Multi-lingual typography is like fusion music. It’s not just playing in key, in tempo, following a rhythm or chord progression that makes an interesting composition. It’s when different sound and instruments adapt, interact, converse and improvise with one another — retaining their characteristics and flavor — to create a meaningful musical experience. In a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-script, hugely diverse country like India, how do we go about combining different Indic scripts with Latin letterforms for typographic communication — in branding, display, and text? What are the important factors to keep in mind while taking crucial typographic decisions? What are possible approaches and directions one can take to address this complex yet interesting design challenge?
As globalization brings people and business into contact around the world, we are all getting a taste of type that is different than we are used to. Familiar Latin scripts are being combined with completely “foreign” writing systems. In the 20th century, there were projects like airport signage that were multi-lingual and multi-script. But increasingly, typographers are asked to combine Latin with, say, Simplified Chinese, for global clients. In India, there is another order of magnitude. The country has 780 languages—23 of them official. (One of them is English.) And 55 different scripts. (One of them is Latin.) This is the focus at Typographics for Andy Naorem and Neel Kshetrimayum, designers in New Delhi. Andy is a typographer; Neel a type designer. “A good metaphor is the fusion pop music of the 1960s, with Ravi Shankar and the Beatles,” said Andy. And so Naorem and Kshetrimayum are calling their presentation “Script Jam,” which includes music and video. “Musicians engage this mashup up with adaptation, interaction, conversation and improvisation.” Andy said. “These are the tools typographers need to approach the combination of such different letterforms.”
Neel points to a 1,000 rupee bill, as an example. It says “1,000 Rupees” in Latin, and there is a little box on the back with with 15 languages in 10 scripts. “A foreigner at first may not notice that they are all different,” he said. Indic scripts vary, but the Latin always sticks out. There is no way to duck the problem. Only the U.S. has more English speakers than India. There, 125 million people can speak it, and for one-fifth of them English is their first language. “Cultural multiplicity is so great that,” said Andy, “there is no one India.” “Nothing defines India in one way. So many languages, culture, and food.” Their presentation at Typographics begins with kaleidoscopic view of the rich visual culture of India, and shows how different letterforms are combined across the country, in signs and product branding, advertising and entertainment. They turn to multi-language typography in text—in print and on screens, show some best practices and making recommendations. “Some of the compromised features due to the technical limitations of metal type can be brought back in digital type,” said Neel. “An interesting area to investigate is the trend in digital communication where people are sending transliterated messages in Latin fonts.” With the economic boom in the country, the number of smart phones in India is expected to quadruple to 650 million in the next four years, according to a Cisco study. “There is clearly a big market for fonts, and the need for a better understanding of how the scripts can work together and with Latin,” said Neel. The team is pushing for for the high-quality revival and digitization of calligraphy from the past—to bring it into the modern era. The fusion metaphor may be useful as typographers everywhere begin to tackle the problem. When markets go global, so must typography. “And so we are moving beyond on our own languages,” said Andy. “And trying a bit of improvisation.”