Editors Note: Typography has long been called the designer’s common currency, but there is nothing at all common about visual language, particularly when it requires cultural, visual and linguistic nuances in order to succeed across international borders. German typographer Dirk Wachowiak recently caught up with the Czech-born Peter Bilak and Indian designer Satya Rajpurohit to discuss both their recent collaboration — the Hindi version of Bilak’s Fedra — and their plans for the future.Dirk Wachowiak:
Satya comes from India and you are based in the Netherlands. How did you meet and decide to start this project?
In 2006, I gave a talk at the first DesignYatra conference. Among other things, I presented the project I made with Arabic typography. After my talk, I was approached by a number of locals asking me if I was interested working on an Indic script, too. It was a new, but interesting idea. Satya was not at the conference, but emailed a few weeks later with a sample of how Fedra Hindi might look. The first sketch wasn’t so interesting, but we agreed to work closely together to make a new typeface. We started by researching how people write to discover design possibilities. Two years later, Fedra Hindi was born.
DW: How was the collaboration? Did you meet in person from time to time?
PB: Satya came to the Netherlands twice and spent some time in our studio in The Hague. I try to come to India once a year, so this allowed us a good opportunity to meet as well. Otherwise we stayed in touch via email and through online chat conversations.
DW: Did you familiarize yourself with forms and meanings of Devanagari letters or did you just rely on Satya’s knowledge?
PB: When you set out to design typefaces for a language that you don’t understand, it’s important to do some preliminary research. True, typeface design is by definition systematic, and it’s possible to draw abstract shapes based only on the interaction between foreground and background, creating balanced letterforms that connect to form words, sentences and text. But it helps to know something about a language when you design typefaces for it — for one thing, it makes the design process faster. Knowing, for example, what letter combinations are used in the language keeps you from wasting time evaluating combinations that never occur.
In our preliminary research we collected samples of handwriting for Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali scripts. In this first phase, I tried to familiarize myself with the language. I know the structure of most of the characters, but obviously I lack a more complete knowledge of the language, so inevitably I needed to rely on a native speaker. Ultimately though, the goal of ITF is to offer fonts representing other Indic languages as well — so sooner or later we will be challenged by languages that even Satya doesn't speak, which will certainly be interesting!
DW: Some of your typefaces use OpenType features in an experimental way — as in your typeface Irma or your concept for the Twin Cities. Do OpenType features play an important role in Fedra Hindi?
PB: While OpenType features are unnecessary extras in Latin scripts, they’re essential in Indic fonts in order to correctly render the fonts grammatically. Without complex OTF scripting, the fonts simply won’t work well. This is also the reason why so many applications can’t handle Indic scripts. And it’s the main reason why it is so hard for text engines to actually handle Indic languages.
DW: Fedra now consists of many styles, weights and different scripts — Latin, Hindi, and Arabic, to name a few. Is there a plan for further language extensions — for example, for Asia?
PB: We’re planning to release a Tamil version for 2010, and a Bengali version for 2011. Our goal is to develop more extensions later.
DW: Fedra Hindi is now part of the Indian Type Foundry (ITF) founded by you and Satya. How did this idea came up, and what came first — the font or the foundry?
PB: The typeface was first. After it was ready, I realized that publishing it via Typotheque (my existing company) wouldn't reach the right audience. Satya and I gave a good deal of thought on how to bring it to the right people, where the fonts would be most useful. This is when the idea of starting a new company came up. Fedra Hindi was a good excuse!
DW: In another interview you mentioned ideas about some of the wider intentions of ITF. Can you say a little more about this?
PB: One of the main reasons why relatively few people work with type in India is the high rate of piracy. There’s also a limited knowledge of typography and type design, and a lack of education. So we thought about how we might help improve this situation a bit by organizing workshops and lectures in an effort to get some discussions going, to motivate people to want to work with type. ITF would also like to publish new designs, both from within and outside of India. When I was a student, I know how important it was for me to know that there was a possibility to publish fonts. ITF hopes to motivate students and professionals to finish their designs and see the purpose of type design — to actually see their fonts distributed and used by others.
DW: Satya, can you talk a little bit about your background? How did you become interested in type design?
I studied Graphic Design at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. Although we didn't have any specific type design courses at NID, there were 3 typography courses that introduced us to the basics and took us to an advanced level in typography. But it was my internship at Linotype in Germany that gave me in-depth insights into type design. Eventually, I did my degree project with Dalton Maag in London and worked simultaneously with Peter Bilak of Typotheque to develop Fedra Hindi.
DW: Can you give us some insight into the contemporary Indian type scene?
SR: There is no such thing as type design in India. People barely know about fonts or typefaces — not even the designers.
There are a few big software companies whose core business is to design software for Indian languages, but in order to support their software they create fonts, too. Not having enough knowledge on the subject, they end up hiring people who have no clue about type design. As a result, they create fonts that are lacking in both standards and quality. Their intentions are good of course, and to a certain extent they solve a purpose, too, but the poorly designed fonts they ship with their software packages ruin the whole idea of good typography.
