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How to design your own script
Taken from clawgrip’s thread on CBB
STEP 1: CHOOSE A DIRECTION
Scripts can be written in a number of directions. The reason it's important to choose
a direction early on is because it can affect the shape of your glyphs and how they
interact with each other.
The most basic directions are:
The majority of world scripts are written in this direction. The Roman alphabet
follows this direction.
This is common in middle-eastern scripts such as Arabic and Hebrew, and many
ancient scripts associated with that area.
This is the traditional writing direction for East Asian languages, though nowadays,
left-to-right, top-to-bottom is also very commonly used.
This is used for some scripts, such as Mongolian.
This is extremely uncommon, but there are existing real-world scripts that were
written vertically. Both left-to-right and right-to-left examples exist.
If you are starting out, I recommend picking something basic from the above list.
However, there are more complex directions as well, though they are all variations
of the above basic forms. They include
(Partially) diagonal horizontal
The Nastaliq form of Arabic script, which is the standard form of writing Urdu, is I
think unique in the world by being written in occasionally overlapping diagonals.
The letters are connected to each other in a string that moves gradually downward,
and when a new word is started, the beginning of the word often appears above the
ending of the previous word in order to fill up space and make it more aesthetically
This is when lines of text are alternately written left-to-right and then right-to-left.
This may be accompanied by a 180° rotation of the glyphs, a result of the writing
surface having been rotated in the scribe's hands. For obvious reasons, no modern
scripts are written this way, but if you are creating an ancient script, it could be an
Some scripts are written in more than
one direction at the same time. For
example, Many (but by no means all)
Mayan inscriptions were written left to
right, but only in pairs; after two
glyphs, a new line is started below the
previous one, leading to columns two
Sumerian Cuneiform was similarly
Phrases or sentences were written
horizontally left-to-right within cells,
but the cells were arranged vertically.
Many scripts could be written in more than one direction. Ancient Egyptian was
variably written in all sorts of directions, while Modern Chinese and Japanese are
frequently written both horizontally left-to-right and vertically right-to-left.
STEP 2: CHOOSE YOUR AESTHETIC
In this step, you will consider the aesthetic of your script. To understand just what
this means, let's look at an example. Take a look at this sample script I have just
You will note that it really sucks. But why? If you are designing something you want
to be visually pleasing, it's not enough to know that it sucks, but to know why it
sucks. The reason this script is so bad is because it lacks any sort of guiding aesthetic.
Each letter appears as though it was designed independently, without any reference
to the other glyphs. There is no consistency from glyph to glyph, and as a result,
when they are arranged together in a line of text, they clash, and just look like a
collection of random shapes.
So how can we resolve this problem?
There is no one way to resolve it, because it is a creative endeavour. You will need
to come up with your design aesthetic on your own. However, there are concrete
suggestions I can give to help you in your decision.
1. Decide which strokes appear frequently
Looking carefully as just about any modern script will reveal that they each have
certain shapes or lines or angles that appear quite frequently. Some examples:
The majority of Latin lower case letters are built either out of vertical lines, circles
(or portions of circles), or a combination of the two. Six letters also incorporate
diagonals. You will note that while the exact angles of the diagonals differ slightly,
they are as close as possible to 45° while maintining an aesthetically pleasing form.
Georgian is similar, but different. It also incorporates circles and vertical lines, but
it has fewer vertical lines, and many more c-shaped semi-circles.
Almost all Oriya letters have rounded tops. There are also a lot of circles, "n" shapes,
and angled or very short straight lines
Most Thai letters have a small circle or two attached to them somewhere. Also,
every single letter has at least one straight vertical line in it, and most have two.
Also, similar to Oriya, the majority of them have rounded tops.
Arabic has many large cup shapes, many small vertical hooks, and of course, lots of
Chinese has many straight vertical and horizontal lines, as well as gently-curving
Glagolitic has circles and triangles everywhere. Yet, oddly enough, there is no letter
that is just O or Δ.
Even something like Egyptian hieroglyphics reveals common patterns. looking
closely at a lot of signs will reveals many curves, including many S curves, that
gradually become wider and more open or flat on one side, sort of like part of a
Mayan, by contrast, tends to favour very blunt curves. Nearly every round shape is
squared off, like a square with rounded corners. As a result, there are very few real
circles in Mayan, and all that do exist are small.
2. Decide which strokes appear infrequently or not at all
It should come as no surprise that if some stroke types are frequent, others may not
be so frequent, or may even be entirely absent. Let's take a look:
No Latin letters have very open curves, like (. There are also very few horizontal
lines: in the lower-case letters, horizontal strokes appear only in e, f and t; in upper
case, only A, E, F, G, H, L, T and Z.
