More than 800 languages in a single typeface: creating Noto for Google

A typeface five years in the making, Google Noto spans more than 100 writing systems, 800 languages, and hundreds of thousands of characters. A collaborative effort between Google and Monotype, the Noto typeface is a truly universal method of communication for billions of people around the world accessing digital content.

The brief: ‘no more tofu’

Google set Monotype a straightforward brief: “no more tofu” – tofu being the nickname for the blank boxes that are shown when a computer or site lacks font support for a particular character. To meet Google’s requirement, Monotype needed to develop one typographic family that could cover the more than 800 languages included in the Unicode Consortium standard.

This mammoth effort required harmonious design and development of an unprecedented number of scripts, including several rare writing systems that had never been digitized before. “It was this really phenomenal, daunting project,” says Google internationalization expert Bob Jung. “Looking back at it, I’m even surprised myself how ambitious we were.”

“Our goal for Noto has been to create fonts for our devices, but we’re also very interested in keeping information alive,” he adds. “When it comes to some of the lesser-used languages, or even the purely academic or dead languages, we think it’s really important to preserve them.”

Working with an open source design philosophy, the project involved liaising with individual designers and linguists around the world to perfect each letterform. Taking more than five years to reach its current stage, Noto required an intense and coordinated research effort, partnering with cultural experts to investigate the nuances of each style, and incorporating direct feedback from the communities using the script.

There are some characters you can only see on stones. If you don’t move them to the web, over time those stones will become sand and we’ll never be able to recover those drawings or that writing

The research: cultural preservation

To give Adlam – a writing system for the Fulani language of Africa – a new identity, Monotype worked with the script’s original creators. Having direct access to the inventors of this writing system allowed the designers to incorporate stylistic choices and features that would reflect the creators’ original intentions, and bring the Fulani-speaking community the first chance to use the script digitally.

Traditional and contemporary elements were blended in Noto Armenian, which involved the Armenian community directly in the design process; while Tibetan monks offered expert feedback on Noto Tibetan. This vertically stacked script posed a unique challenge, with Monotype designer Toshi Omagari’s own study of the writing system supported by Buddhist scholar Shojiro Nomura, as well as the monks’ own constant manuscript study.

Noto was also an opportunity to bring a digital version of Urdu Nastaliq to life, giving greater access to the 100 million people that use it, as well as reinvigorate Ogham – an alphabet that dates back to the 4th century, and is found mostly on monuments and manuscripts. Monotype designer Steve Matteson unearthed copious images of the medieval script to create Noto Ogham“There are some characters you can only see on stones. If you don’t move them to the web, over time those stones will become sand and we’ll never be able to recover those drawings or that writing,” explains Noto product manager Xiangye Xiao.

The result: a digital language for everyone

In addition to the cultural role the typeface is finding, Noto is a digital workhorse, powering the text shown in Android and Chrome devices and spanning a huge amount of styles up to eight weights. It supports symbols, emoji and musical notation.

Noto is available from the Google Noto Fonts website, where it’s finding an ever-expanding range of uses. “We get emails everyday asking, ‘Can we use this font in our automation system?’, ‘Can we use it in the TV on a flight?’,” says Xiao.

And the story doesn’t end there. As part of a wider effort to facilitate communication across culture, and the lofty aim of finally developing a font that supports all languages, Noto continues to be updated in line with the Unicode Consortium.

“I think this has long-lasting significance for the future of digital communication,” says Monotype designer Steve Matteson. “It’s hard for me to grasp how many people will actually be using this, let alone be able to communicate in multiple languages in their mother tongue, or be able to translate and preserve their culture.”

A special thank you

Monotype would thank the team of designers, researchers, script specialists, hinters/finishers, quality assurance, and tools developers who contributed to the Google Noto project.  We would also like to thank the countless reviewers and native speakers who provided opinions and insights on the Google Noto scripts. 

Monotype employees:

Vickie Allison
Maria Glenda Bellarosa
Jelle Bosma
Priscilla Brugman
Nadine Chahine
Christopher Chapman
Carl Crossgrove
Karen Dupre
Jim Ford
Deborah Gonet
Josh Hadley
Mary Hanson
Linda Hintz
Robin Hui
Adel Hunter
Linda Jenkins
Cheung Kin Keung
Micah Stupak
Karl Leuthold
Kevin Lew
Alistair Lloyd
Kamal Mansour
Steve Matteson
Guy Mayger
Charles Nix
Toshi Omagari
Dave Opstad
Tom Rickner
George Ryan
Devin So
Chuong Ton
Bob Tremallo
Juan Villanueva
Susan Waksmonski
Jim Wasco
Terrance Weinzierl
Steve Zafarana
Sue Zafarana

Partners and friends:

Abdoulaye & Ibrahima Barry
Jo De Baerdemaeker
Cadson Demak Ltd
Diane Collier
Fontef Type Foundry
Kalapi Gajjar-Bordawekar
Gajjar & Vilhjamsson Private Limited
Yanone Gerner
Kimya Gandhi
Patrick Giasson
Giasson Ltd.
John Hudson
Indian Type Foundry
Yanek Iontef
Kigali Designs
Letterjuice Ltd.
Ben Mitchell
James Montalbano
Elena Papassissa
Rainer Erich Scheichelbauer
Fiona Ross
Zachary Scheuren
Georg Seifert
Vaibhav Singh
Terminal Design
Tiro Typeworks Ltd.
Anuthin Wongsunkakon
Pascal Zoghbi