Teaching typography

Prof GV Sreekumar is the head of Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay. He trained under the legendary Prof RK Joshi and worked on a Malayalam font. He has also designed several popular magazines like CHIP, DIGIT, Overdrive, Chandamama, and Society. His specialisation includes typography, calligraphy and information design

25 Apr 2018 | By PrintWeek India

Role of typography in society 
Typography plays an important role in communication, especially when we make use of the visual media, such as signage, newspapers, magazines, using letter forms. According to me, typography is the art and science of communicating with letter forms, not just fonts, but the overall visual representation. 
Typography is important because there is very little awareness about it among the general public. Look at the newspapers, for example. They represent the spectrum of typography, from the very best to the very worst. Newspapers like The Times of India and The Indian Express have elegant and nice typography, but there are other newspapers, which look like a circus —there is a joker, there’s a lion, there’s a tiger, but communication is not happening. 
For me, for better communication, typography has to be silent. It’s difficult for a designer to be a silent performer and enhance communication. Typography teaches you how to do it — enhance communication without attracting attention.
The fact is, design schools in India do not focus on typography as much as they should. The focus is on advertising design, where typography plays a small part. You spend four years learning advertising design, but you are given no grounding on how to use typography to communicate well. 
The canvas of typography 
There is silent typography. There are neutral typefaces, such as Helvetica, which are designed in such a way that it would never come between the reader and the sender of the information. 
Some fonts are created for certain purposes. For example, Bell Gothic font was designed for telephone directories, to withstand 40,000 impressions in metal typefaces. There are fonts which are made to look technical; there are fonts made to evoke protest. These are expressive fonts created for special purposes. 
Then there are fonts like Times New Roman, Palatino, Helvetica or Hanover, which are used for mass communication. These fonts are ideal for large amount of information. The font in question needs to be silent while presenting a large amount of information.  Consider a book. After a few pages, you don’t look at the font; you enter into the content. In this case, the job of a good font is to make itself disappear. Consider three major fonts for books, Palatino, Baskerville, and Bulmer. If I switch from Palatino to Bulmer after five pages in a book, you will not notice the difference, because you are immersed in the content. This is how good typography should work.
Regional typography  
We have 22 official languages and we are faced with a challenge. We have to communicate via so many different fonts. In every state, we use at least three languages, especially in visual communication. 
When it comes to representing regional typography, a lot needs to be done, which is not happening. For example, if I design a book in Gujarati, I don’t have more than five fonts to choose from. Same is the case with all regional languages. However, if I design a book in English, I have lakhs of fonts to choose from. The gap is huge.
Fortunately, in the recent years, foundries like Ek Type and Indian Type Foundry have made some serious contribution to regional typography. In the last few years, many youngsters have contributed many good fonts in Indian languages. But it’s still not enough yet.
Thanks to the Typography Day (celebrated on 1 March) that we initiated 10 years ago, regional design schools are now waking up to the needs for more regional typefaces. However, we are yet to take care of the root cause of the problem, lack of awareness about their languages among youngsters. A student should be given exposure to the local language and a sense of respect for Indian languages should be instilled in him. However, this is not happening. 
Recently, NCERT introduced a course on graphic design, which students can opt as an elective subject. The textbook has 10 chapters and one of them is typography. But this is not enough. We should encourage students to work on typography and calligraphy in their mother tongues. I have observed that a lot of design students can do calligraphy in Latin fonts, but not in Indian fonts. 
Research in typography 
There are some thumb-rules related to typography. But we are not doing any research on them. Take any Indian language, and if you study the manuscript, you would notice the specifics, the style of writing, kind of ‘matra’ used, kind of leading and justification, and how they managed the space. 
The manuscript writers managed these beautifully, but we are not studying it. Look at any old manuscript, and you will notice there is no river, no orphan, no widow. Everything is arranged perfectly and the typography is so beautiful. We need to study these. 
Another area that needs serious research is the impact of different typography on reader. 
The future
In the last 10 years, a lot of youngsters have entered the field. The Typography Day has helped. Also, foundries like Ek Type are doing good work.  
The need of the hour is that we spread the awareness about typography among all undergraduate level teachers across the country. My dream for the next 10 years? I want to see five new fonts every year for every Indian language.

These interviews appeared on Audiogyan, an Indian podcast hosted by Kedar Nimkar. So far, the podcast has 64 posts and more than 65,000 listens. You can listen to the full version of the podcast at audiogyan.com