Lindsay McComb / Posted 6.19.2012
Brilliant by design
Supposedly, you can learn to read Korean in three hours. It's that brilliant.
The Korean alphabet, or Hangul, isn't just brilliant by accident, it's brilliant by design.
Prior to Hangul's creation, Chinese characters were used to convey the written Korean language. It was a bit unwieldy, made printing a mess (Korean type printing dates back to 1377, maybe even earlier) and posed a serious hinderance to literacy.
So in 1446, King Sejong the Great (there's a reason why he's called the Great) took on the problem by initiating the creation of a Korean alphabet.
Hangul has only five elements: dots, vertical strokes, horizontal strokes, diagonal strokes and circles. It consists of 51 jamo, or phomenic units. Consonants are linear shapes (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅎ), vowels are lines (ㅏ, ㅐ, ㅑ, ㅒ, ㅓ, ㅔ, ㅕ, ㅖ, ㅗ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, ㅠ, ㅡ, ㅢ, ㅣ), and a few consonants are doubled (ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ) to create glottalized letters.
The most interesting aspect of Hangul is that the letters were each designed for a special purpose. The consenants are designed to symbolize the different position of the mouth and tongue when pronounced.
The symbol ‘ㄴ’ [n] depicts the shape of
the tongue touching the upper palate.
The symbol ‘ㅁ’ [m] depicts the outline
of the mouth.
The symbol ‘ㄱ’ [k/g] depicts the shape
of the back of the tongue blocking the
The vowels, on the other hand are composed of three elements of nature: humans, earth and heaven. Vertical strokes signify humans, horizontal strokes are the earth, and the dots represent heaven.
Elements and forms
Korean letterforms always fit into a square, and words are broken up into 2-4 letter syllables. Each block consists of at least one consonant and one vowel.
Korean can be read both horizontally or vertically, from left to right or top to bottom (though mostly it's just read left to right).
Korean typography is a bit tricky though. Hangul is not written linearly (one letter per space). Rather, it is written compositely. This means that one space is composed of several stacked letters to create one syllable.
The name Hangul or 한글 is a stack of:
ㅎ [h], ㅏ[a], ㄴ [n] in the first block
and ㄱ [g/k], ㅡ [eu], and ㄹ [r/l] in the second stack.
In each block, the letters are pronounced from left to right, top to bottom.
This also means that depending on where the letter is placed in a block, the size and proportions change. For one font, a total of 11,172 letters have to be designed to take all the variations into account.
Hangul typography is a bit of a late bloomer, due both to the technical issues of designing thousands of letter variations for a font as well as political factors. During the Japanese Occupation of Korea from 1910-1945, the use of Korean was banned, meaning that any typographic development was essentially impossible. Then the Korean War happened. Design was put on the back burner while more pressing issues were dealt with. As South Korea rose from the ashes to become an economic powerhouse in the late 1990s and 2000s, Korean design really blossomed.
Designers like Ahn Sang-Soo are beginning to challenge the boundaries of Hangul's "invisible box" by moving elements around and positioning them in patterns that challenge the traditional Chinese aesthetic and stretch the boundaries of legibility.
Hangul is both a functional and beautiful language with so many possibilities.