Here is a story on the type design scenario in India which appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine on November 14, 2014.
With dot Bharat domains in the pipeline and an Indian Language Internet Alliance by Google, designers of Indian fonts are readying for a brave new future.
Legends surrounding the Nirnaya Sagar Press — at its peak in 19th- and early 20th-century Bombay — are often repeated in the font design circles of India. Rajeev Prakash, art director at Delhi Press and designer of popular fonts like Alankar,narrates one such tale where the proprietors of the press, or the Jawaji family, while finalising typefaces for the Kavyamala anthologies, a 14-volume collection of ancient Sanskrit poems, insisted on making Sanskrit scholars read the text in point size eight at the break of dawn, with only a lantern at hand. Despite the tediousness of making new typesets with metal, wherever the scholars faltered, words or letters were painstakingly recast and the text was reprinted to ensure legibility even in low-light conditions.
Designing a font today is not nearly as trying as it used to be. Yet it’s a manifold and rigorous process with its own contemporary challenges. Popular fonts like Yogesh and the Linotype Devanagari and Linotype Bengali, for instance, have been in use for decades. But since they are all from a pre-digital era, they don’t always translate as well on computer screens as they do on newspapers or billboards.
Designers must constantly innovate to cater to new, ever-changing needs — for a good font is essentially about utility. Fiona Ross, the brain behind Linotype Bengali and other successful Indian fonts such as Rohini, says, “I look back on some fonts that I have co-designed — ones that have been successful in terms of the users’ and readers’ responses — and can see things that could be improved upon. If it weren’t for deadlines, or some new idea for a different design, it would be hard for me to know when to stop.”
Besides, the diversity of languages and scripts in India — nearly 66 scripts and 780 languages, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) — poses other problems.
Delhi-based type and graphic designer Neelakash Kshetrimayum, who designed one of the first fonts in Manipuri, says that for historical reasons Manipuri was written in the Bengali script rather than the native Mayek.
“There was this major incident in 2005, where a library with more than 1.45 lakh Manipuri books written in the Bengali script was torched in Imphal,” he says. This resulted in a revival of sorts for Mayek. Kshetrimayum says, “I don’t know much about history, but what I do know are typefaces. So when I set out to create my Mayek typefaces Pakhangba and Sanamahi, I went back and looked at how the script evolved, studied how it was carved out in stone earlier. I also researched samples of manuscripts, the wooden press and wooden blocks of lettering before starting my work.”
In the last five years or so, Indian font design has had a major facelift. Designers such as the Czech David Brezina and his colleague Vaibhav Singh of the Rosetta Type Foundry, Sarang Kulkarni of Mumbai’s Ek Type, designers at Ahmedabad’s Indian Type Foundry (ITF) and independent players like Pradnya Naik and Pooja Saxena have tasted success both commercially and in terms of design. Re-entry of companies such as Monotype in the Indian market has also given type designers a boost.
Itu Chaudhuri, who has re-designed English dailies like The Economic Times and magazines like Open, says that Indian font design is slowly coming of age and beginning to adapt itself to the digital age. “While designing a font, you are looking to capture something of the spirit of the age in which it is appearing,” he says. “Like any designed object, it is interesting to see how it becomes part of our visual culture. Projects by groups such as ITF are promising in this sense.”
Ahmedabad’s ITF, set up by the National Institute of Design-graduate Satya Rajpurohit and Slovak typographer Peter Bilak, has designed typefaces for television channels. “Although we have thousands of fonts available, if you look for those that support a language like Hindi, work in small point size on a computer screen and have many different styles for differentiating text hierarchy, you would end up with just one or two possible candidates,” says Bilak, “I try to look at text not just formally but also the meaning behind it. At ITF, we have designed and published fonts for over 200 languages, including Hindi, Tamil,Bengali and Arabic.”
Rosetta Type Foundry’s Vaibhav Singh, who is also pursuing his Master’s at the University of Reading (one of few design schools where students can select the scripts they want to design typefaces for), warns that certain limitations in font design ought to be overcome first.
“A critical issue in designing Indian script typefaces is to recognise and respect the logic behind the letter-shapes — how they are formed and treated. Taking Latin-script features and grafting them on to a different script is an unfortunate approach, common even today. So far designers have been merely providing Indian-script equivalents to Latin typographic conventions.”
Largely, though, font design in Indian scripts is adapting well to digitisation and to new media, such as the Internet, mobile phones and television. With Google launching the Indian Language Internet Alliance, designed to encourage content in regional languages and the government set to announce dot Bharat domain names soon — where the text in the website as well as the site’s address will be in Indian languages — there’s a whole new set of opportunities up for grabs.
While the ‘Helvetica’ of Indian fonts is probably not out there yet, technological innovations and a growing market for Indian fonts are paving the way for better typefaces and design.
As British designer Jonny Pinhorn, who also works with ITF and has designed fonts such as Akhand Tamil, Akhand Malayalam and Saguna Gujarati, says, “Designing type is a fascinating task because you’re trying to design difference within sameness, balancing both unity and flair. You have total control over every aspect of the micro and macro elements right up to the point of publication. Then, at that point, your design becomes a tool for others to use and communicate with. You hold no control over its use anymore."
(This article and images was published on November 14, 2014, in The Hindu BusinessLine)
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