It's not like these companies can’t afford to hire good designers, or don't have enough good clients to buy their fonts. It's just ignorance: who cares, after all? With the lack of a proper design education, most people can't differentiate between a well-designed font and a poorly-designed font. The local newspaper industries, publishing houses and broadcasting media are their victims, since they are completely dependent on the locally available software.
Another concern is font piracy. Most of these poorly-made fonts are available on the internet and people can download them for free. These fonts have therefore spread like viruses all over India and people use them indiscriminately.
DW: Fedra Hindi is a Devanagari companion to Fedra Sans. Most of us know that multiple scripts and languages exist in India. Can you explain the meaning of Devanagari within this range of scripts?
SR: Devanagari script is a Brahmi-derived writing system originally used to write Sanskrit. It is now used in India and Nepal to write many languages including Hindi, the official language of the Indian government. But it is not the only script we use here in India: in all, there are 9 major scripts being used, and they’re all equally important. But since Hindi is our national language and is widely spoken and understood, Peter and I decided to create a Devanagari companion first. In the future, our plan is for Fedra to eventually support multiple Indian scripts.
DW: Did you have a certain strategy when you started to design the font?
SR: Just like any other design project, we first analyzed the problem and then looked for a possible solution. For Fedra Hindi it was somewhat different, since we had Latin glyphs already designed and we had to design the corresponding Devanagari glyphs to match the Latin ones. Each Fedra Hindi glyph was beautifully designed, and we never forced the Hindi letters to look exactly like Fedra Latin. But personally, if I’d had a choice, I would have done it the other way round — in other words, I would have designed the Indic first, and then added the Latin to it. That way we could make sure that whatever Indic glyphs we designed were free of restrictions and independent of any predefined style.
At the moment, we’re working on a very big typeface family, not just in terms of the number of styles but also the number of scripts it's going to support. This new typeface family will be available in 9 Indic variations, along with the Latin versions. Here, the challenge was to come up with a Latin base model that could compliment all 9 scripts. Because we use so much Latin in our daily lives, it is important to have complimentary Latin glyphs with each typeface we design. So in this case, we designed the Indic glyphs first and then added matching Latin characters to them. We will publish a detailed story about this exciting project on our website very soon.
DW: You had to translate Latin letters into Devanagari shapes. What was tricky about that? Can you give some examples?
SR: Well, the question in my mind when I first thought about this project was how can two scripts — with completely different design histories and visual appearances — actually look alike when set next to each other? Because that’s the whole idea of a companion typeface. The second challenge was to select a body height for the Devanagari characters in relation with Latin characters. Since there is no such thing as lowercase and uppercase characters in Indics, we had to come up with a unique height for Devanagari that would work well with both uppercase and lowercase text settings. The third challenge was to match the color of the Devanagari and Latin text when set next to each other. Since Devanagari is very dense in nature, we had to make the letters slightly lighter than their Latin counterparts in order to match their grey values when set in longer bilingual text settings. The fourth and most difficult challenge was to deal with technical issues. Fedra Hindi is an extremely advanced OpenType font family that can render Devanagari as it should be in a traditional sense, but unfortunately, until now there has not been a single design software (except possibly Adobe CS4 ) that supports all the features that Fedra Hindi has to offer.
DW: Fedra Hindi is now part of the Indian Type Foundry founded by you and Peter. Tell us a little about the intentions and plans for this new initiative.
SR: Our intention in starting the ITF was to make people aware of typography and to provide well-designed fonts for the Indian market. It is also important for us to educate people — both our clients and design students — about typography, fonts and font licensing. In order to do this, we’re planning on giving lectures, holding workshops and publishing related articles on the web, in books and in magazines. Eventually, we want people to understand and appreciate the effort that goes into designing typefaces, so that they can start buying them legally and using them properly.
DW: What fonts do you accept for the ITF? Do you only accept fonts for Indian scripts?
SR: While our main focus is on Indian scripts, we are open to submissions for other scripts too, especially Arabic and Latin. We’re always on the lookout for potential projects, and if a project meets our standards, we’re willing to work with designers from India or abroad. ITF is inclusive — meaning anyone can submit a font — but we maintain a high standard and therefore only except submissions that uphold our principles and share a certain sensibility, a certain quality with the work we want to do.
DW: India is known for its diversity in scripts and languages. How does the ITF deal with this demanding situation?
SR: It is indeed difficult to cope with so many scripts at the same time, and when it comes to designing a typeface family for a huge country like India, it makes no sense to make it available in only one or two scripts: after all, all the scripts are equally important. An ideal typeface family must therefore support all the Indian scripts. This is the reason we have decided to expand our in-house font families to support all the major Indian scripts, plus Latin. Right now it's more important for us to make some good, basic typeface families that support all the Indian scripts rather than just flooding our library with cool, funky fonts. But we will be surely be publishing independent font families from time to time. These releases will mainly be ones we've received from other designers as independent submissions. And just like other type foundries, we're eager to design custom Indic fonts for potential clients.