City Font Project Tokyo

Type Project first began developing fonts for next-generation display environments in 2006. Upon announcing the City Font Project in 2010, the specific usage objective of creating “fonts for sign systems in the era of digital signage” was established.

Then, in 2015, the graphic designer Yoshiaki Irobe conveyed his wish that, “When I make proposals for new town block indicator plates, I would like you to provide fonts for them that are grounded in the City Font Project.”

At that point, we began producing typefaces for the indicator plates of Tokyo’s town blocks, based on digital sign system fonts that were already in development. Irobe, who has expressed the desire to “create work that will last a hundred years,” carried out a trial experiment of public signs in the Ginza district and was thereby able to clarify the role of design in Japan’s sign system and identify the issues to be resolved. In this way, we arrived at a shared awareness of the intersecting of “Tokyo” and “signs” as our basic composition.

Ginza District Public Sign Trial Experiment

AD: Yoshiaki Irobe
Web Design: Snap Corporation (Yoshio Yokouchi, Takeshi Shimada, Hiroshi Watanabe)
P: Hiroshi Aoki
CL: Urban Planning Section, City Renovation Department, Chuo City Hall
Marks, Logos, Leaflets, and Signage Planning

The City Font Project is an experiment in strengthening city identity by implementing city-dedicated fonts as a communication tool. In addition to enhancing the understandability of a city, the project aims to hone its urbanity and incorporate the culture unique to its region into the design of its lettering.

The development of a city font and the application of it in urban architecture and spaces, and signage, catalogs, business cards and all manner of other media give consistency to the overall image of the city. Not only does this increase convenience for local residents, it contributes to making deeper impressions on visitors and to improving the long-term value of the city. The three main advantages of city fonts are as follows:

  • ・ Cultural value Font development that incorporates distinctive local characteristics
  • ・ Social value Font application that strengthens the identity of the city
  • ・ Economic value Long-term font management that is understandable and consistent

City font variation example (planned)
Maintaining use of a particular font across diverse forms of information media gives clear definition to a city’s identity, while integrated management of fonts provides increased coherence and understandability of city information.

A font for indicating town blocks

A common sight in municipalities throughout Japan, the town block indicator plate is a kind of plaque that is inscribed with the address where it is installed. It is possible to glean a certain local flavor from those indicator plates that have become old and weatherworn; but a bewildering variety of address notation methods and formats remain in use, and there is a general lack of standardization.

The most significant characteristic of Irobe’s proposed town block indicator plates is the design premise of having Japanese and Latin characters displayed together. Japan has announced the goal of reaching twenty million visitors by 2020, and serving as a “silent guide”, the town block indicator plate is sure to play an important role.

Early-stage design of town block indicator
Font: AXIS Font Regular

In this age of ubiquitous smartphones, some may harbor doubts as to the very necessity of the town block indicator plate. But its continual presence around us is reassuring – one can always count on its being there when one needs it. On the other hand, there is the risk that its presence throughout the town will actually add to the noisiness of the urban landscape. In its ideal form, what would the town block indicator plate look like?

We started with a base of typefaces we had been developing for digital sign systems, and then went through a process of repeated examination and trial production while carrying out all manner of minute adjustments of various type attributes, such as character face size, stroke thickness, character width, proportionality of thickness of vertical and horizontal strokes, and stroke intensity.

Tokyo CityFont

We gave this new typeface the name “Tokyo CityFont”. In addition to its function as an “understandable” typeface, we wanted to place emphasis on the expression of the city’s unique history and local character. We hope that this typeface will be accepted by a large number of people, both because of its exceptional practicality, and because it inspires affection in local residents and stimulates the curiosity of visitors.

Any discussion of “Tokyoness” is sure to elicit countless viewpoints, and it would be an absurd task to try to condense them all into one. Our first step was to treat the central object of this particular project – the town block indicator plate – as a “nameplate of the streets”. A place name is itself a sign, an indicator, that points to the history of the locality. Next, we decided to focus the typeface expression on present and future Tokyo, while also leaving traces that call to mind the traditions of old Edo.

Left: Sushi at Nihonbashi Yoshino Sushi
Center: Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles served on a bamboo platter at NIhonbashi Ri Kyu An
Right: Tempura at NIhonbashi Ri Kyu An

Edo was renamed Tokyo in 1868, when it became the official capital of Japan. The term “Edokko” refers to a person who was born and raised in Edo/Tokyo and implies certain traits that non-natives do not possess, while “Tokyojin” (Tokyoite) has a more modern and less traditional connotation.

Taking this approach one step further, we sought a concept that would link Tokyo and Edo with “spiritedness and stylishness” and we set our sights on a typeface that would be endowed with the continuity of history and the distinctiveness of the locality. There are many more points of commonality than we had expected, and we sense the design potential in the theme of the stylishness of Edo that remains in Tokyo today.

In addition, we have tried to insert qualities that Tokyo and Edo share in place of typeface attributes. Undoubtedly, it took many years for the aesthetic sensibilities of Edo-Tokyo to take shape as a lifestyle, and when we drew out a style of typeface from that, it was a surprisingly smooth process.

Character traits appreciated by both the Edokko and the Tokyoite

  • Tokyo CityFont’s style
  • Crisp “efficiency/carefreeness”
  • Sophisticated “stylishness/refinement”
  • Lively “gallantry/cheerfulness”

Tokyo CityFont’s style

  • Unornamented “sans-serif”
  • Delicate “lightweight”
  • Narrow “condensed”
  • Modulated “strokes”

Final Tokyo CityFont and town block indicator plate
Plate design: Irobe Design Institute
Type design: Type Project, Inc.

For small characters, which have weak-looking stroke lines, the specification of the Tokyo CityFont to be used for ward names has been set approximately 15% wider. Kanji characters are designed with a narrow typeface of 90%.
Above, Tokyo CityFont Small. Below, Tokyo CityFont Large.

New proposal for town block indicator plate (planned)


Written characters express their era by means of the typeface in which they appear. Type design is nothing less than the work of breathing new life into written characters while inheriting the styles of previous eras. From the conventional standpoint of contemporary graphic design, Irobe’s desire to create work that “will last a hundred years” may seem like wishful thinking. However, when we reflect on the history of kanji, a hundred years is not really such a long period of time. It is our hope that this undertaking with town block indicator plates and Tokyo CityFont will create opportunities to think about long-lasting design.

Tokyo CityFont will display at Yoshiaki Irobe’s exhibition start from September 2 at Ginza Graphic Gallery.

City Font Project Nagoya

  • Nagoya “Kinsachi Font”

  • Yokohama “Hama Mincho”

City fonts from around the world