Typography Day Presentation: An Inquiry into the role of Typography in Multi-lingual Identity Systems

It has been a long while since I presented at Typography Day [the abstract is posted here], but I haven’t had a chance to post the presentation on the blog, especially with Slideshare refusing to save my presentation notes even after I wrote to their helpdesk.

I have tried to sumarize what I spoke about after all this time (unfortunately, there are bound to be things I miss out):

An identity, as this definition says, is not just who or what one is as well as proof for being that. I could claim to be a good singer but the moment I open my mouth to sing, you’ll know that I’m bluffing. The same is true for brands.

To take this metaphor further. Just like the photograph I have on my ID card is different from the photograph I have on my Facebook profile. Brands are also out to make an impression. They need to address different audiences in a variety of situations and contexts.

With this in the background, how does one find a mantra to good identity design?

I found my answer at Kyoorius Design Yatra, where Paul Hughes spoke. According to him good identity design is about striking the perfect balance between Consistency and Flexibility. A brand needs to be consistent so that people can recognize it and remember it. But, it needs flexibility to be memorable. To be able to relate to a range of people.

When people get it right, they produce brilliant identities. Take i-D Magazine for instance, a typographical logo that transforms into a wink, which is repeated in every cover. The models always have one eye covered.

Or this identity for a contemporary art museum in the Netherlands. And I’m showing these example especially because it uses type in the most innovative way. This museum building is built of three composite buildings and features four artists every year. So they chose to cut vertically into every typeface they could find.

Here are some of the applications!

This design gave the museum the ultimate balance between consistency and flexibility. This design, incidentally, was also a finalist in 2009 edition of the Dutch Design Awards. Of course, not everyone gets it right.

And when people get the balance wrong, they end up with this.

In today’s multi-cultural world, language is one of the barriers to cross to reach out to a wider audience.

The easiest way to go about it is transliteration. Take the name of the brand in the original language and spell it another language. But, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I have three girl friends called ‘Saumya’ and they all spell their names differently.

And thats not the end of it. I also know a boy named ‘Saumya’ who spells his name like that.

There is more! For example, take the word ‘Guddu’ in Hindi, it is a common name for a young boy, it means being like a doll. In Telugu, on the other hand ‘Guddu’ means an egg.

There are many problems with transliteration. There is no way for knowing what spelling is right and whether the name will be pronounced right. There is always the fear that after transliteration, you end up with a name that is in appropriate, or worse still, offensive.

And worst of all, you cannot transliterate the word at all. Here’s an example. These are the logotypes for Tide detergent in Arabic and English. They look visually consistent but because Arabic has no short vowels or the letter ‘P’, it is simply impossible to write Tide Plus Super.

I’ll use this visual to make one more point. Once transliterated, whether successfully or not, brands need to write the transliterated name. This is easy when the logotype is a piece of custom lettering. It can be re-done in a new language.

Or like in the case of Vodafone, a new typeface can be commissioned. This will let the brand communicate with its new audience in wider applications.

And now that we’re talking of typefaces, I want to share with you a staggering statistic. There has been an increase of over two thousand percent in the number of typefaces  available. And variety is what we want when we are doing identity design. A typeface that matches the personality of our brand!

And there typefaces with all kinds of personalities we can imagine. But, what about in a language other than English, and script other than Latin? Where are the Indic typefaces, the Arabic typefaces?

Not only has typography been a Euro-biased practice, we are still carrying some very dangerous prejudices.

Look at this example. How the characteristics of the English logotype are copied on to its Kannada counterpart.

And then this. The English and Arabic logotypes of Rolex don’t look similar at all.

Which brings us back to the question of consistency and flexibility. Which brand has got it right here? Westside went with visual consistency, or Rolex went with consistency of message. Quite obviously Rolex! Visual consistency is easy to achieve but what is difficult is achieving consistency in message.

Design needs to be anthropological, needs to understand cultures. The Rolex logo uses a classical Arabic typeface to evoke the same feeling of luxury that the English typeface does instead of blatantly  copying its visual characteristics.

Scripts are an important vehicle of culture. And before we think of typography, and typeface design it is imperative that we understand this. And that we understand that they are a big measure of cultural identity.

When it comes to consistency of message, what would be better than a simultaneous identity. Take this for instance, the identity for Big10 buses that run in Bangalore.

The logotype reads in both English and Kannada. Another question then is who can design an identity like this? Someone who understands both scripts? Which begs the next, much bigger question about who is capable of designing a typeface in any given script? Only the native reader/writer or someone who has learned the script later?

There are obviously more questions than we have answers for. I’m one of those hapless, idealistic fools who believes that design can change the world, make it a better place.

Usually when we think of logo design, we barely find any time to think about anything beyond the minimum size the logo can be reduced to, the costs of getting it screen-printed in color, the ways to apply them in the collateral, it however be better if we spared a thought to the cultural repercussions of our designs.


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