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Meet Khmer type designer Tep Sovichet

Posted on:January 1, 2023 at 03:22 PM

Tep Sovichet is a young Cambodian font designer. He’s active in the Cambodian tech community. Currently, he’s a type director and co-founder of Anagata Design.

In this interview, I asked him about his aspiration to design Khmer types. He also told me about the origin and present of Khmer scripts. He wants to design better Khmer types to better serve the audience in the digital era. He sees himself as “a medium to help bring Khmer script to another level, locally and internationally.”

A conversation with Tep Sovichet

Tharum: Hi Sovichet, please introduce yourself in a few tweets.

Sovichet: Hi Tharum. I’m 24 years old and was born in Phnom Penh. I’m a type designer and programmer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I started to code and design typefaces since 2010 all by myself. I majored in computer science but ended up working as a type designer as my main career. Currently, I’m working at Cadson Demak, a well-known type foundry (the company that design fonts) in Thailand. I’ve been traveling to talk and teach Khmer typeface design in a few countries in the last three years.

Tharum: When did you realize that you are into Khmer type? And how did you start?

Sovichet: As I aforementioned, I started the type design journey since 2010 back in high school. It started with how Khmer Unicode helps to pave a standard way to input Khmer characters into the computer systems so that we could avoid using Limon or other legacy fonts. “It is amazing!” I said to myself.

I’m an inquisitive person. I then started to look at how someone could create a new font and what kind of knowledge do I need to know to create one. But, the biggest question I asked myself was: why do we need [more] fonts? I read and browsed many articles and blog posts on the Internet.

When you haven’t heard anything about the matter of typefaces, you don’t notice the differences. I found my answer while I was walking in a bookstore where many books with the same font are published. There were no proper typographic rules applied in them. I noticed how hard it was to read a page and how poor quality fonts were chosen to convey the feeling and meaning of the book. And it’s when I realized that a good typeface not only brings a good look to the text but it also improves the reading experience too.

Since then, I committed to learning more about type design and font engineering to broaden the option and create more good quality fonts for publishers and designers.

Tharum: What sets Khmer script apart from others? What are the essentials you see in it?

Sovichet: Each script has its features for a particular purpose.

Originally, Khmer script derived from Pallava which is a Brahmic script. The earliest known Khmer language inscription is dated from 611 CE in Angkor Borei, Takeo. And the oldest dated inscription that mentions the name of Khmer script as “Kamvujākṣara – កម្វុជាក្ឞរ” (Cambodian Script) is from 9th century in the reign of King Yasovarman I.

I had not known anything about the amazing facts of Khmer script until I started learning Old Khmer on the stone inscriptions. It is fascinating to know that we keep using the same writing system for more than 1200 years. We still have above, below, surrounding marks and vowels, also the subconsonants (coeng/ជើង) stacking vertically below the base, etc. Many sources claim that Khmer script has evolved from 5 to 10 times (Vong Sotheara:2010, George Maspero:1915). Our script only evolved its shapes but the way it stacks and connects each other is almost the same.

Normally, we categorize modern Khmer script into three main styles: upright (អក្សរឈរ), slanted (អក្សរជ្រៀង) and rounded (អក្សរមូល). If you look closely you will see how similar is the current rounded style to the Old Khmer script.

I think these are what make Khmer script standing on its own. It comes from a clear origin and every evolution is connected.

Nowadays, Khmer script isn’t used only for Khmer language but for minority languages too such as Kuay, Bunong, Krung, Tampuan, Brao, Jarai, and Sastras – Pali and Sanskrit [Makara Sok:2019]. This requires a specific study at how to make Khmer Unicode fonts to get the right shaping or rendering for those languages since there are several different character orders and implementations.

Besides minority language support and academic research in language, typefaces also help in the branding of a business.

Text is one of the major mediums to bring the meaning of a message to readers, but it is always overlooked in Cambodia.

Colors and images can be consumed by most people, but a proper typeface is needed to make the artworks and messages respectful to the public audience and appropriate to the brand itself. I’m not saying this because I’m working in this field, but imagine if you have a well-written book with a bad typeface, people will move on.

Tharum: Tell me a few challenges during your journey and how you overcame them?

Sovichet: Followings are the challenges I have been dealing with:

Human resource

Typeface design is a job that requires you to pay attention to every detail of a letter and how every letter can stay altogether with less possibility of collision and glitch. I haven’t heard of any typography class teaching Khmer script and letter forms while most of the student will be working with Khmer content after they graduated.

I know that getting all these things into the design school is hard, so I do talk and workshop one or two times per year in Cambodia and outside the country. Moreover, I could guide anyone wants to do type design as long as they have the will to learn it and be patient.

Typography takes time to cultivate an eye — hundreds of hours, potentially — but also takes guidance. It is learnable, and the question is not if you can learn typography, but rather how. TypeThursday:2017)

Educating people

I am an introvert but I challenge myself to go out and talk about typography and type design. I don’t believe that my introversion would restrain me from doing what I love. Educating people means I show them the value and importance of typefaces in their particular field or matter, especially those who are related such as marketing managers, design directors, graphic designers, publishers, design schools, design agencies, etc.

