Global Need for Typography: An Interview with Indic Script Type Designer Erin McLaughlin

Thomas Jockin
Nov 29, 2015 · 10 min read

TypeThursday sat down with Typeface Designer Erin Mclaughlin about her work as a typeface designer with a focus on Indic scripts. As the markets in South Asia continue to mature, the need for multi-script typography grows only larger. Erin shared both the challenges and rewards in working in the discipline. Enjoy!

Getting Started

TypeThursday: Hey, Erin, thank you so much for being here.

Erin McLaughlin: Thanks, Thomas. This will be fun, I think.

TT: I’ve known you for a while, Erin, and the main thing I wanted to bring you in for Type Thursday to talk about is really your interest and your passion and love for multi-script typography and type design. How did you get started in multi-script typeface design?

EM: When I was a senior in college studying graphic design, and I knew I wanted to do some kind of applied art that could make the world a better place in a way. I really didn’t want to get into packaging and selling things to people that I didn’t believe in.

I ended up taking a Hindi language course while I was working at my first graphic design job. Even though I was doing design work for non-profits, it still didn’t feel like I was doing enough. I thought maybe I needed do some sort of volunteering focusing on literacy, and the place I was most interested in was India.

I hadn’t realized that for so many people in the world, their languages weren’t supported by web browsers, or system fonts didn’t exist.

Font Problems while Learning Devanagari

Learning to write Devanagari scriptwas the first thing we did in the class, and I caught on very quickly. But I noticed that my teacher had a really hard time typing out our Hindi worksheets. The vowel signs and marks would show up in the wrong places and he’d have to fix it manually or draw on them. I would try to practice reading Hindi stories and news articles on the internet and found out that quite a lot of websites just weren’t functioning correctly. The text was completely unreadable. I hadn’t realized that for so many people in the world, their languages weren’t supported by web browsers, or system fonts didn’t exist. You couldn’t get any access to information online unless it was in English. This was back in 2007. The situation has gotten a lot better, but that was a big issue back then.

My teacher’s font problem got me interested in learning about the Indic scripts themselves and learning about typography in other writing systems. I always liked typography classes in school, but I never thought of it from that standpoint. That all of the people in the world not using the Latin alphabet need to use typography as well.

Blogging and The University of Reading

That’s when I started blogging. I started my blog called Hindi Rinny as a way for me to practice typing in the Hindi language. It eventually turned into a place where I posted images of type and lettering. I would go to the public library or various websites and blogs to get images of Hindi writing in different contexts so I could try to learn the shapes of the letters better.

So for me it was kind of a learning tool. Through my blog, I actually met Fiona Ross and John Hudson, and they would communicate with me through the blog… that’s how I found out about the University of Reading typeface design program.

Because if you only look at one typeface, the one in your textbook, that’s kind of the only style of the letter you might recognize, but if you see someone else write it in a scripty manner or as bubble letters or some other style, some of the characters might look quite different. So for me it was kind of a learning tool. I did this for about a year and a half, gathering a lot of images and writing about them and transliterating them.

Through my blog, I actually met Fiona Ross and John Hudson. They’re well-known, trusted experts on world scripts in terms of font design. And they would communicate with me through the blog and encourage me and help me and correct me and that’s how I found out about the University of Reading typeface design program. And so that became my new goal.

I thought, “Okay, maybe I can actually help people if I learn how to make fonts and engineer them to work correctly to ensure that people can access information on the internet and have more legible text when they’re reading newspapers or other media.” And because it’s a form of expression, being able to have more than just a few typefaces typeface to choose from is helpful in so many different contexts. So, that’s kind of how I got started.

I went to Reading and I loved the program. I did a project called Katari, which was a Devanagari typeface design, which I still have to finish and I hope to release one of these days. And I did dissertation research on some South Indian scripts, Kannada and Telugu, and that was a lot of fun too. I’m interested in all of the different scripts around South Asia. I’ve been sharing images on Instagram and on my Flikr account, usually book covers from the University of Chicago’s South Asian collection, and I transliterate it and write a little bit about it if I can.

I’m doing this because even though I’m living halfway around the world from where these things were created, I still find that a lot of young Indian designers haven’t seen hand-written lettering like this, and they are interested in seeing examples of local design history. They’re things that maybe they haven’t seen, or they like to see it and be inspired by it. And other people like me who don’t live where these objects are from, they can actually use this as inspiration and to learn more about about other writing systems.

Challenges in Learning World Scripts

TT: When you were learning Devanagari, Kannada and Telugu, what was the most overwhelming aspect for you?

In some of these scripts, it’s been interesting to try to read different type styles and writing styles, because there are some very different things happening.

