Meet India’s typography community, as they adapt regional language scripts for the digital age and take their passion mainstream
Seven hundred and eighty languages and 400 scripts: that’s the number the People’s Linguistic Survey of India identified in 2013. Of these, how many scripts do we see daily? Giving text a unique ‘voice’ are typefaces and fonts, created by type designers across the world. It’s safe to say that India is a prime player in this market because of the sheer number of languages we have. Satya Rajpurohit, founder of Ahmedabad-based Indian Type Foundry (ITF), knows this all too well. His family of fonts, called Kohinoor, is what your Apple device is probably displaying every time you look at regional text.
Innovate and experiment
“Designing Indic fonts is tricky; languages that have nothing in common script-wise — like Hindi and Gujarati — should complement each other,” he explains. After getting a global brand to license ITF’s fonts (his other clients include Google, Samsung and Sony), he invested $3 million of his own money in creating fontstore.com, India’s first subscription-based model. Launched early July, he says, “It works like Netflix for fonts: pay a monthly commitment of around $15 and use as many as you need. Within the first month, we’ve had 300 subscribers.” It took 35 designers working for two years to design the commissioned fonts that are available exclusively on the site; more will be added periodically to expand the library.
This propensity to innovate is not uncommon among the Indian type community. Shiva Nallaperumal from Chennai was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this year, for being the youngest Indian recipient, at 24, of the SOTA (Society of Typographic Aficionados) Catalyst Award. A graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art, USA, he recently launched Calcula, his latest experimental typeface, in collaboration with a Dutch type foundry, Typotheque. “It also involved coding (done by a partner), as it engineers itself while you type to fit into the letters on either side. It was just a project in pushing boundaries; now, the market will have to find uses for it,” he shares.
Today, the interest in Indic types is on the rise, thanks to this emerging community of designers. Public demonstrations are also fuelling curiosity. “In Delhi, we organise Typerventions, where we meet common people in a public space and make font installations,” says designer Pooja Saxena, who created a Santhali font. These interventions include writing words with pieces of watermelon and stencilling the word “petrichor” on the road in water and watching it evaporate in the Delhi heat. “There are also typography boot camps and workshops in March, around World Typography Day,” she says, which are surprisingly well-attended.
In Mumbai, type design studio Mota Italic, run by Rob Keller and Kimya Gandhi, organises Typostammtisch (pronounced too-poe-shtaam-tish) events — there’s one happening today at 5 pm at the Doolally Taproom in Colaba. Groups of at least 30 people come together for each meet, invariably held at a pub and featuring lively show-and-tell presentations and games using regional script. “This week, we’ve planned a Type Tour of India,” says Keller.
Latin vs Indic
Regional languages in India were first set to type by the British, which resulted in some bastardisation of the script. Nallaperumal explains, “South Indian scripts are written with a scribe, so it is a single line with no contrast. Devanagiri is more calligraphic because of the pens they are written with. The person who made the first Tamil fonts did not get that. He applied the calligraphic logic to our languages, resulting in varying thickness in each character, which actually does not exist.” But it’s too late to go back to the original, as people wouldn’t be able to recognise it, feel the designers. “We need to improve what people are comfortable with right now. Designing one Indian typeface is more difficult than Latin. With English, you’re done with 26 letters; Indian languages have around 800 characters each, most of which are complicated,” says Rajpurohit.
Regional type was also constrained by the cost of the technology involved, and restricted to the machines that were used to develop them. Aurobind Patel, design consultant for leading Indian and UK newspapers, says, “Font development is now much more accessible, and thanks to smartphones, there’s a need for type that translates the same way across devices. Google has pumped in enormous amounts of money to create fonts, even in dying languages that literally have a handful of readers to ensure that any search that pops up on their engine looks authentic.” However, the challenge in creating typefaces for uncommon Indic languages is immense. Saxena knows the difficulties all too well, as she worked for two and a half years to design the Santhali font, commissioned by The Centre for Internet and Society (they were creating a Wikipedia site in the language). “It needed a lot of hands-on research, looking at old printing materials, talking to readers and writers, getting their feedback on how it should look,” she says.
