The new Design Fabric logotype designed by Shiva Nallaperumal and Aarya Purohit typeset in Oli Grotesk and Oli Devanagari
Good design comes from identifying a need or a lack, and filling that void. For graphic designer and type designer Shiva Nallaperumal - who has previously created the typeface Calcula - the urgency was to create a new typeface - Oli Grotesk. Along with his dear friend and type designer Aarya Purohit, he start to work on a typeface that formalised every script into one, covering every major Indian script as well as major world scripts while focusing on accessibility and usability.
They sought the guidance of mentor and type legend Peter Biľak, who has created three type foundries, two magazines, and pioneered web typography. Peter previously worked with Shiva and published the Calcula typeface through his Typotheque type foundry and came on board once again to publish Oli Grotesk. Peter is designing the Greek and Cyrillic (Russian) versions of the typeface, while his foundry is extending the project into other world scripts.
A project of this scale is no ordinary achievement, and what makes it even more exciting for us personally is the fact that Design Fabric is the first website to use exclusively! We are equally stoked about the new logo the duo have designed for us in their signature typeface.
In conversation with Shiva, Aarya and Peter:
Design Fabric (DF): How does it feel collaborating with DF on Oli Grotesk and seeing a website use your very own typeface?
Shiva Nallaperumal (SN): It feels really, really great. I’m deeply grateful to Sanket (Avlani) and DF for test driving Oli. DF’s use over the past couple of months has shown us our typeface in the exact context we wanted to see it in, so we can make better decisions for the wide release. I’m also elated that the first user for Oli, a typeface for India, is DF - the first and most serious publication about Indian Design.
1. Nodes and Anchors: Oli letter skeleton 2. The logotype is customised version of Oli’s letters. The logotype’s letters are equal in weight, while the typeface features weight correction for optimum compatibility between scripts. 3 and 4. Oli is defined by its repeating letter-shapes among its many scripts to maintain the common “Oli-ness.”
DF: Shiva, having already created the wonderful typeface Calcula, what was the reason behind diving into a second typeface?
SN: Though Calcula was the first typeface I ever started, it is actually my 6th typeface to be published. Something I love about typeface design is the high degree of authorship it offers. It has much more scope for self indulgence than graphic design does. I like that something personal can be used for a wide variety of uses by others. At the same time, a typeface is very much a test of craftsmanship as well...the perfection with which you draw is as much responsible for how a typeface turns out as the initial ideas are. I think this dual aspect is what keeps me coming back to typeface design. There’s only so much you can do to an ‘a’ and yet there is still SO MUCH you can do to an ‘a’, you know?
DF: So how did you two achieve the mammoth task of formalising every script into one through Oli Grotesk?
SN and Aarya Purohit (AP): Being Indian typeface designers, we were naturally interested in language, the aesthetic and conventional forms of letters and the relationship between different scripts.India is a plural country and plurality defines who we are. Typography in India should’ve been as diverse and as formalised but unfortunately it wasn’t. Indian scripts are very complex in the way they work and most early digital font technology was created with the relatively simple Latin script in mind. Most of the fonts available in Indic scripts in the 90s and early 2000s were packaged as part of foreign typesetting programs and most of these default fonts were of extremely low quality.
Language is culture, and our visual culture suffered as a result of poor design. Books and newspapers in Indian languages are noticeably lower in aesthetic quality than their english language counterparts in the post-digital era. Being conscious of this, and the recent developments in type technology, we wanted to create our own high quality, all-purpose font family for India. This is not a new idea. Stellar multilingual systems have been created by Typotheque, ITF, Ektype, Adobe and others since the late 2000s. We wanted to approach it in our own way and experiment with the design process we are accustomed to.
Oli Black, the boldest, fattest weight in the family. Each script/family under Oli comes in a wide spectrum of weights from Thin to Regular to Black and everything in between. This way Oli not only speaks many languages but also in many voices.
Oli tries to unify the various scripts of India under one visual language or visual logic. To put it simply, we tried to conceive a system that consisted of different scripts designed with the same visual constraint without the scripts actually mimicking each other’s appearance. Each Indian script has its own peculiarities and one of the most important rules we set for ourselves while designing Oli was to retain these unique features and not formalise it to an extreme level where the scripts start losing their character.
DF: Tell me about the collaborative aspect between the two of you.
SN: Aarya and I go way back; we were classmates from DJ Academy of Design where we studied graphic design. We’ve collaborated for years on different things and our paths crossed again in Type Design. Aarya was interested in multi-script type design and I in Latin type and the conceptual side of type design. There were many previous instances where I drew a few latin letters for his Devanagari type and vice versa.
We decided to formally do a large scale project with Oli to push our own boundaries. With Oli, I am designing the Latin typeface and art directing the project and Aarya is heading the Indic type design. Currently we are working on six typefaces: Oli Grotesk & Oli Mono (Latin), Oli Devanagari, Oli Tamil, Oli Gujarati and Oli Malayalam. We have roped in our friend Pratyush Das, a crazy talented designer to work on Oli Odia. We plan to systematically release each script as and when they become ready.
AP: I’ve always found type to be the most important, efficient and easy method of visual communication. To me, type is the purest, most distilled form of graphic design. I was comfortable with typography when I was studying and Shiva was the one who helped me acclimatise myself to the type design industry and develop as a type designer. Oli was just a sketch when Shiva showed it to me. Upon seeing the sketch and the charm it displayed, I was just enthralled. He immediately accepted my proposal to have Indic support his skill with Latin type design, and as our excitement kept building, so did Oli. And now, I have to make eight scripts with over 11000 glyphs!
The Oli Indic Canon: All the disparate scripts share common visual weight, optical features and glyph height.
