Hand-painted shop signage for a pharmacy in Yelahanka, Bangalore. Photo courtesy of Pooja Saxena.

Dan Reynolds

Of Centers and Peripheries: Insights from Two Type Designers in India

Published  08/04/2018

The ideology of Western typesetting still dominates media and publishing in India, and is unavoidable for anyone who uses a computer or mobile phone. But many of the fonts that come bundled with operating systems today were developed by designers working in India. Type historian Dan Reynolds spoke with Pooja Saxena and Shiva Nallaperumal about this complicated reality.

Past and present

Historically, much of the global type business has been dominated by firms in Western Europe and North America. Professional font production and type-design education continue to be more densely clustered in those parts of the world, too. From the perspective of readers in New York—as well as in Berlin, where I sit—India might seem like place that is both foreign but internally homogenous. Its diversity, when viewed from a distance, too often gets telescoped into some kind of uniform otherness. This oversimplification is surely true for calligraphy and design from the Middle East as well. But while the Middle East is a region encompassing multiple countries and numerous languages and cultures, India is a single country with many different ethnic groups, several official scripts, and even more languages—not to mention the many languages and scripts not designated for governmental use.

Pooja Saxena spotted this neon sign that says “Artisan’s Furniture Handcrafts” near Anna Salai in Chennai—a neighborhood filled with neon lights, many of them in Tamil. Photo courtesy of Pooja Saxena.

Although India had (and still has) its own metal-type foundries, the typefaces that were delivered to printers along with generations of proprietary hot-metal, photo-, and digital typesetting machines were manufactured abroad. They came to India from companies like Linotype and Monotype. Western typesetting technology still plays a role in Indian design and publishing, and is indeed inescapable for virtually anyone in India who uses a computer or cell phone. These days, though, the most frequently used fonts often come bundled with Microsoft or Apple’s operating systems—and those fonts are more likely to be sourced from type designers working in India than was the case for earlier media.

Google’s font directory includes designs for several Indian scripts, and some of those fonts were developed in India. Others were made by non-Indian type designers working around the world. Some of the iOS and MacOS fonts, as well as several Google fonts, were developed by the Indian Type Foundry (ITF). Located in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, ITF has a large library of typefaces available for commercial licensing, too. These include fonts for all of India’s eleven official scripts, as well as quite a few Latin-only fonts. The latter have proved popular in recent years with customers on reseller websites like MyFonts. Other established digital foundries from India include the Mumbai-based Ek Type—whose multiscript library is primarily made up of open-source fonts—and Mota Italic. Originally based in Berlin, Mota Italic relocated to Mumbai a few years ago.

Typographic explorations of Devanagari by Pooja Saxena. Image courtesy of Pooja Saxena.
Kohinoor is a low-contrast humanist sans serif that supports all eleven official writing systems of India. Image courtesy of Indian Type Foundry.

A productive tension

India, then, clearly has a major part in the global typographic ecosystem, all while remaining inevitably caught up in Western typesetting models. To help me think through this (productive) tension, I reached out to Shiva Nallaperumal and Pooja Saxena. Both Pooja and Shiva are graphic and type designers. They hail from different parts of India and have spent time in the United States. Pooja has a master’s degree in Typeface Design (MATD) from the University of Reading. After graduating in 2012, she interned at Apple in California before moving back to India. She is now based in Bangalore. Shiva works from his hometown of Chennai. He holds a master’s in Graphic Design from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and was the 2015 winner of the Society of Typographic Aficionados’ Catalyst Award for outstanding typographic designers under the age of twenty-five.

“I don’t believe the term [Non-Latin] brings much to designers who actually work in this ‘peripheral’ world. After all, what do we really gain by lumping together Greek, Arabic, and Bengali in one category?” —Pooja Saxena

The geographic size of any “center” is tiny when compared with the periphery surrounding it. And so it could be argued that the Western type-design industry relies on the term “non-Latin” too heavily. When I asked Pooja about this phrasing, which has become fairly entrenched in the discourse around type, she told me: “In Western writing or conversation, the term ‘typography’ is often used when ‘Latin typography’ is what they actually mean. I would like to see terms like ‘Latin’ (or ‘Western’) become more commonly used modifiers, instead of ‘non-Latin.’”

I applaud Pooja’s call to turn the tables. As an activity, typography describes giving form to text. At its heart, it refers to specification. Typography is writing-system agnostic; wherever fonts are used, typography is in play. There’s Arabic typography, Indian typography, Latin typography, and many other kinds of typography—why not call things what they are? Typography is a big tent that includes work in all of those scripts. Assuming that typography defaults to any one script or another will never help those working within design “centers” understand how wide the field they work in actually is.

Diwali decorations with candles arranged to form lettering at Pooja Saxena's home in Noida, India. Video courtesy of Pooja Saxena.

