A Tryst with Type

Mahendra Patel at Atelier Frutiger in 1971

Soumya Parker talks to pioneering designer Mahendra Patel about his journey in typography. In this exclusive interview, discover what goes into designing the fonts we use all the time. 

“I make the bricks, I am not the architect.
  I just make good bricks that graphic artists can build with”
  Adrian Frutiger

A graphic designer has a number of tools or ‘bricks’ at his disposal while ‘building’ a piece of communication. From the basic elements of design like the dot, the line, forms, shapes, space and colors to tools like images, text and typefaces – these are all elements that can be manipulated in order to create appropriate communication for the target audience. Typography is an integral part of communication design. The proliferation of typefaces in global visual culture has ensured that they are a large part of our lives whether we notice it or not.

A typographer and designer of maps and fonts who has mentored and taught many, Professor Mahendra Patel was a pioneering type designer in India. In our conversation, we discussed the challenges of developing typography in the Indian scenario and its relevance for graphic design today.

Mahendra Patel. Image courtesy: Leaf Design


SP: You pursued your bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from MSU Baroda. In those days, design as a field, at least in India, was in its nascent stages. How then, did you find yourself on the path to graphic design? What were some the highlights of your career?

MP: I graduated from MS University Baroda in 1964; after graduating I wondered what the next step would be. I sought guidance from K. G. Subramanyan and he referred me to Gira Sarabhai, who was looking for students for the National Institute of Design. This is how I found myself on the path to design. Once I reached NID, I met people like Ray and Charles Eames and began to be fascinated by design detailing and precision. A course with Hoffman introduced me to typography. In 1966 I was sent to Basel for faculty training. There, I received further inputs in typography. Adrian Frutiger ( a Swiss typographer, widely known for the fonts – Frutiger, Avenir, linotype Didot etc) who came to India to look into the possibilities of developing Indian scripts, invited me to his studio for an internship of sorts. I would spend half a day working on projects for the studio and the other half I would work on developing Indian scripts.

Adrian Frutiger critiquing Mahendra Patel’s Work in 1971

While I was in Switzerland I relied heavily on maps to travel. This was, despite the fact, that I could not read or understand the language. But these maps were so easy to visually read that navigating became easy as well. When I returned to India in 1971, not many people knew what typography was, let alone the importance of it. With not many opportunities in typography, I proposed to Gira Sarabhai that we make a map for the city of Ahmedabad, which would be at par with international maps. It took me six months to develop the map. In the beginning I would take my proposals for maps and go to corporations but soon the corporations themselves started to approach me to work on maps and wayfinding systems. Which is how I worked on the wayfinding and signage systems for the cities of Triupathi, Hyderabad, Kumbh Mela, Bombay International Airport.

In 2011 I started work on Frutiger Devanagari: it was launched in 2013 in Guwahati and is currently being retailed by Linotype. I have also been teaching typography in NID, Shrishti, Symbiosis Institute of Design and MIT Institute of Design.


SP: You have seen over 40 years of typeface design. How have technology and interactivity redefined the way typography is used and type is designed?

MP: I feel that despite the introduction of new technology, the fundamentals of type design have remained the same. It is the same grids, the same layouts. The basic principles of letterforms have remained the same but the tools are new. Technology has definitely taken the drudgery out of the job. The softwares have enabled us to work faster and become more precise. Cutting, pasting, spacing and kerning have become easier. Earlier it would have taken a designer a year and a half or two years to develop a new font. Now thanks to technology the time has been cut down to three to four months. When I teach my students I begin by teaching them about hand, eye, mind and skill; then we move on to working on the computer; and then we cultivate the insight of proper choices and appropriate choices. Readability, legibility and sensitivity remain integral to typography regardless of the medium it is being viewed on.

Wayfinding and Signage design for Tirupathi by Mahendra Patel


SP: What is the role typography plays in graphic design and our visual culture?

MP: Design and typography have become democratic. Software like MS word are being used widely and people interact with type on a daily basis. In my time there were barely a handful of designers, now there are thousands. Design and typography in the hands of many have become democratic. The challenge they face now is to create value. To keep in mind user applicability, user friendly design and something that people find useful. At the moment expression is trumping function, art and design are fundamentally different and need to be addressed as different fields. Very few people have the required sensitivity. This may be a product of the current design education where courses are becoming shorter and shorter and significant amount of information is being condensed to meet new time frames. There is no time to internalize learning.


SP: What, in your opinion, are some of the interesting projects that designers who are engaged with developing Indian scripts are currently working on?

MP: I think Ek Mukta is one such project. It is a font that was developed by young designers for public use and they employed a new business model to reach out to people. (Ek Mukta is an Open source, free to use, Unicode compliant, versatile, contemporary, humanist, mono-linear font family, supporting Devanagari and Latin scripts. It is the largest Devanagari font family with the largest glyph-set in the open source domain.)


SP: What are some of the challenges with developing Indian scripts?

MP: Well, to begin with Indian scripts struggle with input devices. Also people are used to the viewing these scripts in a certain way and they are reluctant to accept change. So creating contemporary versions of Indian scripts is challenging. 90% of the fonts are influenced by handwriting, but designing a font is a science – striking a balance between the two is a challenge. Digital devices require structured writing, but people are concerned about heritage and regional identity and are looking for more old school options.

Map of Ahmedabad designed in 1979 by Mahendra Patel


SP: What are some of your favorite fonts? 

MP: Internationally, I prefer – Frutiger and Humanist for their graphic treatment. They are very industrial and do not carry the personality of the creator. ‘Font hinting’ works well for these fonts. (Font hinting is the use of mathematical instructions to adjust the display of an outline font so that it lines up with a rasterized grid. At lowscreen resolutions, hinting is critical for producing clear, legible text.) Verdana as a font works well on the screen and is distinguished from other fonts. Helvetica. In Classical fonts – Futura as it is geometric. Amongst serif fonts I like Garamond and Times. In Indian fonts I like Mangal, one of the first fonts developed for technology. Ek Mukta for it’s availability. And my own font Frutiger Devanagari as it is classical, humanist, industrial and contemporary.


SP: What are your views on paid fonts and open sourced free to use fonts that are abundant on the internet now? 

MP: It’s not feasible to have all the fonts free, but I believe that there should be subsidized fonts available for public consumption.

Logotype Designs for Tri-Lingual use in all major Indian scripts for State Bank of India, 1989

Interview by Soumya Parker
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