This is the third piece in our series that weighs the pros and cons of living and working in Mumbai’s creative community. Following in the footsteps of our London City Guide, we explore the state of design education in the city. We’ve previously explored the nuances of what it’s like living and working as a designer in Mumbai and the city’s design education. We also profiled a few of the design studios working out of Mumbai.
This is an exciting time for designers and studios in Mumbai. Clients are becoming ever more receptive to the power of good design, and designers are deciding that they should celebrate and look toward their own roots, rather than the western design proliferating online.
As part of our final piece investigating designing, being a designer, and running a studio in Mumbai, we speak with Sarang Kulkarni, founder of the foundry Ek Type, about the challenges of only working in a discipline that is small, relatively new, and under-taught in the city, and about what it means to work with words in a country with literally hundreds of variations on language and dialect.
Ek Type is a collaborative studio that expands or contracts with the requirements of different projects, specializing in developing fonts in multiple weights supporting multiple software platforms across all Indian languages, many of which are multi-script. It’s an especially tricky task given the variations in traditions and grammar that carry across each script.
When Kulkarni started his studio in 2005, he says “hardly anyone” in India was talking about digital typefaces, let alone teaching people how to create them. “There was no official full-time or part-time type design course in India at all, not even a one-week course,” he said when we met him last year. “Everyone got into it on their own.”
His studio was initially a design firm called White Crow, which worked mainly with NGO and charity organizations. “Starting my own company meant I could make the kind of work I wanted to do, and have more space and freedom,” he says. The name White Crow aimed to suggest “something black and white—there’s no grey areas and we know what we we’re doing.”
Back in 2005, though, India was still very much characterized by its distinctive and beautiful hand-drawn scripts—something sadly dying out across the vast subcontinent—and Kulkarni wasn’t finding a lot of discussion around digital typefaces in India. “Thanks to the internet, people started looking for different kinds of design and implementing those, and putting the contemporary stuff together with traditional,” he says.
“If you really want to grow or define things for you, your society, or country; you should stick to what you can do in your locale, in the world around you.”
Kulkarni is mostly self-taught, but was lucky that in college he worked with a legendary professor who’d been creating type in Indian scripts since the mid-1950s, across academic projects to advertising campaigns.
During his studies, his professor imparted a couple of pieces of wisdom that changed Kulkarni’s career-thinking. One was: “If there’s a gap in a particular field, one should go and fill that gap—as a designer, you provide a solution”; the other was that “if you really want to grow or define things for you or your society or country you should stick to what you can do in your locale, in the world around you.”
Finding no type foundries to join locally after his studies, Kulkarni decided to start his own. But that carries with it a responsibility, he says. “It means that other people who were in a similar position could join later on. Also, typography is a craft—what you design will be used by other people in their design work.”
Crucially, he’s noticed a shift since he first set out as a type designer: “We’re finally seeing an understanding that better typography has become a requirement for good design.”
What’s fascinating about meeting Kulkarni is getting to grips with the complexity of type design in Mumbai. He tells us that the city alone uses 11 scripts as well as Latin; throughout the rest of India, there are around 400 scripts. However, in recent years many of the languages that bore their own script types have been dying out. As Professor Ganesh Devy’s People’s Linguistic Survey of India revealed, in 1996, India had around 1,600 languages and dialects—by 2018 these had shrunk to about 780.
“The small scripts and languages are dying because there’s less scope for their use,” says Kulkarni. However, many of those left are gradually becoming available as Unicode typesetting formats, making what must have been a daunting translation task for typographers a little easier.
Aside from the technical side of things, a major challenge for a Mumbai type designer is working with brands to reach their target audiences.”There’s so much variation in people’s backgrounds [in Mumbai], and people travel here from small cities, so you can’t always just have one solution and say ‘that’s right for any project.’ You have to consider making multiple solutions.
“In major metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore, many people people speak a common language. But with smaller cities which make up more than half of India’s population, people speak their original regional languages.” The main languages spoken in Mumbai are Marathi, Hindi, and Gujarati, and Kulkarni works across all 12 scripts used in Mumbai; though each script could cover as many as 50 different languages. “The palette is very, very big!” he says. “In India when any brand or communication becomes multilingual, it has to maintain the visual drama, and the visual synergy of the typography has a major role. So when you translate a line of Hindi, for instance, to any other script, whether it’s for digital or print, it’s a big challenge to match its [aesthetic and message] to other Indian scripts.”
“We’re finally seeing an understanding that better typography has become a requirement for good design.”
Design-wise, Kulkani reckons that when it comes to type and graphic design more widely, there are “no unifying qualities [in type style for Mumbai].” The only specific thing that changes in each region is the graffiti. However, a big consideration is the idea of different communities, which vary hugely in things celebrations and foods: “So a Punjabi wedding is different to Gujarat wedding—that’s where if you’re making a design for a wedding invitation, for instance, you have to think about these things,” he says.
When it comes to the changing landscape of design in India, as we’ve discussed before, big shifts are afoot: While students have long been trained in traditional calligraphy and typography, courses are becoming more attuned to create type for web and app-based applications. “But it can take at least six months or a year of an internship to understand type design,” says Kulkarni, whose own studio has program that takes on apprentices. It receives around 200-250 applications each year though can only take on between five and seven of these.
The other major change is that “now, people are beginning to know the importance of graphic design,” says Kulkarni. However, as other studios in Mumbai have pointed out, often clients “see something that’s there already and just want it to look like that. [Clients] often don’t know how to define what they want. People just want to do what they see in the competition, and it’s often very results-driven thanks to other work they’ve seen on the internet.”