As Pooja reminded me: “‘Non-Latin’ reeks of Eurocentrism. It’s not a worldview I have, and I take exception to its use.” The term probably has the most value for designers and design communities working in Latin-centric circles. “Non-Latin,” Pooja continued, “helps those designers see beyond the Latin periphery—a reminder, so to speak, that there is a world outside of the Latin script. I don’t believe the term brings much to designers who actually work in this ‘peripheral’ world. After all, what do we really gain by lumping together Greek, Arabic, and Bengali in one category?”

Shiva expressed a similar sentiment. “No one practicing Indic type would have come up with ‘non-Latin’ to describe what they do,” he declared. “My partner Aarya and I say we design ‘Indic and non-Indic type’ as a satirical reference. In India, being a previously colonized country, it is a very normal reality for us to be the ‘other’ in the context of what is happening in the world.”

The term “Indic” is also quite broad—but, as Pooja explained, “it’s at least based on a commonality of implementation, rather than the notion of being the ‘other.’” Even within Indian scripts, Shiva pointed out, “Devanagari and Tamil are as far apart from each other as Latin is from Arabic.” He continued: “I prefer grouping scripts together according to their geographical prevalence, which does lead me to Indic, or just to use the term ‘world scripts,’ which is a descriptor that naturally includes Latin, too. India was colonized by the British, and English is one of our official languages. Latin is as prevalent in India as any other script, and it sometimes takes precedence in urban areas. In my own graphic design practice, only a small percentage of my work is fully in Tamil, my native language. I often design typefaces in the Latin script and design identity systems and publications in English for Indian clients.”

The most diverse country in the world?

With a population of over 1.2 billion and a geographic area more than twice as large as the European Union, does India have its own design centers and peripheries? When I asked Shiva about this, he responded: “Almost every state in India has its own language, fashion, food, cultural practices, festivals, film industries, etc. India might be the most diverse country in the world. Bombay (now Mumbai) is the financial capital, with the Hindi film industry, major corporations, and institutions all being based there. It is also India’s most culturally and linguistically diverse city, not to mention the most populated one. Much of the design scene is centered either there or in Delhi, our national capital.”

Shiva usually works between Chennai and Mumbai, frequently traveling between the two. “Chennai is a much smaller and slower city. Growing up, I was certainly influenced by designers and artists from Bombay. I came to Bombay for the first time as an intern at Grandmother, then one of the most influential design studios in the city.”

Pooja mostly works with Indian scripts. “I will do a project in Latin every now and then, but more often than not, Latin ends up being a part of a bilingual/multilingual project,” she remarked. “I think that most of my work is intended for Indian audiences (or perhaps, Indian immigrants in Western countries), but the clients are often international. Instead of full-fledged typefaces, my work for Indian clients is often custom lettering or small extensions.”

This sign found in Panjim, Goa reads “Telephone Kendra.” Photo courtesy of Pooja Saxena.
This brush lettering found in Yelahanka, Bangalore, reads “Indian Cycle Center.” Photo courtesy of Pooja Saxena.

She added: “ITF is one of the largest foundries in the country, and it is run from Ahmedabad, which is not a metropolis like Delhi or Mumbai. Maybe one of the ways in which the phenomenon of centers and peripheries can be seen in Indian design is with the educational institutions that have traditionally been focused on type and calligraphy, like the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad or the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai.1 The thing I find fascinating is that—apart from, perhaps, Mumbai (Devanagari script) and Kochi (Malayalam script)—there aren’t any other cities I can think of that produce significant type-related work in the script of their geography.”

“When I went abroad,” Pooja said, “there were no rigorous courses on typeface design in India, and there aren’t any now. I saw very few opportunities to learn typeface design on the job, too. I did consider applying for internships abroad instead, but the visa application procedures would have been daunting, and may not have even worked out.” Similarly, Shiva told me: “I pursued my master’s at MICA for a chance to gain international exposure in graphic design. Also the chance to learn under two of my heroes—Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller. Having learned and worked (briefly) in India, I didn’t want to become comfortable with the ‘way things are done’ and to navigate the systems, methods, and procedures that have evolved over a period of time. Learning outside of India actually gave me a better perspective on how my work could be more rooted in my own culture. I was pushed further into figuring out an Indian identity and what that might be.”

“Sometimes,” he concluded, “the view is clearer from the outside.”

  • 1—

    NID’s location is the reason ITF is based in Ahmedabad.

Further reading:

  • Dan Reynolds is an American type designer and design history researcher in Germany. He works at LucasFonts GmbH in Berlin and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Art in Braunschweig. In 2008, Dan graduated from the MA Typeface Design course at the University of Reading in England. His practical work there included Devanagari type design, and his theoretical writing exampled the typefaces then used in Hindi newspaper design. Between 2009 and 2015, Dan designed a few Indic-script typefaces, first at Linotype/Monotype, and then as OpenSource products with funding from Google, Inc.

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