Web design has been improving steadily in Western countries, thanks to faster connections, better browsers, and more robust web development tools. Newer sites like Medium and Pinterest look shockingly better than their predecessors (compare them to Amazon, for example).

The state of web design in developing countries, on the other hand, has been mostly abysmal. Chinese websites are mostly walls of tiny, barely legible text. The site of Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest daily newspaper, looks like it was designed in 1996. The same goes for the online home of the Indian state of Gujarat. But as the number of internet users in these countries grows alongside their economic prospects, they are demanding something better.

"Font design has not been highly regarded in China," says Curt Huang, president of Chinese font agency Changzhou Sinotype, a frequent collaborator with Adobe. But, he says, "Chinese companies are increasingly concerned about fonts and design in general." And it's not just companies trying to improve their brand. Huang also cites growing interest in design from both individuals and even the government. Since 2005 the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing has offered a PhD in typeface design, and Huang says the program is more popular than ever.

Global organizations and firms, no matter where they're based, ignore this demand for quality at their own peril. Leonidas emphasizes the competitive advantage of having good typefaces for scripts like Devanagari, used by various Indian languages and read by between 400 million and 500 million people.

Multinational organizations are indeed responding. Voice of America adopted a Rosetta Type product for its Persian site. Google and Adobe have just released their own Pan-Asian font that covers Chinese, Japanese and Korean, which they spent two-and-a-half years developing. Adobe has rolled the font into its Source Sansfamily, while Google has incorporated it into its ambitious Noto project, whose aim is to construct a single, solid base font for every script on Earth.

An early draft of a character for Adobe and Google's Pan-Asian font. (Adobe)

Both Leonidas and Březina are skeptical about whether such a universal font can be any good. "It is hardly ever the case that all the scripts in one family with more than three scripts are up to the same standard," said Březina. Still, they say, raising the base standard for less common scripts is a good idea. At the very least, it shows that Google, Adobe and the like want to broadcast their messages more effectively to people across the globe.

The Future Language of the Web Is Not Just "Globish"

There's another good reason to combine different typefaces into a font, and you can see it if you go to any news website in a language that doesn't use the Latin alphabet. Whether written in ChineseHindi, or Hebrew, nearly all of these sites use the same writing system as English sites for numbers, recognizable acronyms like NSA or IMF, and for words that have been adopted from Western languages. And typically they will use completely unrelated fonts.

"One might look too formal, or too informal," said Leonidas

"If I have a few words of Russian, do they disrupt the flow on the page?" The converse is true too

In this excerpt from a Haaretz article, the Latin letters are not only too big and wide; their curves and angles are also jarringly different from those of the Hebrew letters:


Multi-script excerpt from a Haaretz article on flight MH17. (Haaretz)