India and its fondness for hand drawn letterforms

One of the most exciting things we discovered about India is that it’s a goldmine of handmade type. Everywhere you look there’s a sign which has been skilfully painted, full of character and worthy of your attention.

Back in January this year, in a freezing cold shed on the outskirts of Bristol, Abigail and I spent a day trying our hands at traditional sign painting. Prior to this we didn’t have a complete understanding of how the whole typographic process worked, but as a designer I’ve been intrigued by it for a long time now and jumped at the chance to try a centuries old skill for myself. We soon learned the skill requires a lot of patience, time and practice to master, and that we were not the best at painting letterforms in a single stroke.

In many ways, India is still a developing country. You could say in some ways it’s decades behind, if it wasn’t for satellite TV and Facebook. It didn’t come as a surprise that rather than massive backlit signs or neatly printed plaques, nearly every outdoor advertisement or sign informing you of something is painstakingly hand-lettered by a professional who still retains the skill, passed down through apprentice and master. (Although we have seen some crude amateur attempts.) In the UK this is a dying skill with only a handful of professionals who still practice and teach it, but in India it’s still abundant.

Having only spending one day trying my hand at hand lettering, I can see the time and effort spent creating these signs. A simple block of text on a sign might quickly be read and soon forgotten about, with the majority of its readers not appreciating the time and effort put into creating it. As people have no comparison to the alternative, to them this how it has always been; someone’s job to create. In the same way we underestimate typefaces and the effort made to make them legible or optimised for digital devices, it’s all a part of the job.

A signwriter in India might be able to paint at speed, creating creating perfect letterforms in one or two brush strokes, but it’s not always that simple. More creative ‘signwriters’ can produce something bight and colourful with depth and shading to stand out from the crowd, and these are where I find it even more interesting. There never seems to be a definitive style that different signwriters follow, only each one trying to out-do the next. The best pieces of hand painted type we have seen have surprisingly been on the side of a lorry or Tuk Tuk, where creativity has been let loose to capture someones attention. No brand logotype or slogans, just some bright 3D typography with each individual character featuring its own unique hand painted scene. It may seem old fashioned in some cases, but I can guarantee you would stand out in the UK if you had your brand painted 6ft high with beach scenes featured in each letter. Say goodbye to brand recognition, this is how people will notice you.

What I also marvel at is the confidence the sign writers have. If a mistake’s made whilst painting, you’d better hope the paint hasn’t dried in the heat or you could be starting again. Here and there we did spot the occasional spelling mistake or mistranslation, but it only added to the character and humanity in these signs rather than the printed or mass produced signs we see everywhere.

This abundance of skill seen throughout the country makes me wish there was more traditional sign painting in the UK. Each piece brings colour and character to the city streets, breaking from the monotony of billboards plastered with boring ads. Thankfully there are still some investing in the craft of traditional sign painting, especially the small business who appreciate something unique. I’m looking forward to when we eventually return home and I can practice writing my ABCs all over again.

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