EM: Well, in some of these writing systems, the typography that you see in any random book or in a “How Do You Learn This Language” book, they’ll use a typeface that’s like a default typeface, usually one of the early Linotype designs. And the interesting thing is that handwriting in a lot of these scripts is completely different from that. Just like how we have cursive handwriting in Latin, in which some of those letters look completely different than they do in a serif typeface. The shapes don’t necessarily correlate.

Trying to figure out what the absolute skeleton, core shape of a letter is, and how it can be changed stylistically takes a lot of practice if you haven’t grown up with these letters your whole life.

So in some of these scripts, it’s been interesting to try to read different type styles and writing styles, because there are some very different things happening. Trying to figure out what the absolute skeleton, core shape of a letter is, and how it can be changed stylistically takes a lot of practice if you haven’t grown up with these letters your whole life. So that’s one difficult thing.

Learning how writing systems can kind of change format and shape-shift like that, that was interesting and somewhat difficult to learn.

The other thing that’s interesting about these Indian writing systems is that they’re not alphabetic; they don’t work the same way as Latin. You have to learn about what different glyphs do when you combine them, because sometimes the order is changed. Like if you add a vowel to a consonant, sometimes it has to appear before the consonant or above or below it. So it’s kind of interesting because it’s like a puzzle or a bunch of building blocks that can go next to one another, above or below. And so learning how writing systems can kind of change format and shape-shift like that, that was interesting and somewhat difficult to learn.

Contribution

TT: If I were to speak for you, I would say what was most exciting about this work that you’re doing is that you feel like you’re contributing to humanity — to a larger culture and helping people. That’s kind of what you see as the great joy of doing this work. Is that true?

I think with my time, I would rather look toward populations of people who have minority languages or scripts, who are completely overlooked by the rest of the world.

EM: Yeah. Just as a human, honestly, I worked doing Latin typeface design for a few years and for me, I feel like there are plenty of people out there who really enjoy doing that. And they want to do that and make the five billionth sans serif neutral typeface. I’m totally not interested in that at all.

I think with my time, I would rather look toward populations of people who have minority languages or scripts, who are overlooked by the tech and Western-centric design world. I mean there still are tons of people in the world who can’t read a website in their native language or script. And I just think that’s insane. So if that’s something I can take six months out of my life to do, to make a product for those people to be able to type and read with, I mean, I think that’s the best thing a typeface designer could do, I would think. And to provide new font designs, so that people can use them for their businesses, for education and historical preservation, and self-expression.

There still are tons of people in the world who can’t read a book or a website in their native language or script. And I just think that’s insane.

The other aspect of this is education and opportunity. I realize in other parts of the world, due to the impact of colonialism on education and economics the education system and economics, a lot of people don’t have the opportunities that I’ve had growing up here in the US I had the luxury of saying, “Wow, I actually have enough money that I can go to this specialized school, get this specialized education in my native language and learn about all of this.”

It’s like until the playing field is a little more level, until there’s more opportunities for people to be able to design their native scripts and learn how to do this, even as an outsider, I do want to be involved. I want to try to help solve the problem, work with people who are native speakers and try to create fonts and resources for these scripts until people elsewhere have as great of a type design program as we do in the United States and Europe.

I want to try to help solve the problem, work with people who are native speakers and try to create fonts and resources for these scripts until people elsewhere have as great of a type design program as we do in the United States and Europe.

Non-native users design typefaces. Is this an issue?

That’s another hot topic, people arguing about whether or not native users need to be the ones designing for their scripts or if it can be outsiders.

TT: Well, what’s your position on that?

EM: I think people who can’t speak the language can design very competent things. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, because I’d feel too ashamed or that I was being harmful. I can phonetically read the scripts I am designing for, and feel familiar with them

If you work with a few consultants that are native speakers and can keep checking on your work, I don’t see why there’s an issue at all.

I think if you spend a lot of time, like years, looking at a writing system, getting to know different lettering styles and regional variants, you can learn some of the rules about where the boundaries are and where you can stretch, what’s legible and what’s not. If you work with consultants that are native speakers and can keep checking on your work, I don’t see why there’s an issue. Though there are many people who believe that a non-native speaker will never have that inherent sense of balance and beauty.

There is also the moral question of whether outsiders should be putting their own perspectives on a part of a different culture. Is it okay for an outsider to be expressive, or should they only work on historical revivals?

And a whole other topic, whether outsiders should be financially benefiting from making fonts in other scripts. I want to believe that if the end-users benefit from having a new font, that it’s a net positive, and it’s okay. But, it’s a complicated situation. It might depend on the script. How many native-speaking type designers are already trained to make fonts for that script, and the demand. It’s a good question.

But to me, visually, don’t really think it should matter whether I speak it or not, as long as a reader can read it. That’s the ultimate test.

TT: You’ve shared a ton with us today. Erin, thank you so much for your time.

EM: You’re welcome.

Interested in learning more about world scripts?
View Erin’s Indic lettering collection on
Flickr.

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