Sound and Vision

Image of the Kiki Bouba type specimen featuring black Katakana characters on a grey background

As she neared the end of her studies at OCAD University in Toronto, Emi Takahashi, who works with us as an associate designer, focused her interest in the relationship of sound and meaning by researching onomatopoeia in the Japanese language. “They are often the first classes of words one encounters as a child,” she said in a recent interview with ItsNiceThat, “from animal sounds such as ‘moo,’ ‘meow,’ and ‘woof’ to noises such as bang, boom, or pop,” all of which are formed from the sounds they are associated with. Japanese, like other East Asian languages, is particularly rich with onomatopoeia; the words represent with nuance a wide range of experiences and ideas.

Pairing this line of inquiry with a love of type that originated in her exposure to Japanese calligraphy as a child, Emi began imagining ways to bridge sound, form, and meaning through the creation of a typeface. The result, Kachi-Buwa, is a variable Katakana font that uses the axes of interpolation to instantiate a “visceral kind of communication.”

Spreads from a newsprint type specimen.

The name Kachi-Buwa derives from the Bouba/kiki effect, first discovered nearly a century ago by psychologist Wolfgang Köhler, which posits that the relationship our minds make between speech sounds and visual shapes is not arbitrary. The glyphs in Emi’s typeface employ onomatopoeias that embody this effect; by modifying its axes, you can make “spiky” sounds look spikier and “round” sounds seem softer. As she says: “kachi kachi (カチカチ) describes sharp, rambunctious sounds, the state of stiffness as well as feelings of nervousness whereas buwa buwa (ブワブワ) is the state of being spongy, puffy or squishy.”

Spread from a newsprint type specimen.
Spread from a newsprint type specimen.

Asked to name some of the figures that inspired her project, Emi pointed to Concrete poetry, citing Japanese poet Seiichi Niikuni, who pioneered concrete poetic expression in Japan, and Jérôme Peignot’s book Typoésie. For those interested in Japanese typefaces, she recommends the work of researcher and designer Mariko Takagi, who has published two books that deeply explore the interconnections and differences between Latin, Japanese, and Chinese characters, and designers TienMin Liao, who specializes in bi-scriptural work, and Ryoko Nishizuka, who directed the design work for the Pan-CJK Source Han Sans / Noto Sans project with Google and Adobe.