Typography of the universal coconut duty plate - Lin Yangchen
©Lin Yangchen


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Very often the lettering on postage stamps looks generic, as if it were inserted from a standard selection of available fonts after the stamp was designed. This is especially widespread in modern stamps, but even the font used on the Penny Black is little more remarkable than what one would see in newsprint. Discussions about stamp design usually go no further than saying that fonts are serif or sans-serif.


Here the coconut definitive stands out from the rest. The lettering does not look like a label or a computer text box. The style, weight and spacing of the letters were honed to perfect harmony with the other parts of the design, as if they are the heart, lungs, kidneys and connective tissue of the same organism.

There are four different hand-lettered typefaces on the original coconut definitive.

At the top is a humanist MALAYA with variable stroke width not commonly seen in sans-serifs, possessing a calligraphic hand-cut quality that complements the artisan 'roofing' in the upper corners and conveys the genial disposition of Malayan peoples. Interestingly, some fonts of the American-designed Linotype Ergo family resemble the handcut MALAYA in overall look and feel. This suggests that fundamental typographical principles that may have given Linotype Ergo what Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger called "supple" and "classical" qualities were also at work in MALAYA.



Universal coconut duty plate typeface (De La Rue, 1936)


Linotype Ergo Sketch (Gary Munch, 1997)



Universal coconut duty plate typeface (De La Rue, 1936)


Malaya $1 banknote (Waterlow & Sons, 1941)


On the other hand, the realist or grotesque STRAITS SETTLEMENTS at the bottom recalls the all-capitals of uniform stroke width in engineering drawings, enunciating administrative authority on the ground as distinguished from the higher geographical and cultural realm represented by MALAYA. The slightly looser letterspacing of STRAITS is a nice touch that reduces the gaping white space on both sides of the word. An almost identical typeface is found on the marble tablets of the war memorial at London King's Cross station, and on contemporary banknotes printed by Waterlow—a testimony to its versatility.

See Singapore, Johore and Kedah for discussion of other Latin typefaces in later issues of the coconut definitive.

The straits settlements inscription is flanked on both sides by the architectural brutalism of the concrete-like denomination tablets, simple squares tucked into the corners to maximise limited space. A brutalist typeface appears within the non-dollar denomination tablets (below left) and has an air of Soviet utilitarianism, being sans-serif and decidedly angular to maximize readability in a confined space. A special trait of this typeface takes the form of slanted cuts at the ends of strokes. This makes the glyphs easily distinguishable even in cramped quarters by increasing the perceived gap between strokes without shortening the strokes too much. The dot below the 'c' is a nice touch that earlier definitives did not have, subconsciously helping the eye see the currency better.


Denominations $1 and higher (above right) are given the aristocratic look of a typeface that melds the cursive handwritten features of script style with the 16th-century calligraphic strokes of fraktur, in what the author calls 'fraktur-script'. Despite the limited space available, the dollar sign is given two vertical strokes for extra refinement. The dollar tablets were later standardized to the brutalist typeface in the Malay state issues.


An avant-garde study of typography, handwriting, textures, colours and transparency.

A remarkable Air Mail cachet. It is huge yet not too heavy, lightweight yet easy to read the letters. The typographer accomplished this by hollowing out the thick strokes into vector outlines. The letter a has the v-shaped crossbar sometimes found in 19th-century decorative typefaces. A very unusual feature of the typeface is that the a and m have thick strokes on the left side of the letter, opposite to the vast majority of typefaces. This gives it a air of eccentricity and tension as you read it from left to right feeling as if you're being pushed rather than pulled along. Actually the cachet isn't even really necessary at all, since the blue air mail sticker is affixed. But for the sake of art …


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