Sulekha Rajkumar’s abstract and textured letterforms give Indic typefaces a contemporary facelift

Type designer and letterer Sulekha Rajkumar talks about the non-typographic forms of art that inspire her abstract and textured letterforms. 

The love for letters and all things type was ingrained in Sulekha since she was a young girl, staring wide-eyed at Bollywood film posters and the way they treated the title of the film in different scripts. She discovered type design while in pursuing graphic design at Sir J.J Insitute of Applied Art, and her propensity for the subject has sharpened ever since. Her penchant for geometry shapes the intuitive and innovative letterforms she designs today. She designs research-led type families designed with type foundry Ek Type, while also working on her obsessive, everyday projects where she imagines alphabets and numbers from different Indic scripts in her own style.

Over the years, Sulekha has designed brand identity systems for clients like VistaraParadise and Mother Dairy during her stint with leading design agency Ray+Keshavan. Today, she works as an independent type designer and letterer helping small businesses find the best design solutions to tell their stories. When she’s not working on commercial briefs, Sulekha mostly spends time practising in her sketchbook and developing conceptual letterforms. Perhaps her most striking project yet has been the Bangla and Tamil alphabets she designs and shares on Instagram, finding inspiration in ceramic tiles, window grills and needlework techniques like the kantha stitch.

Sulekha indulges us in a conversation about the Baloo Da, a Bengali type family she recently designed and the challenges and rewards of being an independent type designer in India.

Did your interest in typography and type design develop while you were in college?

When I applied to study at JJ, I didn’t have any prior knowledge of type. In fact, I went there with the intention of learning commercial art so I could make animated films. I was introduced to typography and lettering at JJ, and developed an unwavering love for letters that has played an important role in all my work ever since. I had a very inspiring professor called Vinay Saynekar, a type designer himself, whose passion for type was infectious. His teaching method was tough, but we received a solid foundation in typography and lettering that has held us in good stead till now.

What were the early influences that pulled you into the subject?

Long before I even knew about typography or lettering, I used to eagerly look out for the film titles in old Hindi movies that appeared in English, Hindi and Urdu, all rendered in the same style. In fact, title and end credit sequences were my favourite parts of most films. I’m reminded of a Hollywood musical called Easter Parade that stood out, particularly because it had incredible lettering not just bookending the film, but also integrated within the film’s set design. I don’t think I considered it to be a distinct art form back then but I knew I liked it.

Artists whose work I began to follow and admire greatly are Satyajit Ray, Herb Lubalin and Louise Fili. Satyajit Ray for his virtuosity in drawing the same word over and over again, each time imagining it in a new way and drawing it in a new style. His work on numerous cover designs for the magazines Eshan and Sandesh are examples of his brilliance. Herb Lubalin for his mastery in not just constructing flawless letters, but also finding and creating patterns and symmetry in his compositions. Louise Fili for everything that she does. The work produced at her studio is seminal and her documentation of Western vintage signs and packaging is exhaustive and enriching. Even her proteges have gone on to be top letterers in the world.

Finally, my biggest influences are the works of the amazing and unfortunately anonymous handpainted and structural sign makers across India.

Tell me about your experiments with Bengali typefaces. How and when did you start working with Bangla scripts?

I’ve worked with many Indic scripts throughout my career in graphic design, especially for multilingual branding projects. I focussed my interest on Bangla a few years ago in order to work on a typeface with Ek Type. Bangla isn’t my native tongue, so I started learning the script from children’s writing books and practising formal calligraphy. Once the structure and proportions of the letterforms were imprinted in my mind, I started to look at the letter from various perspectives and began experimenting with structure, form and style.

What inspired Baloo Da, the type family that you released this year with Ek Type?

The Baloo family is the product of a collective of designers at Ek Type. What started of as a simple idea of designing an affable display typeface across 10 indic scripts (and Latin), soon grew into a large font family of 11 scripts, with five weights in each script, making it suitable for both display and text. I co-designed Baloo Da along with and under the mentorship of the very talented Noopur Datye, one of the founders at Ek Type.

Your Instagram feed swims in your daily typographic experiments, where you turn letters into abstract compositions of shapes, loops and forms. Are there certain visual cues that inspire these exercises?

I started sharing my work on Instagram to find my own voice. I recognise that I am still in that phase and will always be as long as I keep evolving as an artist. I tend to be mostly inspired by non-typographic forms of art, particularly abstract art, patterns and grills. I don’t just photograph them to collect references, but also spend time in the real space noticing details in the craft and aesthetics. I also scribble and sketch these details, which later collectively feed into my work.

What’s the most challenging part about being an independent type designer and letterer?

I think explaining what I do is the toughest part about being an independent type designer and letterer. They are two very different skill sets and not everyone understands the art or the effort behind either. I do enjoy trying though, and am hopefully getting better at articulating it. To elaborate, a type designer designs a visual grammar and a system for a typeface so that the letters interact well with each other in whatever combination they are typed out. A lettering artist draws letters and engages with that specific permutation of letters to create a custom composition.

As an independent designer, do you have a dedicated work space?

My studio space is wherever my laptop is! I shuffle between home and the Ek Type studio as well as between Bombay and Bangalore. I like working out of different spaces, although I am better at doing certain kinds of work in particular places. Designing type mostly happens at the Ek Type studio, surrounded by other type designers who share and understand the passion and frustration of refining the same letter for hours. When it comes to graphic design and lettering, I tend to work well on my own. So any space that’s private works well for me. I can’t work out of a coffee shop as there are too many things to observe and too many windows to look out of.

Type design is driven by craft as much as it is by science and mathematics. What is the most challenging aspect of the subject?

Indic type design is gaining a lot of attention and is very exciting to be part of. But it requires a lot of patience and perseverance. You need to be able to critique, revise and redo your own work repeatedly and ardently. While I find it extremely rewarding, one should be aware that there is no instant gratification; it isn’t for the faint hearted! That is why I think constantly changing hats between type designer, graphic designer and lettering artist keeps me on my toes. I like working on multiple projects at the same time.

In India, we have 22 official languages and 11 recognised scripts, and yet that diversity is lost in our visual culture. Do you think we became apologetic of our native languages somewhere along the way? Is that changing now?

India has already lost a lot of scripts over centuries and as we become more globalised, there is a risk of more scripts dying. I believe that as designers, we have a responsibility to preserve this in our visual culture. The areas I feel we can make a significant contribution is in designing multilingual brand identities and Indic fonts that embrace the integrity and authenticity of the Indic script.

What does the future for Indic typefaces in India look like?

As long as we have people thinking and communicating in Indian languages, there will be a need for Indic typefaces. I see myself as a part of a collective of designers who are enthusiastic as well as conscientious about developing typefaces that are authentic to the script, whether they are based on classical traditions or modern sensibilities.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a Latin typeface, developing package design and brand architecture in the F&B sector and teaching typography at a couple of design schools. I’m also working on this fun lettering project for an upcoming design conference!

Ritupriya Basu