We are thrilled to announce Kornkanok 'Mint' Tantisuwanna as this year's 2023 Malee Scholar.
Kornkanok ‘Mint’ Tantisuwanna is an accomplished type designer and lettering artist based in Bangkok Thailand. She has worked for the renowned type design firm Cadson Demak, and now works independently developing typefaces and custom lettering for brands and artists across Thailand and internationally.
Mint was passionate about typeface design since before any formal introduction to the craft. Growing up, her favorite thing was to sketch and draw letters during class. It wasn’t until university and important formative experiences with influential type designers as a young adult that she discovered what would become her lifelong passion. Type design and the balancing act of precision and creativity it requires excited Mint, and she hasn’t turned her back on it since.
Mint was an inspiration to The Malee Scholarship. Her incredible talent and passion is hard to overlook, but what’s more is she doesn’t want to keep it to herself. She has taught at multiple universities teaching young designers the art of type design, and hopes to build her own type foundry one day. Type design in Thailand is not considered a typical career path, but Mint wants to break this convention and raise awareness and promote a growing generation of type designers in her home country. We don’t doubt she will make great strides in the field, and we are proud to announce her as the Malee Scholarship recipient of 2023.
What is one of your earliest memories interacting with or making letterforms before becoming a type designer?
I remembered passing papers in class with a kind of game I invented. I’d pick a random word and write it down. I’d ask a friend nearby to write the exact same word, but with one rule — write it differently. We would pass back and forth until we ran out of ideas. We’d change our handwriting every turn from super neat, to all lower case Sans Serif, to wide all-caps, to cursive, to narrow slab serif, to Curlz. I’d be fussing over things like, are there other ways to write a ‘k’? It was very enjoyable. Soon, however, most of my friends got tired of it. Thinking of it now, I wasn’t a great student in primary school but I thought about x-height long before I knew what it was. I was fascinated by type long before I knew what type design was.
“Type welcomed me into this world that gave me life, and became a space where I could feel fulfilled.”
How did your interest in type evolve into a professional practice?
I chose Communication Design for college and the reason is nothing special; I was terrible at math. My path as a design student did not seem to be going that great in the beginning. Most of my design friends seemed to know what they were good at. Some were great at illustration and some just had really good taste. I started to notice how I enjoy paying attention to tedious details. I was the annoying classmate who always spotted typos. I was the person who saw that there was 1 extra spacebar. I’d question things like “Why isn’t that square and circle lined up?” My friends noticed that when I took notes, I made sure they were written down as pretty as I possibly could. I also like drawing beer logos on napkins and friends’ names on receipts. I never thought of it as a career. Drawing letters just felt natural.
“Once I learned what type design was, I felt that I discovered a career that has to do with all my personality and likings combined.”
I heard of Cadson Demak from my design friends about how exceptional they are in their attention to detail. I wrote an email hoping to learn from people who would understand my frustration with things that don’t align. I was extremely lucky to earn a spot as an intern when I barely knew typefaces beyond Helvetica. I remembered the very first day of my internship. Anuthin Wongsunkakon, the founder, was lecturing me first thing in the morning on how we don’t just draw type from imagination. It all starts with writing; tools are what create the design. The very first time I drew type digitally, Smich Smanloh, type director of Cadson Demak told me, “Designing negative space is as important as designing positive space.” Once I learned what type design was, I felt that I discovered a career that has to do with all my personality and likings combined.
I started sketching more, learning type history, and reading process articles by other type designers. After a few years, I had the opportunity to design and develop typefaces for both local and international clients. Even though I do not work full-time at Cadson Demak anymore, my type design journey wouldn’t begin without the guidance and mentorship of their team.
How does your background and community shape who you are as an individual and designer today?
Growing up in a Thai, family-run tire shop, art and design is the furthest thing I could be doing. I have always felt the pressure to prove myself to my family that I can manage to do what I love and make a living, like a typical Asian kid who isn’t a doctor or an engineer. Ever since I realized type design was probably my thing, I knew this isn’t going to be an easy journey.
