangul metal moveable types in Illustration 2, each block is composed of a syllable, not a phonemic letter.
Although Korea historically adopted the Chinese writing system, Hangul was invented in the 15th century by King Sejong (also an accomplished linguistics scholar) to replicate Korean language sounds into a phonetic writing system.
As a result, Hangul has the features of both ideographic Chinese characters and the phonetic Latin alphabet.
King Sejong’s remarkable solution for this new writing system was that he divided one syllable into three sounds: one for the initial sound (which is always a consonant), one for the medial sound (always a vowel), and one for the final sound (always a consonant).
King Sejong called each phonemic letter a seong (성; 聲; “sound”), and the syllables that combined the sounds he termed eum (음; 音; “tone”). The syllable eum generally functions as a word or morpheme (the smallest unit that has meaning). The resulting block-like visual forms of Hangul actually have the features of both ideographic and logographic Chinese characters and the phonetic and phonemic Latin alphabet. This principle may seem complex to those who are accustomed to the system of Latin alphabet but it works efficiently and simply to Korean speakers.
In Hangul, there are twenty-four letters (fourteen consonants and ten vowels—two letters less than the Latin alphabet’s twenty-six). Regardless of the number of strokes that comprise the syllable, the strokes in the syllable combinations always occupy a same size of block. Therefore, designing Hangul typefaces necessitates painstaking consideration of available space. The total number of block syllables is 2,350 (based on the Korean Standard (KS) code) and 11,172 (based on the Unicode).
Illustration 3. Examples of a typeface where spacing is well designed and less considered. Comparison of the form, typeface module, and their typesetting
The typeface on the left in Illustration 3, above, is one that pays close attention to the spacing of letters in each syllable. In the “늑” and “늘,” the final consonant “ㄱ” has less strokes than “ㄹ”, and takes up less space under the medial vowel “ㅡ”, and therefore, the position of “ㅡ” in “늑” is lower than that in “늘.” If a type designer does not space every one of the thousands of possible Korean Standard or Unicode syllables carefully, the strokes become compressed and hard to read when typeset. It is similar to the result of “missed kerning” (when specific pairs of individual glyphs in typefaces do not have consistent spacing around them) in the Latin alphabet design.
Illustration 4. Korean Hangul phonemic letters arranged linearly like the Latin alphabet
As seen in Illustration 4 above, there has been an attempt to lay out all the letters horizontally (instead of combining them in a block frame), but this was not widely adapted or accepted due to its lack of readability and difficulty of conveying meaning in Korean.
2. Era of Typewriter and Mechanization: Radical Out-of-Square Syllabic Module
Illustration 5. Kong Byung-Woo Hangul typewriter, 1947, Brand: Underwood, Photograph by Yoo-Seong Yoon, Sandoll Communications
Hangul forms a block frame with two directional axes, X and Y. This is the reason why Hangul design is particularly complex and painstaking. However, during the mechanization of Hangul through the invention of Hangul typewriter, letters began to project outside of the traditional block frame.
Illustration 6. Completed System (Square Syllabic Module, and Doobeolsik) versus Combining System (Out-of-Square Module and Sebeolsik)
Compare the initial and final sound “ㅇ” in both styles. In the “Completed System” on the left (Illustration 6), although it shows the same letter “ㅇ” as on the right, its form, size, and proportion are all different, adjusted to each square syllabic block. However, in the “Combined System” on the right, the form, size, and proportion are the same because one design of “ㅇ” is applied to all syllables. This kind of change in the parameters of the module resulted from the new technology of the typewriter. It is referred to as the “Out-of-Square Module.”
3. Era of Digital Typeface: Various Syllabic Modules
Illustration 7. Examples of diverse combination modules: the unique game of Hangul modular design
Among the six Hangul typeface designs shown at left (Illustration 7), the top block module is the most widely used in South Korea because it is very legible and has been formalized through repeated general use.
The second from the top originates in a square syllabic block module, which however shows a slight tendency to out-of-syllable-square module. Of course, it is rather more moderate than the radical Sebeolsik typeface that originated during the era of mechanization of Hangul typefaces. This typeface looks more vibrant, yet is still easy to read, so it is often used in children’s books.
The third from the top is a typical Sebeolsik, an out-of-syllable-square module typeface. It is not as easy to read as the first two types. However, by incorporating new design features that liberate the letters from the block frame, it has greater expressive potential.
The fourth typeface focuses on the medial sound. It is as if the medial sound functions as the center of gravity, pulling in the upper initial sound and the final sound below, with the medial sound as the locus.
The fifth and sixth typefaces move beyond the Sebeolsik typefaces, demonstrating a radical freedom of design. In the third typeface the positions of initial, medial, and final sounds were fixed, but in these typefaces, the letters arrange themselves in relation to each other through proportional dynamics. The digital typeface at the bottom is also the most radical in design.
The pleasure of designing Hangul typefaces lies in the constant redefining of the dynamics and mechanism between phonemic (alphabetic) letters and syllables. This remains an artistic challenge for those that undertake the complex and unique game of Hangul modular design.