In the Eyes of the Beholder

Why do some words and images pop out at you while others look garbled? The difference is good typography. Edex gives you insights into the field from three experts.

Published: 01st September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd September 2014 11:01 AM   |  A+A-

What distinctive feature(s) makes you reach out for a bottle in a store when you only see a familiar red colour and white type, assuming it’s a bottle of Coca Cola? Or stopping at a sign that is red? Or even reaching out to touch a blue icon on your smartphone with an unmistakable “f”? We live in a world where branding is everything. Every product or service has to be unique and stand out, and typography plays a large role, one that you might not have consciously noticed.

With publishing, arose the need for typography. Typography decides the typeface, its size, colour, alignment, spacing and various other factors effectively influence how text looks, reads, flows and feels to the reader. Now, with digitisation, typography has become omnipresent and is being appreciated and researched as an integral part of any form of visual communication.

The popular type

Prof.jpgParesh Choudhury, Professor, MIT Institute of Design (MITID), Pune, and a typographer, explains typography in a simple manner, “Typography is a human voice in a written form. Good typography should convey if you are talking loudly, being rude, trying to sound romantic or speaking in a whisper. The volume, emphasis, tone, emotion, mood, quality, product and intention can be conveyed through good typography. In the world of information, fonts and presentation can make a big difference.”

He tells us that we can determine if a movie is of the romantic, comedy or horror genre just by looking at its title on the poster and how it has been designed. “It’s important that designers — visual communicators — have a keen sense of typography to be able to do justice to their work.”

Prof Choudhury got his lessons in Design and its aspects of communication, having worked in the advertising industry for almost 14 years prior to teaching. He graduated from BK College of Art and Craft, Bhubaneswar, where he studied Visual Language and went on to get an MFA in Applied Art and Graphic Design from MS University of Baroda.

He has also studied Spatial Design and Environment Graphic Design from Chelsea College of Art and Design, University Arts of London. He was the Art Director behind the celebrated Discovery Channel launch campaign in India. He contributed Typography and Design solutions to the makeover of Dabur Chyawanprash packaging and Dabur Spice Paste.

He has also designed various event visual identities and character designs for ESPN Star Sports and with his own venture, Lemon-T Design, he has worked with some prominent ad agencies in India like McCann Erickson, Leo Burnett, Bates-India, Mudra, O&M, Lowe-Lintas, Publicis, Contract, JWT, Capital, Enterprise-Nexus and O&M Outreach.

As an illustrator, visualiser, art and creative director, Prof Choudhury has worked between 1999 and 2007 as Graphic design and Storyboard consultant for some brands like Coca Cola, Dabur, Fanta, Discovery Channel, Microsoft, Mother Diary, Nestlé, JK Corp, Star Sports, IBN-7, Gillette, Escorts, Nescafe, Mortein, Sprite, Maruti Suzuki, Bacardi, Royal Stag, Sand Piper, LG, Samsung, Santiago, Alpenliebe, Big Babool, Hero Honda and Kelvinator among others.

For General Motors, he was part of the team that designed the single door concept cars for the Indian market. His work for Perfetti-Van Melle on the Alpenliebe brand promotional campaign was highly acclaimed during this period. Prof Choudhury has also designed many publications for National Book Trust of India and UNICEF. Recently, he wrote a  paper titled, ‘Environmental Typographic Elements in Response to Indian Cultural Scenario’, which has been accepted by Design ED Asia Conference 2012 in Hong Kong. His recent passion is to design Odia fonts to revive the script.

 “Usually, DTP operators take up the job of designing logos with whatever software is available and follow a template. But typography is something you cannot ignore. One has to research and study the topic to be effective. Type engineering has evolved as a course abroad and we are slowly exposing our students to it too. If you are not proficient with type or its effect, it can lead to poor readability and illegible work that fails to capture interest. One has to follow a grid, visual logic, authentic writing skills, knowledge of end user and aesthetics to develop types with visual appeal and consistency.” He believes one can take it up as a serious career option. Apart from ad campaigns and product package designs, layouts, giants like Microsoft need Indian scripts for their software since user interface and experience are given prime importance these days, he says.

The winning type

While you see applications of typography everyday, here’s one example that stands out. In July 2010, a postgraduate student of IIT-Bombay, Udaya Kumar Dharmalingam, won the competition to design the Indian rupee symbol, which now appears as `. “The symbol has a Devanagari ‘ra’ and Roman script ‘R’ which expands to the rupiya and rupee. It represents our tricolor flag flying high at the top and the arithmetic sign “equal to”. The prize money he got was `2.5 lakh, but what Kumar gave was an identity to our currency.

Currently teaching Visual Communication as Assistant Professor at IIT-Guwahati, Kumar has been inclined towards typography since college. He completed MDes in Visual Communication from IDC, IIT Bombay (2003) and Bachelor’s in architecture, BArch from the School of Architecture and Planning at Anna University, Chennai (2001). He also did his doctoral studies at Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay in 2010 (the first to be awarded in the field in the country) on Tamil (his mother tongue) typography. “As a designer, I think I should be conscious of our own scripts and culture and work towards developing it,” he says.

