Signs for India:
From old ways to new directions

Lopez Design first had the opportunity to meet the team from OPOLIS Architects, which worked in conjunction with Maki and Associates for the Bihar Museum project. Abaxial Architects designed the WTC complex in Noida and Lopez Design was commissioned for signage and way finding. In conversation with Rahul Gore, Principal at OPOLIS, Mumbai and Suparna Bhalla, Principal Architect at Abaxial Architects Ltd, New Delhi we examine their interesting and revealing perspectives on signage in modern India placing design evolution of signs and way-finding in our cultural context. 

Dating back to 1500 BCE, The Upanishads embody an indestructible kernel of India’s spiritual philosophy. In the Chandogya Upanishad, in verse 14.1, ‘a man from Gandhara (arrives), blindfolded’. The reference here is to one who has not yet learnt to see. The next verse in 14.2 is about the seeker in search of his spiritual self. The exploration in this stanza interestingly parallels how we look for direction in India, revealing our tactile connections with people. In this translation by Eknath Easwaran: 

“As a man from Gandhara, blindfolded,
Led away and left in a lonely place,
Turns to the east and west and north and south
And shouts, “I am left here and cannot see!”

Until one removes his blindfold and says,
“There lies Gandhara; follow that path,”
And thus informed, able to see for himself,
The man inquires from village to village
And reaches his homeland at last – just so,
My son, one who finds an illumined teacher
Attains to spiritual wisdom in the Self.


In India, we prefer conversations to signs. “The man inquires from village to village”, says the poet, significant of how we eliminate doubt with query. We will ask the way also from more than one person in order to be sure of our destination. As a people, we also like to situate ourselves in our surroundings by a sense of place, rather than arriving there by logic. Hence, in everyday interactions, we are often found looking for landmarks. The Indian mind is naturally attuned to such ‘circumstantial evidence’ in reaching a place, rather than taking directions to go east or west, row or building number.

It leads us to the question – how did people in other parts of the world find their way around earlier? In the 1600s and 1700s, Native Americans used trees to mark trails and also to lead them to sources of water, a good place to cross the river and to medicinal sites, all critical to survival. They would tie young saplings down to bend them unnaturally and these would grow into oddly shaped trees to mark that spot. As we accumulate territories and turn them into highways and roads to navigate spaces, we are reversing centuries of geography. The grid plans of western cities may well be the underlying paradigm of the modern city. Yet, many older cities in India as well as in other parts of the world are not based on the grid. The evolution of signage in India is a mixture of the artificially imposed Western system with a curious reconnect with our older means of finding ways. 

Cultural response: Active versus passive

When we spoke to architect Rahul Gore about why signage is not followed in India, he observed that culturally, we are not used to looking for information and therefore we are simply not watching out for signage. “We rely on the verbal “asking someone” type phenomenon”, he says. Yet, Gore believes continual exposure to signage can change this mind-set and we will start becoming attuned to looking out for signs. When a person comes across a map in a physical space, Gore notes that the map should be accurately aligned for the visitor to get a true sense of the spatial orientation. In the visual chaos of our street culture, colour of the sign can bring clarity in identifying with way-finding signage. Unlike in the West, our streets are highly populated and it is easy to reach out to a real person. Gore observes, “We have many people around and most are ready to help!” The designer or architect is therefore challenged to find his way around the ready available human contact, to find a way to get people to directly relate to the sign. Is this possible? Gore believes firmly in the KISS approach, to keep it simple. Likewise, in the use of icons, we have to come up with standard symbols that can work around regional barriers. 

The evolution of signage in defining space

St.Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome 

As a firm, Lopez Design has always looked at finding the crux of an issue before even attempting to solve a problem. We asked architect Suparna Bhalla if the signage systems that have been adopted are relatable at all to our culture.  And what about around the world? Suparna Bhalla traced the beginning of city planning. In classical cities as Rome, streets were were laid out to converge at a piazza or monument. Events and commemorations became names for street markers. The orientation also grew out of such elements as citadels and freestanding gates to align the cardinal and the idea of the logical grid as a system is a recent concept. “The need to use written words to mark territory or show the way is a relatively alien way to direct people or traffic in local or rural scenarios especially in the eastern world”, says Bhalla. Bhalla associates way-finding with how people congregate and segregate to build public and private spaces. The bazaar, the cathedral or temple is the common denominator of the city destination and direction. A monument or event that shaped the name of the place becomes a powerful tool associated with collective memory. When designers and planners give streets obscure new names, they are underestimating this crucial aspect of way-finding, says Bhalla who is sensitive to the unfolding of signage from socio-cultural considerations rather than from the economic point of view.

Also crucial to navigating through a city is its scale. “Yet it’s easier to get lost in human scaled streets that meander (like in Tokyo) rather than on boulevards that have focal points (like in Paris)”, says Bhalla. Geography and climate are also determining factors – signage on a hill is markedly different than in a desert, a cold place would be different from a hot tropical country. “Each community has culturally devised different devices to do the same. Even though the world moves to a universality both technologically and economically, these devices remain the underlying anthropological mechanisms of identity.”