On the web
The growth of Indic is, unsurprisingly, coming at a most opportune time. While a 1997 study by Babel, a joint initiative of the Internet Society and Montreal-based Alis Technologies, showed that in the mid 1990s English made up almost 80% of the Internet, today, according to internetworldstats.com, that’s down to 30%. A paper presented at a social media conference in Barcelona in 2011 found that 49% of all tweets were in languages other than English. And, closer home, a NASSCOM-Akmai Technologies report released last August said that by 2020, there will be an estimated 730 million Internet users in India — and of the new users, 75% will access it from rural India, and a similar number will engage using local languages.
Sarang Kulkarni, founder of EkType, a Mumbai-based foundry that focuses on Indian type, explains, “These numbers are attracting international attention: around 25 countries are developing Indian typefaces, including China.”
Earlier this year, the story of designer Robert Green and the beautiful Doves Type that he recovered from the bottom of the Thames River was doing the rounds on social media. In 2016, designer Steve Welsh ran a Kickstarter campaign to revive a font called Euclid — it is now called Lustig Elements, after its designer. “Many familiar typefaces in use today are preserved or were revived from earlier eras. Baskerville and Garamond — eighteenth and sixteenth century typefaces, respectively — were revived at the beginning of the 20th century. Then there are updated derivatives of old types, like the ubiquitous Times New Roman, which itself is a hybrid of Robert Granjon’s 16th century designs and (again) Baskerville,” says Green, on what we can learn from older types.
While there is not much revival of fonts happening in India — considering that our history of type goes back a couple of centuries, it’s understandable — typography has made its way into pop culture. At EkType, Kulkarni has worked with Hanif Kureshi, of Kyoorius Designyatra, to digitise hand-painted lettering, thus preserving the typographic practice of street painters around the country. “As technology advances, 3D typefaces can be used online and in word processing software as well,” says Kulkarni.
In the classroom
Education in type design, including at University of Reading’s MA Typeface Design course, is Latin-centric. “We are not taught to design in Indian script. There might be a small workshop, but in formal education we are only taught to design in English,” says Saxena, an MATD graduate.
Vaibhav Singh, another Reading scholar, who has designed fonts for Adobe, agrees. “Young designers require reliable sources of information to inform their practice and those are few and far between,” he says. Stating that historical research is patchy at the moment, he feels postgraduate and doctoral theses coming from design schools are beginning to form a base for future work. “Histories of printing usually steer clear of technology, design, and production – and this is an area where interdisciplinary collaboration will add to our knowledge of India’s typographic history,” he says.
To this end, Singh has started a publishing imprint and a journal called Contextual Alternate, launching next year, to address the lack of scholarly research.
Pop goes the type
Brands like Mumbai-based Kulture Shop have made typography cool; they also function as a collective, with over 40 artists contributing to the designs on six product lines. Co-founder Kunal Anand says, “Typography and words have a way of cutting through the noise. You can show an image that can capture a thousand words but when you say something using typography, the subtleties of a letter can change the word entirely.” He adds that people can link their identity to typography, literally wearing it on their sleeve. Kochi-based Teresa George, who runs ViaKerala and the Malayalam Project, says that when it comes to Kerala, script is enmeshed in the culture. “Type can be an extension of who we are. For the younger generation, it’s a way of connecting to their roots,” she says.
This kind of interest is important, as the type we see around us is ubiquitous, says Mahendra Patel, former principal designer at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.
“The simple life is the most difficult life. Within the limitations that older foundries had, they created beautiful types. Now in the digital age, we have a certain sense of responsibility towards these classical and historical fonts, and it’s important to go back and revive them. At the same time, there are plenty of new fonts coming out. For me, both are right. There is enough space for both revival and new approaches.”
Basics of type design
Typeface is a collection of fonts: the former is like an album, the latter, the songs. For example, Helvetica is a typeface and Helvetica Bold is a font.
Fonts are designed based on what they are going to be used for. This includes the spacing between each letter combination, and the height and length of the ascenders and descenders.