Kangxi Dictionary Redesign

October 2010 / Independent work

The innovative Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典) was published in 1716 under the reign of the Kangxi emperor and was the standard Chinese character dictionary until the writing reforms of the 20th century. Nonetheless, it is still in print and remains useful to scholars of older Chinese texts. I used it occasionally while I was studying Chinese, and I was simultaneously intrigued and intimidated by its dense layout, shown in a sample page below (scan courtesy of www.kangxizidian.com). The explanatory coloring is my own; view the next image in the slide show to see the uncolored version.

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The blue, circled characters in the page above are numerals which sort the entries by the number of strokes required to write them (this is a common method of indexing Chinese dictionaries). A sample entry is shown highlighted in green. The large character in red is the headword. Following it are its variant forms (yellow) and then its definition and sample sentences (remainder of the entry). The curvilinear characters highlighted in orange at the top of the page are ancient forms of the headword and its variants, written in what is known as the seal script. Squeezed into the left margin are section and page markers (purple).

To redesign the new page (below), I first changed the type orientation to horizontal, which is the current standard in China. The entries are now marked by large red characters, the top one in each entry being the standard version and the lower ones variants. Seal-script versions now sit next to their modern equivalents. In the definitions, I used colored type to highlight pronunciation keys and instances of the character in example sentences. Stroke-count markers (the circled characters attached to horizontal lines near the top) are spatially separated from the headwords for ease of use. Last, I redesigned the section and page markers on the left to show the location of a given page within each section.


I made the following sketches while working on the redesign. While I originally planned to leave the type vertically oriented, the coloration and general organization of the content elements made their way into the final version.