In 2019, I attended the Type@Cooper Condensed Program in New York City. Hannes Famira, Just van Rossum, Cara Di Edwardo, and Sasha Tochilovsky were amazing mentors. My classmates also came from various creative backgrounds. They might not know but the small community that happened in those few weeks played a big part in shaping me as the designer I am today. I was inspired to sketch very neatly and precisely from a painter. I started to be more interested in dynamic compositions and how creative tools create unconventional textures from a calligrapher. I also got myself a brother/type buddy which until today has always been my second pair of eyes and a good source of constructive criticism.
Another factor that shaped me into who I am today is my friends. I have an extremely opinionated group of friends. We have something to say about every restaurant’s menu layout. From that is such a smart choice of typeface to that leading could have been tighter. We understand the work might have gone through a tight timeline, unclear brief, limited production cost, or other uncontrollable factors that we would never know. Not being full of hate but being constantly observant and analytical is an important key to learning. That way we are always training our eyes and exercising our creative problem- solving skills. I believe we can always learn a thing or two from bits and pieces around us.
“I believe we can always learn a thing or two from bits and pieces around us.”
I came to realize the importance of being motivated, open-minded, and critical. People that came into my life influenced me on those qualities and have helped me grow not just as a designer, but also as an individual.
Could you tell us about your involvement in your community and what it means for you to be a teacher?
Ever since forever, I was always very into education. Even though I was the kid who always slept in the classroom, I remember all my teachers. I’ve always paid extra attention to their methods of teaching, grading, and everything. I believe education plays such an important role in a kid growing up. Teacher to me means being an approachable source of knowledge in the body of a considerate, high-motivated personal trainer. When I was young, that would be a full package of what I wished I had.
“Being a teacher also always means being a student. I’m certain I learned as much from them, or maybe more.”
I was fortunate to have opportunities to teach at local universities. Sometimes as a working professional, there’s a tendency to forget what being a student feels like. I have asked myself, “Would I approach the brief more creatively if I wasn’t too ruled by all the ‘Typography 101’ articles I have been reading?” Most lectures I do are on subjects I have been studying for years. I might be tired of saying the same things, but this is the first time the students are hearing about it. I wanted them to be as excited as I was. What I’m introducing might turn them into the next Matthew Carter, who would ever know? Every time a student asks me something I don’t know, I would be very upfront about it that I don’t either. That does not sound like someone who would be a teacher of the next Matthew Carter but I always made sure to be the person to help them figure out an answer. The design industry is fast-paced and ever-changing, there are plenty of times they made me realize that there are things I know that are dying. My knowledge always needs an update. Being a teacher also always means being a student. I’m certain I learned as much from them, or maybe more.
I remembered the first week of class at Chulalongkorn University when I was in the bathroom stall and a group of kids were saying how boring typography is. On the last day, they came up and talked about how the skills they’ve learned have been extremely useful for them as designers.
As we grow globally in type, how have you addressed the challenges of adapting different scripts into Thai?
Fundamentally, the Thai language itself is not based on Latin. There are a variety of native contextual factors that contribute to designing a Thai adaptation. To give a brief idea of our script, there are two main classifications: Looped and Loopless. It is appropriate to say that they cannot be compared to Sans and Serif. Thai Looped links directly with legibility, rooted in the construction of the script. This affects people who grew up in the time Loopless wasn’t this commercialized. A friend of my grandma was once commenting on how a Thai Loopless character is looking ‘wrong’ while watching her favorite news channel, while my dad once asked if there are any Looped fonts that don't look like fonts for oldies.
Most ads we see in Thailand today are set in Loopless. People prefer Loopless as headlines due to the simpler, more graphic tone of voice. While (I would say) 9 out of 10 books and articles are still set in Looped. All literate Thais can read both styles but older people would not be comfortable reading a book set in Loopless, while an 18-year-old probably wouldn’t mind. It’s common to see Looped paired with Serif and Loopless with Sans, but that’s not always necessary. It varies, depending on the usage.
So the very first challenge in the process would be to determine which style is appropriate and convince the original designer why. There are many occasions where having both Looped and Loopless is probably the most functional option, but that adds more time and money to the process.