DF: Do you have a personal connection to the Olivetti typewriter?
SN: I’ve had a longstanding fascination with typewriters and other analogue personal machines. Typewriter fonts are defined by the production constraints (that every letter must fit within the same width) and this results in some unique letterforms. Olivetti has fascinated me even more for their various collaborations with Italian artist and designer Ettore Sottsass, one of my all-time heroes. Olivetti’s taste in typography was stellar as well, with the Lettera using a custom typeface Candia designed by modernism legend Joseph Müller Brockmann.
Olivetti’s high standards for aesthetic, technical quality and forward-thinking branding inspired us to follow similar ideas for the typeface. The typewriter itself is a utilitarian machine, allowing the common person to be able to automate the writing process. It is a symbol of industrial progress. Oli Grotesk and its Indic family members seek to reference industrial progress in the letters’ mono-linearity, warm character and high readability and utility.
Oli is suitable for text and display usage in all its scripts.
DF: What were the major challenges during the process?
SN: With Oli, the challenge was to unify disparate scripts under one visual language. We had few precedents to refer to and the most significant challenge was choosing the appropriate weight and character heights to match all the scripts. If a script is drawn in the wrong height or volume in proportion to its complement, association, recall and therefore compatibility fall low. Each indic script has its own matra system. Some scripts like Telugu have three levels of below base forms, therefore they need a lot more vertical space than Latin does. Unifying this was the toughest part. It was equally exciting, because we were experimenting with letterforms as well as our own ways of working.
DF: How do you feel having created a new typeface for posterity, for the world to use?
SN: We were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the project. We think good typography leads to better design and better vehicles for content, be it on the web or in print. Our aim is to create such a family for India that is accessible and usable. Our friends at Typotheque are interested in extending Oli’s design language to other world scripts. It was important for us to embark on this early in our careers, and learn on the job rather than push such a mammoth task for later in the hope of approaching it with more experience. Also, we read a scary report that by 2100, 80% of India’s scripts would vanish. We’d like Indians to be able to create high quality graphic design in our own languages and the only way to do that is with good type.
Oli’s challenge was to retain each script’s unique features even while bringing them under a common visual language. The characteristic ‘out-stroke’ of the Gujarati script is retained, albeit in a modern way.
DF: Tell me about the inspiration behind the typeface.
SN: We were inspired by a wide variety of sources. A primary and longstanding influence was Peter Bi'lak’s Fedra typeface that was one of the first independently designed typefaces to cover extensive language support. Over a period of nearly 20 years, Peter continually added more and more scripts to Fedra’s family including Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian, Arabic, Devanagari etc. The project is still growing. Fedra was an inspiration also in the fact that it was an example of a successful text typeface full of character.
Another inspiration was our fascination with a design language covering many different scripts. It is an interesting thought that we design a typeface and this typeface can speak more languages than we ourselves can. It is amazing to see how the “Oli-ness” can be seen in scripts I’m not literate in, but I can see the design translated. Imagine seeing your handwriting but in a different script. That idea is fascinating.
DF: Peter, why did your foundry Typotheque decide to extend this project into other world scripts?
Peter Biľak (PB): At Typotheque, we are interested in cultural impact of our work and see type design not purely as a business venture but to explore new possibilities of language and written communication. While there are tens of thousands of fonts available for English, if you were to choose a font that covers Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu, you would struggle to find a good choice. Some languages are clearly underrepresented, because big companies only look at market potential when deciding to work with multilingual fonts.
Fedra Sans, Peter Biľak's humanist masterpiece was the original inspiration for Oli Grotesk, in both its expansiveness and expressive character.
DF: Peter, you also published Shiva's Calcula typeface on Typotheque last year. What was it about Oli Grotesk that drew you?
PB: Oli Grotesk builds on the traditions of 19th and 20th century grotesque typefaces, serif-less typefaces unrelated to writing and calligraphy, aiming for more neutral written communication. Today, the genre seems almost exhausted, and one rarely finds a fresh interpretation. Oli Grotesk is gently subversive by bringing plenty of flavour to a genre defined by the lack of emotions and personality; and is a high performing typeface system.
I have a long-term relationship with India, and the fact that Shiva and Aarya are creating a system encompassing all major writing scripts of India is impressive and makes the project valuable. Traditionally, only major international companies were able to put their resources in developing Indic scripts. Here you have a couple of youngsters creating a multi-script typographic system bringing a new voice for Indian typography.
In design, it isn’t sufficient to be a professional, repeating previously successful processes. Design is a curious discipline where one needs to reinvent his own approach with every single project. Shiva is part of a new generation of designers who find it important to remember their roots, and is genuinely interested in exploring the role of the designer in India today, studying local archives and traditions.
The monospaced version is closer to actual typewriter typefaces. In typewriter fonts, each letter is designed to fit within an equal width, causing some letters to look more condensed than others (like the ‘m’). Monospaced typefaces are today commonly used for programming and coding among other uses.
DF:Is it a good time to be a typeface designer in India?
SN: It is the best time to be a type designer in India! For the first time since the advent of digital type design, a designer can individually and independently create indic type from drawing to execution. The tools we have today for type design (Robofont and Glyphs in particular) are far advanced than what was available even five to six years ago. Tools have now been designed keeping in mind the complex character sets of world scripts to make it simpler and more intuitive for an individual to work on. The exposure of graphic designers to new and high quality type is also much higher, opening up a market for new fonts. India has been slower in adopting a culture of buying fonts but it has changed drastically over the years, allowing type designers to make a living doing what they love. The type community is still very small but it’s growing. Student interest in type design has also seen a sharp increase.
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