As mobile access grows and more people around the world start using the internet—a billion people are expected to come online over the next few years in emerging markets alone—it’s also necessary to elevate the quality and range of digital typefaces available in different writing systems. This challenge is especially striking in India, a country that recognizes 23 official languages, but counted almost 1600 (including dialects) in their last census. Some of these languages and their scripts have descended from ancient Brahmi, others are based in Arabic, while the ongoing use of English, a language that's reach and influence has grown considerably since India's independence from Britain in 1947, means that Latin letters are also a common sight.
The Mumbai-based type designer Girish Dalvi has a gift for conveying the sheer scale of this typographic challenge. A professor of design at the Indian Institute of Technology and a co-founder of the Ek Type collective, Dalvi describes the immensity of Indian culture and language with a quote from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “India is larger than the world.” Dalvi allows a beat to pass before adding that Borges did, in fact, have a good rationale for this saying. “India is an extremely diverse country,” says Dalvi. “The language and script change every five hundred miles, and so does Indian design.”
Keeping pace with the subcontinent’s linguistic diversity is challenging enough in print, but the relatively small number of digital fonts available for Indic languages reveals a striking disparity. Even the most widely used Indian script, Devanagari, has far fewer typographic options compared to the superabundance of Latin fonts. Some scripts like Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, and Tibetan have even fewer fonts available. But the balance is beginning to shift as a cohort of Indian type designers develop new digital fonts, and the movement is still growing in part because many of these designers release their designs with open source licenses. The code is then readily available for others to experiment and develop their own contributions, improving the quality and variety of typography across India’s many writing systems.