To design a Thai adaptation, it takes more than just drawing similar shapes, and making perfect curves. It is about knowing the language, not to only read and write, but also to understand the cultural context of the script. What it looks like might be different from how it sounds. Achieving the form and texture is one thing, but matching the tone of voice is another.
You have an impressive body of lettering work. Could you tell us more about that, and how it informs your approach to designing type.
Aww, thank you! It all started from being in front of the screen all day. My eyes needed a break from the blue light, eye-damaging machine. My job as a full-time type designer was to design practical typefaces, most of which are very far from what we can describe as experimental or even display. There are other disciplines within type design I never got to explore, there’s a world out there that I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to become more of a versatile designer rather than a strong one-style specialist. There are times that I wonder if I’m just easily bored or if there is a real problem with my focus. I have come to the conclusion that a great eye remedy and the shortcut to experiencing drawing styles of typefaces I’ve never drawn is hand-lettering.
Self-initiated practices became a nice getaway from the Sans Serif, Geometric drawing routine shaped by the commercial world. Who would expect that Grandma’s birthday lettering and a salad-inspired sketch would lead to numerous projects commissioned by people who appreciate not just aesthetics but the value of old-school, pencil and paper craft. Freelance projects became personal funding to further my type education. Without them, I would not have the opportunity to take several lettering workshops with Ken Barber, gain access to historical lectures offered by the Society of Scribes, or invest in books like Foundations of Calligraphy by Sheila Waters.
All the experience and skills go back to feed the type design tank. No matter what the application is, or what method is used, to me the core is always the attention to detail. At times, the freedom of hand-lettering allows me to break off the creativity block that happens in the process of type design. With more experience, ideas and design solutions come faster. Even so, they don't always work out. I guess I'm going to have to keep sketching!
What hopes do you have for the type industry at large? How do you see your role in that vision?
On a local scale, I want to open doors for myself and Thai designers to this niche but widely inaccessible discipline in Thailand. The creative industry here isn’t as valued compared to Western countries. We don’t have the money or resources needed for a specialized arts and design education like type design. There are very few opportunities to learn locally. Limited sources of education result in limited knowledge of the type discipline and its value. Buying licensed fonts isn’t as common as it should be. My hope for Thailand is that there are more resources for one to learn and that being a type designer becomes a legitimate career that provides financial stability.
On an even larger scale, I believe we can start collaborating instead of monopolizing. Quoting the homepage of the Malee Scholarship, there is still a lack of cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity in our global industry. I wish as small, growing type designers, there will be paths for us to walk.
“My hope for Thailand is that there are more resources for one to learn and that being a type designer becomes a legitimate career that provides financial stability.”
I am humbled to have had international projects where the experiences I had helped me grow tremendously, for which I am truly grateful for. However, with all due respect, there are times when the biggest challenge when working internationally is gaining trust fron the client. Sometimes explaining design choices is more complicated than the drawing itself. Speaking as a designer of a developing country, there are times when international clients have judged my designs based on our ability to speak English. There are times when our worth is judged by our country's minimum wage, not our skills.
People should be judged by what they can do, not by where they come from.
Where do you find inspiration in the world?
I’d like to believe I am a people person and they are the inspiration. When I was in college I took classes like Religious Experience and Traditions, Cross-cultural Psychology, and Essentials of the Food Industry. That was initially to expose myself to other subjects I’m interested in, but it resulted in meaningful friendships and unexpected conversations. Then I realized along the way that having deep, substantial talks with not only designers but also with people coming from different backgrounds inspires me the most.
Currently I am a part of Ruammitr, an artist collective and studio space shared among a writer, graphic designer, art director, architect, and a type designer(me). We all have different interests and we talk about the most random things but sometimes that’s how the best ideas come about.
What’s next for you?
Like a dream come true, I'm extremely grateful and happy to share that I have been accepted to the Type and Media master program at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) this coming August. With the support of the Malee Scholarship and my fellow designers who have always taught me and helped me, I believe I am on my way to building a stronger foundation and moving forward as a type designer with a voice for ethnic minorities like myself. With my determination and dedication — I also want to not only become a person who does type but the one who keeps the profession of drawing letters alive.