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Satya Rajpurohit runs the Indian Type Foundry (ITF) in Ahmedabad. He’s a native of Rajasthan to the north, so his mother tongue is written with a script (or writing system) called Devanagari, the most commonly used in the country. Yet in Gujarat they use Gujarati, another one of nine so-called Indic scripts. ITF has set out to make fonts for all of them. Confused? We hope you’re less so after reading our interview.
You studied graphic design at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. What got you into type design? How did you end up in an offbeat, unusual and unconventional career such as this?
During my early days at NID I was most inclined towards pursuing a career in broadcast and motion graphics. So for the internship that each NID student is required to do, I applied to several motion graphics agencies outside India where I absolutely wanted to go. It did not happen. As I had to do an internship anyway, I switched to my second interest, which was typography. I managed to land an internship at Linotype (now Monotype) in Bad Homburg, Germany. I spent three months there, and I got to work on the Devanagari companion to the Frutiger type family. That was very exciting. At the time type design was hardly considered a real profession in India, so I had never considered that a serious option. But the internship at Linotype first brought out my profound interest and passion about type. Since then, I have never looked back.
What intrigued me about type design is that it is purely a form-based exercise. Ideally every graphic designer must try his or her hand at it, at least once. What I like most about it is that whatever I’m doing is going to last for a long time. It’s like building a highly specialised tool — unlike other graphic design projects, which have a shorter lifespan.
Were you pretty much a novice when you arrived in Europe?
More or less. I had sent Linotype a portfolio of type sketches, and a number of outline files made in Illustrator, but no fully functioning fonts. So in those three months I got to learn a lot. My main teachers were Monotype’s type director Akira Kobayashi, and type designers Jochen Schuss and Dan Reynolds.
After finishing my internship my next target was to finish my graduation project. As I had decided to do a type project, I began looking for a design studio that worked on multi-script fonts — and I learned about the Dalton Maag company in London. At the time Bruno Maag was directing a multi-lingual project for a large telecoms client, and I happened to get in touch with him at the right time. I was already comfortable with three Indic scripts, but I wanted to work on something I wasn’t familiar with, so I chose to work on Bengali and Tamil. As this was my university project, I could take some time off to actually learn them.
I know there are many languages in India that use a variety of scripts (or writing systems). Do you have some figures?
According to a recent survey, people in India currently speak about 780 languages written in 11 different scripts: Devanagari, Gujarati, Gurmukhi, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Odia or Oriya, Arabic and Latin. The Sanskrit language stands as the classical language of our country. Hindi has been declared official language of our Federal Government, accompanied by English as the associate language; about 35% of Indians speak Hindi.
What was advantageous for me was that I was familiar with five of these scripts at the start of my career. That made it especially interesting to work on these letterforms. It was a golden opportunity for me to apply my understanding to all these scripts together, in something as streamlined as type design.
This is where my idea for the Kohinoor family came from: to design a superfamily that supports all the languages of India while keeping the visual aesthetic of all scripts similar across the entire suite of typefaces. This would allow for all the languages in India to be typeset in a coherent and consistent visual system. It was and still is a very unusual idea in India: it is rare to find fonts that offer various scripts within the same family. There are fonts from companies like Nokia, but these are proprietary typefaces, not fonts for normal licensing. When I started working on Kohinoor, I don’t think there was any retail font available that supported all Indian languages. Kohinoor was the first family that offered all those scripts, and some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Apple, have started using it. It makes much more sense to them to use a family that has a unified visual language and includes fonts for various scripts.
In 2009 you started up the Indian Type Foundry. Originally you worked together with Peter Biľak of Typotheque, who is based in the Netherlands. How did that collaboration come about?
While I was in Europe for my internship, I visited Peter in The Hague, where he proposed that I work on the Devanagari version of his Fedra typeface — which became my first ever professional typeface. This was just before I went to London to work at Dalton Maag. When Peter and I finished Fedra Devanagari in 2009 we looked for foundries in India who could potentially distribute our fonts. Unfortunately, at the time there existed no foundry that could release a Unicode-compliant font like Fedra. So Peter suggested I set up a foundry that primarily focused on Indian scripts. It was an ideal proposal for me then, since it gave me a great opportunity to continue working with Peter (whom I consider one of my heroes during the college days) while staying in India.
Of course, there were companies making Indian fonts before we came in, but they were primarily software developers who used to sell fonts as supporting products. So if you wished to buy their font, you would also need to buy their software, and vice-versa. Those circumstances made the idea of starting our own foundry look more attractive. We were the first local foundry to distribute high quality Unicode-compliant fonts in India, which helped get us established relatively fast.
Apparently, new type design and typesetting technologies have resulted in big changes in Indian type and typography. Are there many things that are feasible today that weren’t possible as recently as fifteen years ago?
I think that for the Latin script, the OpenType features are more of a luxury — but for the Indian languages it’s necessity. OpenType has finally made it possible to translate all the details and nuances of the Indian scripts to the digital medium. All the scripts heavily depend on complex conjuncts and ligature systems. Thanks to these features it is possible to typeset Devanagari or other scripts the way they should be written. I don’t think it would be possible to do this correctly otherwise. These letters work with a lot of accents that can come on top of the character, below it, or next to it. It’s very complicated. Besides, the number of basic characters is huge — a decent Devanagari typeface will have 600+ glyphs. It’s not possible to access that many glyphs simply via one keyboard, so you need to program it. That’s where OpenType comes in. I do some basic programming, but we have an in-house font technician who does most of this work.
So how big is your company?
Right now we have thirteen people on staff, most of whom are type designers. I have hired quite a few new people. Recently we’ve started expanding our library. During the past five years we could only handle five to ten families. As the first proper type foundry offering Unicode fonts, it was our first responsibility to offer a wide variety of usable types before embarking on more conceptual projects. Now, more and more clients come to us asking for more options; so we should be able to offer more fonts. As there are many writing systems, and the character sets are massive, I could never work on so many fonts on my own. Also, we happened to get a lot of custom work recently from clients like Apple and Google, and that also required team work. There’s always a deadline and when you’re working alone you’ll never be able to finish jobs like these on time.