Interestingly, Bhalla finds that the visual chaos of the Indian cityscape provides a kind of evenness despite the obvious clutter created as many physical elements overlap demanding attention. She elucidates, “Street lamps, electrical poles intertwined with wires and cables, peepul vines, placards, posters and billboards of all shapes and sizes merge into satellite dishes and clotheslines. Pavements are littered with manhole covers, tree guards, vendors, bus stop spillovers and even the chance shrine that uses street signage as creative backdrops. Somewhere, in this labyrinth is that occasional sign, making us in India, champions of the game of hide and seek.” The digital-savvy consumer with Google maps in the palm of his hand still has to make sense of the street when he refers to the map. Bhalla therefore points out the necessity for visibility without which, the design intent will completely fail, even if the sign is well-designed.

Getting oriented with maps

Schematic Map of Delhi Metro 

Maps for many of us are oddly redundant. We would rather take down a set of instructions. Is this a mindset and can we become accustomed to reading maps? Do maps work in campuses when there is greater control of how the space can be organized to read signs? These were critical issues we address as designers and while a graphic map can be attractively designed, Lopez Design takes a step back to see if this is actually used. 

Bhalla explains that somehow both educational and commercial facilities rarely explore the map for its full capacity to visualize a space, saying, “Perhaps because reading a map, as in a plan of the ground plane, is a rather difficult perception exercise for most. Scientists go so far as to attribute it to a particular area of the brain and then even link it to gender!” Bhalla then proceeds to extrapolate on how the schematic map as the ones developed for Delhi Metro gives clarity, even if the map is not true to scale. The integration of a map into the neighborhood calls for another kind of sensitivity altogether. And this is equally important for signage, Bhalla says, “Oddly, even in campuses where financial constraints are less, signage is most often seen as a functional necessity rather than a visual aid. Signage design is last on the list and limited in approach. Rarely is it integrated with the interior or even landscape and usually it is seen as something ’stuck-on’ post the architecture.”

An oral tradition

With Google Maps becoming a highly available digital option, Indians are becoming more accustomed to locating a place by reading a map. Says Bhalla, “Availability of such apps will surely increase cognitive abilities to read and then relate to perspectives and scales. Having said that apps like Google and better still ‘MapmyIndia’ use oral directions in conjunction also in the language of your choice.” Bhalla’s words recall our narrative tradition, where for centuries instructions were passed on orally. Is it easier for us to be told “Turn left then right” than to follow the map and translate it in our head? It raises the key possibilities of directional outcomes actually becoming responsive to sound and narrated directions as instruments rather than maps and signage.

Streamlining signage with icons

One of our most interesting projects for creating icons at Lopez Design was for corporate environments of Headstrong, where we used playful elements as iconic signs. Interpretations of the human figure – such as a yogi and a sumo wrestler –  appealed universally.  Can icons work instead of written signs? Suparna Bhalla’s views on icons for signs is that they should be simple and have a uniform vocabulary that works across language barriers and regional contexts. Bhalla sees graphic design as a boon in a pluralistic environment like India. Color-coding such as using bright red for protected monuments for instance and regulating the use of fonts can bring a great sense of relief. “Using icons also present us with several opportunities to explore a universal tonality for signage. If equity is to be achieved in the country, I do believe that the complexity of India needs a language strung together with a series of sophisticated, extraordinary simple signs and icons to be read and understood by all.” So, what does it take to meet these varying challenges? Bhalla sums up, “So while this has been a mixed bag of experiments we have gained considerable learning. The brief has to always be strong and once agreed upon must be sacred till the end of project. Materiality is a prime consideration where we should try and use indigenous or locally available materials as far as possible. We would like to integrate at least one vernacular language and make all our signage comprehensible to the visually impaired. Also the use of technology in signage is rather minimal and Abaxial as a firm would like to see that accelerated simply because it is eventually a more flexible and an easily accessible system.”


Rahul Gore
Partner, OPOLIS architects

Rahul Gore set up OPOLIS in January 2001along with Sonal Sancheti. Rahul studied architecture at Center for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad and did his Masters Program in Urban Design from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He initially worked with Rahul Mehrotra Associates and then for a year with world-renowned architect, Fumihiko Maki in Tokyo, Japan. Rahul was the winner of the prestigious Bunka Cho Scholarship awarded by the Japanese government. He is an Associate member of the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) and a visiting juror at the KRVIA School of Architecture in Juhu, Mumbai. He was part of the award winning Indian team that won international acclaim at the International Urban Design Competition for the Design of Sustainable Cities hosted by Japan at the World Gas conference in June 2003. OPOLIS is currently engaged with the Bihar Museum along with Maki and Associates, Tokyo and the Mumbai Museum Extension in conjunction with Steven Holl Architects, New York.

Suparna Bhalla
Principal, Abaxial Architects Ltd

Suparna Bhalla is Principal Architect of Abaxial Architects Ltd, New Delhi. An Architect and Conservationist, Suparna has worked on a number of architecture, conservation and interior projects in India and abroad. She has been involved in the Adaptive Re-use and Renovation of Heritage buildings and palaces, as well as Urban Conservation and Renewal Strategies. This experience coupled with her independent practice has given her strong insights into various aspects of conceptualization, design development and detailing for projects. Ms. Bhalla is on the visiting faculty of Schools of Architecture in and around Delhi. Currently, she is involved in projects along with civic and regulatory bodies towards the establishment of an integrated framework for development and historic revitalization. Ms.Bhalla is an active member of INTACH and a prolific writer. She is Principal of Bhalla Ribeiro Bhalla since 1999.


Image Credit: Cover image adapted from photograph by Jorge Royan CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

by Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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