Review: The Hinglish Project

A few weeks ago, the Indian Ministry for Tourism launched The Hinglish Project, a new hybrid typeface that combines Latin and Devanagari letters to can help foreign tourists demystify the Devanagari script and make them feel more at home. There has been a lot of positive chatter about it on the internet; it has won the Gold at Cannes in the Design category; but I’m not a fan!

The project claims that the font can help one “tell the phonetic sound of a Hindi character by looking at the corresponding English alphabet superimposed on it”; only it is not as simple as that. Take the welcome text on the website, for instance. The Latin letter “o” represents different sounds in the words “go” (gō) and “something” (ˈsəmθing), and ends up being correlated only with the Devanagari ओ (oː), which represents neither sounds. There are more than a few pairings that I would be willing to argue against. The fact is that one letter can not only represent more than one sound, there is no one-to-one correspondence. The linguistic premise of the project is pretty shaky.

The project might have started with noble intentions, but I’d be hard-pressed to believe that this typeface is a good solution to familiarize a non-native reader with the Devanagari script. Linguistic inconsistencies aside, the typeface isn’t very legible. The letter-shapes are constrained by a geometric grid, and must match up with their counterparts. That doesn’t leave much of a canvas to make easily recognizable letters, which I would think is essential for a project with these aims.

The project fails on both linguistic and typographic counts. At best, it ends up being gimmicky—too concerned with making an attractive image, and removed from function. While my criticism in this post is limited to the rationale and execution of the project; I’m equally, if not more, distressed by the reception it has enjoyed. There has been little critical thought in the reviews I have come across so far. This does not make a good case for design in general, and especially not for design and design thought coming from India.

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Comments 9

  1. Nirbheek Chauhan July 9, 2012

    Besides the objections you raised about linguistic soundness (which I find myself agreeing with) it seems to me that an additional purpose of having overlapping shapes and aligning them like that was for the typeface to act as a mnemonic device for those who can’t read Hindi. I don’t see any other good reason why you’d want to overlap and match letters like that.

    For some of the characters, I can see it working if I give some leeway (/g/, for instance; even though ग, ण, म would be easy to confuse), but for others it’s just completely pointless. For instance: /o/ and /a/ — the differences between ओ, अ, औ, आ, and sometimes even ऊ, उ are not at all clear to people who are not readers of the script.

    It seems like someone came up with this idea, everyone got super-excited about it, and they just ran with it. Never sat down and thought what problem they were trying to solve with the project.

    To make matters worse, the mapping from Devanagari to Latin is quite incomplete (as is to be expected!). So it’s almost like mid-way someone realised that it can’t be done— but the budget had been allocated, the project had to be completed, and so it was finished.

    On the other hand, I admire how they compensated for the project’s lack of soundness by throwing a marketing team at it.

    I’d love to be proven wrong about all this, however. I’d like to believe that this (small amount of) attention to typeface design can lead to more attention, and eventually do some good.

  2. Nick Lovegrove July 9, 2012

    As a type system, you’re absolutely right, it doesn’t work. As a project that’s been created by an ad agency specifically to be a publicity tool aimed at design-literate firangs, it works much better.

  3. saakshita July 10, 2012

    Just want to say that I totally agree with this point of view. I was not too convinced with the attention it was getting from audience, as it fails at very basic level. While its a good thought and idea, a half working option can’t be the solution to this complicated problem. Thank you for the read

  4. noopur datye July 10, 2012

    pooja, this project is absolute shit! Fortunately or unfortunately it is just an ‘advertising scam’ meant only to win awards at international competitions! It is all made up. It has not been really launched or anything. The worst part is that such things win awards & get appreciated.

  5. Eknath July 11, 2012

    All agree. There is so much one can do in Indian typography than doing scams. very few people will understnad the real core aesthetic of Indian typography. The designer should feel shame and return the award.

  6. Sharmila July 24, 2012

    Well, If you just look at it from a just-another-cute-font (in English/Latin whatever), it’s not too bad 🙂 Or maybe it’s just me! I kinda liked it…Won’t work as a proper ‘font’, agreed. But I am guessing this is aimed at firang public, so it’s pretty cute and ‘Indian’ (for them!) 🙂

    Cut the designer some slack! I likes!

  7. Kassia (@neemly) October 28, 2012

    I’m going to comment on this as someone who can read Devanagari but has English as a first language – I don’t find this helpful at all! I do sometimes use shape-based correlations between g and “ग”, y and “य,” p and “प,” m and “म” to subconsciously remind myself of the Devanagari characters’ sound associations (I do it with the Tamil script + certain characters as well – ம், ய், க்), but in this case it’s not at all helpful. I can barely read the Devanagiri characters behind the Roman ones. Plus single Roman letters are not nuanced enough to represent the proper corresponding sounds of the Devanagari, as the top commenter mentioned – ‘o’ should really be ‘au,’ ‘h’ in English does not have the same aspirated noise as ‘ह’ would, ‘t’ is NOWHERE near ‘ट’ (and I say that as someone who struggles with hearing/pronouncing the many variant ‘t’ sounds in Hindi!), etc. I know it’s not supposed to be a perfect system, but even for the most simplistic of uses I don’t really see it being functional. Cute idea, less than helpful in reality.

  8. Alicia June 19, 2013

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.

    Anyways, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  9. DreamHost Discount August 9, 2013

    I agree that there are some differences between Devnagri and English pronounce. But still one will get a fill of the world. If you look at the English language itself, English-UK, English-US & English-AU, all have different pronounces. Does it mean one is pronouncing wrong and the other is right? No It simply means they pronounce differently. So the same way in Hinglish pronounce will be different. Does it mean it’s unnecessary. No!! This is simply my personal opinion.

    Thanks,
    Dhruv.

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