Skip to main content

Just our type

By June 5, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu


Designing digital fonts for Indian languages is extra complex. Enter Ektype

If you visit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal website, you will notice in the top-right corner of the page, the word ‘English’ (assuming that’s your default browser language). Click on it and you get a menu of languages to choose from. Try them out. If you know a little about typefaces, you will notice that even as the scripts change (mystifyingly, some sections continue in English), the fonts bear a familial resemblance to each other. They’re all from what type geeks call a family of typefaces: Mukta.

Mukta is hugely popular. It finds itself on media websites, brand advertising and packaging, signage, and in a multiplicity of other uses. It is particularly effective where multiple language scripts are seen together. Part of its appeal is its clean, elegant look, easy on the eye in long blocks of text, but also in heavier weights (as the thickness of strokes is called), and that it is available in five scripts currently.

Scripted for success

One other factor in its favour, just as important in India: it’s free.

The unbeatable price is thanks to Ektype, the foundry which designed it, being paid for their work by Google, which in turn made it available free and open-source.

Why Google paid for Mukta — as well as several other typefaces by Ektype and other foundries — isn’t goodness of heart; as Noopur Datye, one of Ektype’s founders, explains: “Google sees lots of new customers in India. But how are they going to reach these people who are not reading in English? Fonts are an investment for them.”

Sarang Kulkarni, another founder, says that when Google decided they would invest in open-source fonts, they reached out to designers across the world. In India, which is extra complex because of the multiplicity of languages and scripts, “they did a survey of type designers working in different pockets with different scripts, and their thinking and understanding of the scripts. Very few people were doing digital; those doing digital were in different corners, targeting only one or two scripts.” There were other issues: to name just one that’s not too technical, no standards on where characters mapped on a keyboard.

The result was that it was hard to get different scripts that shared a design grammar, or even harmonised with each other while retaining their native characteristics. Kulkarni, Datye, and their third co-founder Girish Dalvi, who is also a faculty member at IIT-Bombay’s Industrial Design Centre, set up Ektype to solve just such problems. They had already begun creating Ek Devanagari, which then became Mukta. “Google wanted to see our processes,” Kulkarni says. “We presented. I think that helped them understand what we did.”

Type foundry

Ektype is a collective: Datye and Kulkarni work out of the office, Dalvi from the IIT-B campus, and other designers in their individual spaces. “We collaborate for large projects,” Datye says. Aside from the design of the look, for which they like to work with type designers who understand the nuances of each script, there are also complex technical issues to solve — like the way vowel signs are placed around consonants in abugidas (where consonant-vowel sequences are a single unit, as in most South and Southeast Asian scripts, unlike an alphabet, where vowels have a status on their own, as in English), or conjunct letters, or most important in this digital era, that they display consistently across devices and operating systems.

Mukta isn’t their only open-source creation. There’s also Jaini, based on 15th century manuscripts, the calligraphic Gotu, the rotund Modak, and Baloo, designed to be happy-go-lucky but, as Datye says, laughing, one that the media seems to like to use when titling terrorism stories, or “the most bizarre news”. They have also digitised a few hand-painted styles, which are licensable. Apart from this, they do custom fonts for corporate clients, multilingual branding and brand design, and typography and calligraphy.

Each kind of work has its pluses: the corporate assignments get them paid, Kulkarni says, but only one company will use their work. The libre work, Datye says, gives them joy, not just because the world can, and does, use it, but also because it’s a way of contributing to the craft. “When we started, we didn’t have resources to learn from. With open source, anyone can download the source files and design their own versions.”

Will they grow, to design fonts for under-represented scripts from other parts of the world? They have enough to do with just India’s diversity, they say. They’d rather widen their collaborative circle to work with designers who understand those scripts better.

Their approach to dealing with India’s diversity has made type designers elsewhere take note. The Google Design site says, “[India’s] typographic dilemmas are essentially the same ones that designers confront any time they’re not using Latin-like alphabets. The solutions discovered and improved upon by Indian designers could very well apply the world over.”

Mukta typeface apart, there’s the calligraphic Gotu, the rotund Modak, and the happy-go-lucky Baloo

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.