Is it a good time to be an Indic type designer? We pick the brains of type foundry Universal Thirst
India, a land of seemingly endless diversity, is often known for its humming busyness. The variety and depth of life here – felt through its many facets, its culture and its people – is also echoed in its hundreds of spoken languages, which use different scripts. Collectively known as Indic scripts, these writing systems have flourished and evolved through centuries. The landscape of Indic scripts is complex. While across the country there has been both a rich, deep history, and an ebbing decline of hand lettering – a trade that was challenged by digitalisation in the ’90s – there has also been a concerted effort to tackle the dearth of Indic typefaces, and push these languages into the digital realm. Within the Indic type industry in India, a movement has been brewing for decades. Along with the leading foundries of the country, a legion of emerging designers have been addressing a deep disparity, and propelling Indic typefaces to new stylistic and conceptual heights. However, the notoriously complex industry is still tangled in many challenges. So, is it a good time to be an Indic type designer? To get a temperature check on the industry, we spoke to Bengaluru and Reykjavik-based foundry Universal Thirst, the minds behind some exciting, deliciously crafted Indic typefaces.
“Initially, Universal Thirst began as an idea for an online journal dedicated exclusively to multi-script typography – a platform to express our mutual curiosity and interest in type design, writing systems, and languages,” says Co-founder Gunnar Vilhjálmsson, who started the foundry with Kalapi Gajjar. The two met during their studies at the University of Reading, following which their paths forked, when Vilhjálmsson joined Monotype in London, while Gajjar moved to Dalton Maag. However, in these intervening years, a conversation began between them – about the need for innovation and cultivation in Indian type design – which never fizzled out. “This realisation fueled our ambition to establish a platform for exploring typography within the diverse writing systems of the Indian subcontinent,” recalls Vilhjálmsson. When they both happened to leave their jobs at the same time, it became evident “that launching a type foundry together was the most effective way to share our ideas, both in theory and practice,” he notes, and so, the duo set up shop in 2016.
Since then, the foundry has aced many projects, reflecting their expertise with both Latin and Indic type design – they collaborated with David Lane, the editor-in-chief of The Gourmand, to create Chelt, a revival of the popular Cheltenham typeface in two contrasting styles, expanding the typographic palette of the magazine; in 2020, they designed a beautifully shaky, slightly off-kilter Bangla typeface for the Dhaka Art Summit based on the event’s ‘seismic movements’ theme, created as a companion to Fraser Muggeridge’s Latin script; and in the same year, launched Ilai, a wonky, avant-garde Tamil typeface, that serves up a modern take on ’60s psychedelia.
It’s only natural to expect a rising demand for fonts.
Deftly juggling custom work for brands of all sizes while developing their library of fonts, Universal Thirst has had a front-row seat to the subtle shifts in the industry, such as the growing appreciation for custom typefaces, at least amongst big, global companies. “Considering India’s rapidly expanding internet user base – one of the fastest-growing globally – it’s only natural to expect a rising demand for fonts, especially those catering to local languages and scripts,” explains Vilhjálmsson. However, he’s quick to note that purchasing fonts isn’t a deeply rooted practice in India, just as in numerous other countries. “While this convention is gradually evolving, many brands and businesses, especially those with a global presence, are beginning to appreciate the importance of bespoke typefaces, especially for rebranding and localisation efforts,” he says. “Interestingly, a significant portion of our clientele comprises global companies. While these firms are headquartered outside India, they’re keen on making inroads into the Indian market. They recognise the immense value in providing high-quality fonts tailored to the preferences and needs of their Indian audience.”
Rules by the government are also helping to shift the tide. In the state of Maharashtra, for example, it is compulsory for shops and businesses to have their names displayed just as prominently in the local language as in English (such as in the case of Starbucks shop fronts, where Devanagari is given more visual space than Latin.) This move has helped dot the streetscapes with far more shops branded in local languages; a welcome change. “The more we see these typefaces, the more it fuels awareness and interest in the field,” shares Type Designer Salomi Desai. “While some businesses opt for free fonts from web platforms such as Google Fonts, or fonts that are already available on desktop software, there are others who commission custom logotypes and fonts for their brands. This has certainly increased the business opportunities for some designers,” she adds.
There are also online courses being introduced that focus on Indic type.
The growth in the interest and culture of Indic typefaces has been slow but promising – something that’s mirrored in the upswing of more typeface designers focusing on Indic scripts, who have historically struggled with the lack of educational resources. For years, designers have grappled with the lack of type design education, and the jarring absence of focus on Indic type design, specifically. “Mentoring and general access to practising type designers was almost non-existent, which made it challenging to understand the industry,” explains Type Designer Namrata Goyal. This is gradually changing, with growing availability of more resources. “There are conferences such as TypeLab which encourage diversity, including Indic typeface topics. Programmes such as The Alphabettes Mentorship and the Type Crit Crew connect designers to those who are looking for mentorships and guidance,” says Desai. “There are also online courses being introduced that focus on Indic type such as the Devanagari course from Practica.” Publications and archives have also seen an uptick, such as the Letterform Archive and The Universal Thirst Gazette, which offers designers a chance to read and engage with design history, allowing them to reflect on the past to chart a path for the future.
There’s a lot for emerging type designers to consider, as Goyal points out. “At present, while there’s a really big influx of new blood in the industry, they may not be prepared for the time it takes to train the eye properly. Type design is a test of patience, and most young designers today look for fast results,” she says. To afford the time and energy the field demands to understand its nuances, and have the willingness to approach the learning curve as a marathon, and not a sprint, are some prerequisites for anyone looking to dive deep into the world of type design. But much is on their side – today, there are softwares and tools that enable an easier workflow. “This is especially true of efforts introduced for Indic typefaces,” says Desai. “While these are extremely helpful and speed up the production process, these should be viewed as tools. I would advise aspiring Indic type designers to always observe their environment, keep a curious mind and continue learning.”
It is an exciting time to be an Indic type designer.
Goyal concurs. “Observe and study the works of others as much as your own,” she notes, underscoring the importance of perhaps looking away from a screen, and out of the window. “Even going on a walk around your neighbourhood and observing the type around you can be an educational (and fun!) experience,” Desai quickly adds.
The obstacles though, are ever present. With the overarching market not yet prepared for the potential for well-designed Indic type, a need for a change in prevalent mindsets, and the fact that “the amount of research and time needed to develop Indic type is not entirely supported in terms of monetary costs yet,” as Goyal points out, designers have their work cut out for them. “However, even with no dearth of challenges, it is an exciting time to be an Indic type designer,” promises Desai. “While it can be an exacting space at times due to constraints within the market, there is a lot of scope to experiment, and bring a bit of your own worldview to the field.”