I started by talking with a few noticeable design agencies in Phnom Penh and a few business owners. I have to keep in mind that I don’t meet them to get my proposal or quotation approved but to let them know how I could help make their branding more outstanding and unique.

Getting Khmer script recognized internationally

I had a dream to talk about Khmer script within the international communities. Fortunately, for the last three years, I have traveled to Thailand and, recently, Japan to talk and teach Khmer script to professionals and international audience. I built a connection with people in other communities to learn from them and exchange the ideas.

I just become a country delegate of ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) so I could share what is happening in Cambodia to the world. Thanks to the support from ATypI and its diversity fund program.

There are many things I will need to do such as producing the learning materials and doing research on Khmer script on various topics. This job needs patience, curiosity, and continuous learning.

Tharum: If you have to mentor a small group of youngsters to take on your path (or a similar one), what are the 3 points are you going to tell them?

Sovichet: Currently, I’m guiding two designers in Cambodia on type design. I could share from my experience with them.

1. Learn the basic of type design

When you do type design, it means you deal with the forms or shape of letters. When you get them right, the typeface will bring the power and an appropriate feeling to where it is used. Also, when you know the basic, you will find your way to expand creativity. I always tell myself and others: there should be a reason behind every decision you make in the design.

2. Learn by example / Find your inspiration

It is a normal thing to do in the creative industry. You need inspiration or idea. Sometimes it comes from within you, sometimes it’s from others. I ask them to look at the existing typefaces or old printing types, then observe and analyze how can they make it better, or how can they make another one with those examples or inspiration.

3. Keep learning, keep doing

Sometimes I don’t find myself doing type design at all, even though I’ve been doing it for 8 years already, but I’m learning about it, every day. There are new challenges in every project and it requires a type designer to be capable of finding solutions in different ways to release a typeface and how to maintain the typeface’s quality. David Berlow of Font Bureau said, “Typefaces are never really done, they’re just released”.

Despite learning the modern Khmer script, I learn Old Khmer script back in the 6th century to get the idea of how each letter has evolved and how things are linked. Learn about history because it is our foundation. I motivate them to keep doing, learning and asking.

A presentation on the principles of Khmer type design and introduction to Khmer script.

Tharum: What are your parents’ thoughts about you?

Sovichet: They are happy with what I’m doing. They let their kids choose the way they want to walk, as long it won’t harm the family and society. I’m lucky to be their son. 🙂

Tharum: Moving forward, how do you envision yourself as a Cambodian type designer to make this work [digital Khmer scripts] better for Cambodia and to the world?


*I don’t want to be famous or the only person doing all these jobs. ***I consider myself as a medium to help bring Khmer script to another level, locally and internationally.

But at this moment, I need to help build other designers so they could take on this job, then I could work on my ultimate goal: to teach and create resources of Khmer type.

I can’t blame anyone for the fact that type design in Cambodia is underdeveloped and overlooked. Instead, it needs more people to work under all the pressures to find ways to develop and support the next generation.

I want to share what I have learned so far to whom want to know. I can talk all days about type design as long as you want to listen. 🙂

Thank you, Tharum, for the interview. It is a great opportunity for me to spread the words on the importance of typefaces and the value of Khmer type for the Cambodian design industry. I also want to say thanks to Javier Sola, Open Institute, Xavier Dupré, Ben Mitchel, Danh Hong, Anuthin Wongsunkakorn and many other people who always support and help me in the journey. Thank you very much!

Experimental font for stone inscription:

A side note about Khmer script as explained by Sovichet:

The perception of the native eyes and foreigner’s eyes may not be the same. So is the reading experience. When we talk about the spacing, we need to know in which context we refer to. Body text font may need a wider space than the big display font. And that really depends on the design and designer themselves. I agree that we don’t have a better way to determine what is “proper spacing” for body text and display. It requires a particular analyzing on the matter of Khmer type design. TBH, I see many Khmer type designers only focus on the shapes of a letter more than proportion and spacing.

Thai script has received many refinements, evolutions, and influences that are recorded and safely kept for newer generations. They have a great collection of Thai typefaces in the old days for reference. Also, the printing was introduced to the country a hundred years before us, if I remember correctly. They have simplified the letterforms and writing system that was originally adopted from Old Khmer script (they call Aksorn Khom).

I don’t get what is the position of the symbol he/she was talking about. The fact about Khmer is we still use the same writing system that has a clear origin and rules. If we look at the stone inscriptions and handwritten letters in the 1900s, most above and below marks are attached to the right stroke of the base consonant. This is what comes from the Pallava script. In modern Khmer script, we still see this application for many marks while some marks are aligned center for the typographic and aesthetic matters.

I agree that we have high vertical metrics because we need to stack those marks. I sometimes hate that but it’s not what we can change in a night. We do typefaces for people to read so we need to take legibility and readability in consideration. He/she might say the vowels are large or misplaced? We have two levels stacking above and below the consonant and that what we are used to. Changing it to a ligature or a different way will take some time to be accepted. It is possible because our letterforms have been changed tremendously when the printing type was introduced. We need to find a good way to present the change.

I always put these concerns on the table when I design a new typeface. It needs a lot of effort and time.