The competition had a set of guidelines. Firstly, the symbol should reflect our cultural ethos and tradition. He focused on the cultural aspect of the design and looked at various Indian imageries that best reflected our culture.

“There is a lot of interest being generated in the field now and I took up teaching because I believe that design can change your life. I love a challenge and teaching will help me motivate others and spread awareness. There is a lot of reference available in the field, which I used in my research too.” He lists Accukkalai Varalaru by Sambandham, Typography of Devanagri, Volume I, by Bapurao S Naik, and The Book in India, edited by BS Kesavan, among the few you must read if you are interested in the Indian script. “Passion is all you need. The rest will follow,” he says.

The storyteller type

Rathna Ramanathan teaches and practices typography. She elaborates, “From the numbers on your alarm clock and a street sign that guides you, to a toothpaste advertisement and the licence plate on your vehicle — it isn’t just important, it’s integral.” She is a graphic designer who runs Minus9 Design and is the head of design and interaction at Central Saint Martins, London. Ramanathan is the Association Typographique Internationale [ATypI] Country Delegate for India and advises typeface designer Monotype Imaging and graphic design software company Adobe on the design of their Indic typefaces, especially the Tamil script. She is engrossed with how reading works on a tablet or in print — how the text and imagery, its placement, the colours and sizes can influence your reading experience. She also works on bilingual Indian classics for Harvard University Press and helps with communication for non-profit organisations based in Tamil Nadu.


“Both my roles as designer and academic are about graphic design. I have my own studio, minus 9 Design, which is named after my poor eyesight,” she chuckles. “I have been working as a graphic designer now for close to 20 years. Whilst I am based in London, all of my work is related to India in some way — primarily through the books I design and advise on design of south Indian typefaces. My role as an academic is very connected to my practice. It is about the history, theory and practice of graphic design and the potential of graphic design both now and in the future. I have a PhD in Typography and Graphic Communication, teach at Central Saint Martins, London and head a department called ‘Design and Interaction’, where we look at the relationship between graphic design and the world context. While the college is in London, it is international – the students are of 64 different nationalities – so it is about what graphic design can be worldwide and not just British design,” she says.

She explains that there are different kinds of storytelling you can do with typography. In a dictionary, for example, the storytelling is in the manner of a guide, pointing you to a place and getting you there with minimum fuss. Within a picture book, typographic storytelling is more performative; you can add drama.

She recently delivered a talk in Chennai on the use of typography as both words and images to tell a story. Using varied case studies from graphic design history to contemporary Indian examples by Tara Books, the talk explored how expressive type through associations can convey sound, texture, movement, colour, atmosphere and emotion. “Expressive typography can allow children (and adults) to discover unexpected meanings and associations in language.” She used historical examples as well as three contemporary picture books — Anything but a Grabooberry, Tiger on a Tree and In the Land of Punctuation — to make a case.

Her preferences in type are clearly defined. “I am very against trends. I think in a nation where a number of people still have low levels of literacy, we need to provide good, strong, clear basic communication. I prefer a less-style, less-trend-based approach and a more helpful, rigorous way of doing things, which is based on years of thinking and history and aims to inform or engage people.”


While there aren’t specific courses in typography, most visual communication and graphic design courses will offer a paper on typography. Professors Choudhury and Kumar recommend you take up design courses at IDC at IIT-Bombay, IIT-Guwahati, IIT-Kanpur, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, or head to private institutes like MITID, Pune, and Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Bangalore.


If you wish to head abroad, there are courses you can take up like  an MA in Typeface Design at The Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading, UK, MFA in Visual Design — Typography at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, US, MA Contemporary Typographic Media at University of the Arts, UK, MPhil in Graphic Design and Typography at Anglia Ruskin University, UK, Master of Arts Practice (Typography) at Charles Sturt University, Australia, Master of Design in Type and Media at Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, Netherlands, Master's in Typography at Artez Institute of Arts in Netherlands.


Prof Choudhury informs us that there are many options in digital media for type designers and typographers — branding, product labelling, marketing campaigns in the advertising industry to designing for websites, mobile apps, and interface designing. Firms like Microsoft, Google, Adobe and Monotype, to name a few, require talented designers.

“You can get paid anywhere between `50,000-`70,000 pm as a fresher in the industry and earn your way up depending on how well you perform,” says Prof Choudhury. Alternatively, you can pursue options in research and teaching, as there is a desperate need for better resources to be created for those interested in the field.

Prof Kumar also suggests that you turn entrepreneur and find your own niche, which requires a lot more effort. “Find your own creative and self-initiated ways to explore and use type. Creativity can take you far,” he says.



Pics: Shiba Prasad Sahu, Albin Mathew


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