Chinese characters entirely lack tight curves and circles
Buginese entirely lacks horizontal or vertical lines of any kind. All lines are
diagonals, and although the script lacks any curved lines per se, all corners are
Futhark has no curves of any kind; all strokes are completely straight lines. It also
entirely lacks horizontal lines.
Khmer has many small hooks, as well as flat M shapes on the tops of letters. Some
letters also have W shapes on the bottom. Although these are all formed from
diagonal strokes, the script lacks longer diagonal strokes that cover the height or
width of a character.
Tibetan has many elongated descenders. It also has many curves that have one end
lower than the other. Although many letters have horizontal lines on the tops,
horizontal lines are otherwise almost entirely absent (only one letter has a
horizontal anywhere other than the top). The most likely locations for non-top
horizontals are instead occupied by the lopsided curves mentioned above.
Hiragana has relatively few straight lines, favouring curves for the most part.
Javanese never allows an entirely vertical line to appear on the left side of a letter;
it always curves in at the bottom. It is also extremely hesitant about allowing a
single vertical on the right side; usually, there will be at least two verticals pretty
close together on the right side (though not quite always).
Some scripts don't have stroke types that they outright forbid, but there will always
be a tendency toward certain strokes over others.
Think about it
Look again at that sample script I made up.
Can you apply any rule at all to it? Is there any guiding principle such as the ones
we have covered so far that seems to govern the formation of the characters? The
answer is no, and the reason the answer is no is because when I designed the letters,
I did not make any attempt to unify them in any way, resulting in an ugly, fakelooking mess.
Remember: this is a creative process here. You have to decide what you want to
include, how frequent it is, what you want to eliminate, if anything, and so on.
These are all just suggestions.
Side-effects of practical application of your script
So in step 2, we discussed choosing what shapes should or should not be in your
script based on how they match with the other glyphs in your script. What we did
not cover, however, is excluding certain shapes or combinations of shapes due to
practical reasons. What I mean to say is, when sitting down and laboriously
designing a constructed script, it's surprisingly easy to forget that most scripts are
meant to be written by hand by people. Writing things by hand can have significant
effects on a script's appearance.
Consider the purpose of your script. If it is an epigraphic script, i.e. it exists mainly
for important inscriptions and such, there is really nothing you need to consider
here. Egyptian Hieroglyphics, for example, was an epigraphic script that was not
intended for day-to-day communication. As a result, scribes wrote very carefully to
ensure that their inscriptions were visually pleasing, meaning that any conceivable
shape would be faithfully rendered in this script.
However, when they did use writing for more daily concerns, they were less careful.
Unnecessary distinctions were merged or eliminated. The more mundane or plain
and less epigraphic the script got, the more it was simplified. Observe the
progression in this chart:
This is not limited to Egyptian of course. Daily, handwritten script can get
particularly simplified, obscured, and/or reduced to its most basic elements:
So the big question you need to ask yourself is, if your script is intended to be
written by hand, can your script survive being written by hand?
If the answer is no, then you need to adjust it. How you adjust it, though, is up to
you. There are two choices: 1. You can alter it so that it is legible, or; 2. You can
alter it so that it is illegible. Altering it so that it is illegible sounds insane, but this
has happened with scripts in real life. We will get to it in a bit.
1. Altering it so that it is legible:
You will need to determine what kind of strokes are likely to get simplified or
merged when written by hand. This is best done by actually writing your script by
hand many times, quickly, and seeing if there are any elements that are really
annoying or difficult to get right. Some hints though:
Don't have two letters where the only difference between them is a sharp
corner vs. a curved corner (e.g. having ‹∩› and ‹Π› as distinct letters is
probably a bad idea, though I have more to say about this below);
Don't have two letters where the only difference between them is the width
of the letter;
Go easy on the spirals. If they are too complicated, they will probably get
simplified. I would say a good measure of the extent to which people tolerate
spirals is what you see in these: ‹6 ១ ಲ ◌ಾ›; That being said, letters with
complex, spiral-like (but not just a plain spiral) patterns don't need to be
simplified: just look at ‹இ›.
2. Altering it so that it is illegible:
Take, for instance, the Pahlavi script. This script is variously described as
ambiguous, indistinguishable, and so on. To quote The World's Writing Systems,
"numerous letters merged and became indistinguishable, while at the same time,
little effort was made to develop diacritical marks to distinguish them." Ligatures
between various letters made this even worse. Here is an excerpt from the book:
This is the origin of the dots in Arabic script: they are disambiguators for letters that
had otherwise merged and become identical. Cursive Cyrillic does this sometimes
as well, by placing a bar above or below certain letters in order to distinguish them
Another technique, if you're not into adding diacritics, is to take differences and
exaggerate them. I have a nice example I like from the Philippines. While not a
disambiguator per se, it definitely shows one thing you can do if you need to add
some sort of distinguishing features. Look at this sample of various closely-related
scripts from the Philippines: