First Steps

In the last couple of weeks, we have started working on our practical projects—exploring ideas and testing them. In my weekly updates so far, I haven’t had a chance to write about the things I’m trying to do. This post remedies that. I’m planning to design a typeface for bilingual dictionaries (Latin and Devanagari). It is early days still, but I’m enjoying the process and for that I’m very glad.

Retracing the path
I’ve been very aware of the challenge of designing two different scripts that work together, and enough has been said about force-fitting one to fit the norms of the other. I had been practicing calligraphy understand better how letters in each script are made, and why their shapes are the way they are. After that, I wanted to forget constructing letters with calligraphy, about the broad nibbed pen and the boru and the opposite angles. I was looking for an intuitive way to write both Latin and Devanagari, and a (invented) tool that would be suitable to write in that manner.

Imagine writing the lowercase /h/ without lifting your pen—the pen would start at the top, going downwards to make the stem, then it would retrace its path upwards, curve into the shoulder and come down again. Much in the same way, one could write the Devanagari /ka/ without lifting the pen, and retracing the pen’s path when necessary. This idea of retracing is my starting point.

The sketches below are the basis of my FontLab digitization. They were made to replicate the personality of some Devanagari letters I had drawn earlier with the idea of retracing in my mind.

The process from there on has been iterative. To draw enough letters to set some text, print, evaluate it and go back to drawing. At least for now, I find it very easy way to lose my way unless I do a small scribble on paper before working on FontLab, whether that changes or not is something I can only wait to see. Here is how things stand now. I’m unhappy with the /c/ and /d/ in particular, and haven’t come around to drawing a decent looking /s/ at all.

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It is interesting how different people have described the shapes of these letters. The detail in the /h/ reminded Dad of origami. Edward, who is in the Information Design programme, said the same detail looked like gemstones or mineral deposits. Prateek compared the stems of the letters with someone who has a stiff back.

Devanagari
With the brief submission due in two weeks, and Fiona’s visit planned in the next few days, I have started off on some Devanagari as well. My dictionary brief calls for a multi-style and multi-weight typeface family. This leaves me with the challenge of creating different styles in Devanagari, beyond a weight progression.

A low-contrast Devanagari design with squarish forms has been on my mind for very long (image on the left is from an old blog post here, and the right one is not mine and has been taken from here). Below these references is my quick, first attempt to pare down these forms into something that could work in text sizes, like to set headwords in a dictionary.

Gerard’s inputs
Gerard Unger was visiting last week, and it was great to share my brief, sketches and digitizations with him. There are two ideas he discussed with everyone—

The 21st century model
Since about 2000, there has been a trend for typefaces to be narrow, have low contrast and large x-heights, and for all letters to tend towards a similar width. Gerard called this the “21st century model”. The MATD programme has produced many typefaces that follow it. To follow the model or not (or how far to follow it), is in the end, the personal choice of every designer. The only thing he did was to warn us against following it blindly.

Designing a Devanagari and non-Devanagari
Gerard asked everyone wishing to tackle more than the Latin script was to consider looking at the project not as a Latin and non-Latin, but as in my case a Devanagari and non-Devanagari. Read Ben’s reaction to this in the context of his Latin-Burmese design on his blog.

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