Type Camp India:
Context and Culture
Type Camp always leaves me feeling motivated, inspired, enthusiastic, and full of life and gratitude. It is that chance to feel normal again, amongst my fellow type nerds.
We seize every opportunity to geek-out over little glyphs found in funny shop signs, filling our cameras entirely with typographic photos. It is our chance to expand our international, extended family by a few more design relatives, bonding over classroom exercises, authentic local cuisine, and evening beers. Our chance to learn from incredibly talented, intelligent, and
strict encouraging teachers, who help us look at our work differently, no matter what level we’re at. They help push us beyond our comfort levels with gentle but firm hands. And last but not least, it is our chance to travel to an (often) exotic location, and submerge ourselves in a new culture. With all these, Type Camp India 2014 did not disappoint.
As designers, I believe we have a responsibility to make this world a better place. Context and culture are key ingredients to good design, and this point was reinforced daily at Type Camp India. As a North American, there is nothing more testing than being dropped into a place like India and challenged to design something functional for their people. Their aesthetic is different, their language is different, their environment is different, and their cultural norms are different. The only thing familiar within the project was the tight timeline.
And so we began, immersing ourselves in South Indian culture. We lived as middle class South Indians, eating traditional South Indian meals on the cheap, bartering with ‘auto’ drivers to get from A to B, all the while observing everything around us. We documented street signs, shop signs, advertising, billboards, and vehicle decor, taking note of each aesthetic used when and why. We took note of the overload of colours, multitude of typefaces, amount of space filled, and materials used.
The sun played a vital role in our learning as well. Aside from overheating, sweating, tanning (or burning) our skin and constantly needing to rehydrate via coconut water, we learned of the failure of vinyl within the Chennai culture. Where vinyl fades in the sun, painted signs outlast both in colour saturation, but also in ability to be easily retouched. Many shop owners had fallen victim to the fad of vinyl signage, only to end up hiring a sign painter to redo their signs months later. A hard lesson learned when money is hard come by and vinyl signs expensive to produce.
India has roughly 452 languages, but only 22 are recognized officially – Tamil being the official language focus for our camp. In the last century in Chennai, a law was passed stating that each sign must be written in both English and Tamil. It was common to see many half-hazard English signs squished into pre-existing Tamil signs, to abide by these new rules. And so, much to the excitement of the locals, we began practicing the letterforms, learning the sounds, and observing the words used in signs around town.
Finally, venturing out to the local market, we spoke to local shop owners to discuss our final project. Who needed a shop sign? Perhaps someone couldn’t afford one of their own. What type of business did they own? What type of sign would be beneficial to them? Would a sign even be beneficial to them? What colours would stand out? What direction did their shop face? How would the weather affect it? Where would they hang it? How would they mount it? Hours later, we returned, gifting them with their signs, reading both in English and Tamil.
It felt good giving back to India. It was obvious we’d made a difference in a few people’s lives. But our process of immersive learning was essential to the success of the project. Aesthetically, the signs were vastly different from anything we would have painted in our respectable homes. The challenge of working in a foreign language was engaging and exciting, and nearly impossible if we hadn’t begun understanding the language itself. And most importantly, the conversations with shop owners were vital to the message of each sign.
All in all, if you want to make effective, functional design solutions, you need to understand your audience. Dive deep, immerse yourself in their culture, in their daily routines. Understand what is important to them, and the do’s and don’t’s of their cultural philosophies. It is vital to walk in and leave all your pre-defined assumptions behind. Presume nothing, ask everything. Then design to make their world a better place.