Peter Bilak likes to think of fonts as the voice of the text. They convey emotions and tone, just like voices—and just like voices, there are some fonts that are inherently better at communicating a message.
Bilak knows this universe of fonts, with their adjunct emotions, intimately. In 2009, the Slovakian typeface designer had co-founded Indian Type Foundry, the first company in the country dedicated to designing and distributing fonts.
A decade on, the Ahmedabad-based company has many distinctions to its name: it developed the first-of-its-kind modern Devanagari font (Fedra Hindi) and spearheaded efforts to create a humanist typeface that supports all Indian languages (Kohinoor) as well as a sans serif font covering 12 Indian languages (Akhand).
Its rise did not happen in a vacuum, though.
Over the last decade or so, dozens of type designers and collectives have been concertedly addressing a deep disparity—the dearth of fonts for Indian languages. To them, it’s important that in a nation as varied as India, there should be fonts to reflect the linguistic diversity.
“We don’t realise (this) but (on everything from) bank forms to film titles, only English was being used because of the lack of suitable fonts in Indic languages,” said Shiva Nallaperumal, a partner at November, a Mumbai-based graphic design studio.
The origin of type design in Indic languages goes back to the history of print in India. Girish Dalvi, co-founder of Ek Type Collective and professor of design at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, says the earliest type foundry was Nirnay Sagar Press. Established in Bombay in the year 1834, the publisher of Sanskrit texts produced “hand lettering in Gujarati and Devanagari.”
Innovations like those continued for a century and a half, but the production of modern Indic fonts began in earnest only after the proliferation of computers—and, more specifically, the internet.
A turning point came with the introduction of Unicode.
A computing industry standard, Unicode attaches a unique number to every written character—no matter what language or platform—making it possible for the first time to create a font in an Indian language that could be used and seen across platforms. Of course, fonts could be, and were, developed before, but they were system-specific: if you sent a text in an earlier Indic font, the receiver could see it only if the receiving system supported that type.
Those pre-Unicode fonts are today called Legacy Fonts. “They were very basic and not conducive to design intervention,” said Nallaperumal. “The maatras were a bit off and you had to create 1,000 versions to make Devanagari work. Most software was created with Latin type design in mind and could not support complex Indian languages.”
The complexity of writing systems in India still poses a challenge for designers. Every major language has its own structure and aesthetic that rarely translates into another language—a sharp contrast from the Latin script. “The structure of the Latin script is pretty straightforward and linear for the most part, where one letter follows the other, with an occasional diacritical accent mark thrown in,” explained Kalapi Gajjar-Bordawekar, type designer and co-founder of the studio Universal Thirst. “But in the case of most Indic scripts, letter shapes transform based on context.”
Read more: Quartz