Saving India’s street type

The distinctive handpainted signs of India are rapidly being superseded by digital alternatives. HandpaintedType is a project dedicated to preserving the work of those who create them and finding new uses for it

The distinctive handpainted signs of India are rapidly being superseded by digital alternatives. HandpaintedType is a project dedicated to preserving the work of those who create them and finding new uses for it

Among the photos of almost every tourist to India will be shots of the handpainted signs for shops and other businesses that, alongside elaborately decorated lorries (‘horn please’) and gloriously decaying palaces make up so much of the stereotypical visual vernacular of the country. But those signs will shortly be a thing of the past, as will the artists who paint them. Digital printing is taking over, with many Indian businesses swapping their distinctive frontages for the worst that a (pirated) copy of Corel Paint in the hands of an untrained, underpaid and overworked DTP operator can conjure.

In order to preserve the work of his country’s street painters and give them an alternative source of income, Hanif Kureshi (who by day is a creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in New Delhi) has set up the HandpaintedType project. This film explains the sign writers’ situation.

The idea of the project is not only to create an online resource documenting the sign writers’ work, but to create digital typefaces from lettering designed by the street painters themselves. These typefaces are for sale through the site: half the proceeds will go to the painter and half to keeping the not-for-profit project going.

One of the first digital typefaces to be made available is by Painter Kafeel, a 45 year-old based in Old Delhi. Kureshi’s process is to commission each painter to paint an alphabet, a set of numbers and, if possible, a variety of symbols on a 3ft by 8ft banner cloth. Kureshi pays the painter the going rate (anything from Rs300 to Rs1000, or £10) for the banner. The letters are then digitised to create the typeface.

Painter Kafeel’s banner

The finished Painter Kafeel font (which can be purchased here) comes in nine layers.

Here are some examples of its use:

And this is the complete character set


Kureshi is attempting to gather work from sign writers across India as the styles vary greatly from region to region as well as from artist to artist. Here, for example, is the work of Painter Umesh from Gujarat. His typeface can be downloaded for free from the HandpaintedType site.


While this one is from Painter Bimal in Mumbai


And this from Painter Bindra in Rajasthan


There are also typefaces in Devanagari script and Urdu.

But there is only so much Kureshi can do by himself. He is encouraging others to collaborate via the site which includes a full set of instructions on how to brief the painters, what to pay and how he will reimburse costs.

Kureshi showed the project at the Kyoorius DesignYatra conference in Goa last week, of which more soon.


CR for the iPad
Read in-depth features and analysis plus exclusive iPad-only content in the Creative Review iPad App. Longer, more in-depth features than we run on the blog, portfolios of great, full-screen images and hi-res video. If the blog is about news, comment and debate, the iPad is about inspiration, viewing and reading. As well as providing exclusive, iPad-only content, the app will also update with new content throughout each month. Try a free sample issue here

CR in Print
Students, grads, young professionals: if you buy one issue of CR this year, make sure it’s this one. The September print issue of CR is our annual graduates special. In it, we have teamed four recent graduates with professional practitioners in their chosen field who offer invaluable advice on how to get started in their profession. APFEL meet graphics graduate Arthur Carey, BETC London ECD Neil Dawson meets Sophia Ray, illustrator Matthew ‘The Horse’ Hodson offers sage advice to Sam Tomlins and photographer Jenny van Sommers meets Megan Helyer. In addition, our September issue also features Google Creative Lab, Unit Editions’ new book on Herb Lubalin, Michael Evamy on place branding, Jeremy Leslie on new bilingual magzine Figure and Gordon Comstock on the importance of failure.

Please note, CR now has a limited presence on the newsstand at WH Smith high street stores (although it can still be found in WH Smith travel branches at train stations and airports). If you cannot find a copy of CR in your town, your WH Smith store or a local independent newsagent can order it for you. You can search for your nearest stockist here. Alternatively, call us on 020 7970 4878 to buy a copy direct from us. Based outside the UK? Simply call +44(0)207 970 4878 to find your nearest stockist. Better yet, subscribe to CR for a year here and save yourself almost 30% on the printed magazine.

  • HappyC

    There’s something really nice about most of those hand painted type sets and yet it’s that same something that gets lost when digitised. Even so a nice project and love of the art.

  • mark

    Great video, although very sad example of the decline of industry. Of course this has been a worldwide trend just at different points in history.

    I did love his reason for using Arial though – i’m going to use it next time i’m asked.

  • The digital versions lack the warmth of the hand painted type sets, which are really charming. But it will be interesting to see the uses designers find for them.

  • It’s sort of sad that digital print is taking over this wonderful tradition of hand worked typography that is so ingrained in the Indian culture.
    However, it is also nice to see digital reproductions of the artist’s letterings reproduced and for sale. Hopefully this will help the artists continue this culturally rich tradition and enable this unique visual aspect of graphic design to keep on developing and thriving. The visual examples included in this article suitably highlight the very rich visual tradition that has developed in India over the years.

  • Sam Kanga

    Great idea, however, I agree with the others that some of the charm and “hand painted” quality is lost when digitized.

  • Good :)

  • This is a great project, much respect to Hanif for pushing ahead with it. India is not alone in losing hand painted forms to digital technologies. Sadly it is a global phenomenon. I attempt to document examples around the world on my ghostsigns site. This started out covering fading advertising on walls in the UK but has evolved to have a broader focus on hand lettering from around the world. I hope that there will be other ways of keeping the craft alive for many years to come and welcome Hanif creative way of doing so.

  • Reena Methar

    great news, Th’s something really nice about most of those hand painted type sets and yet it’s that same something that gets lost . Even so a nice project and love of the art. Myself Copperplate calligraphy Artist!

  • Amit Patel

    This is a fantastic skill which these artists display. I hope there is a way to sustain their skills for the future. @theampatel

  • Very cool! Unfortunately I don’t think the price will convince the design guy in the video to improve his methods ; ]

  • Wait a minute – you pay the designer £10 for creating the artwork, and then sell it for how much?

    Robbery I call it, preceded by an expletive!

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Skipper

    No, you pay the designer to create the artwork, take it away, have it made into a proper typeface (for which there is a cost), set up a website to market that typeface and share half the proceeds with the original designer while the other half goes toward the running costs of the project and extending it. So the painters get paid for their work (work that is increasingly scarce) and earn extra money from sales of the typeface. You call that robbery do you?

  • Decimal

    The main confusion I had was how I’d missed Hanif Kureishi changing career from writing into advertising! Took a wee while to realise it’s a different guy (with no middle ‘i’ in his surname). In fairness they are both film-makers.

    It’s good he’s trying to do something positive about the situation. Seems like there could be scope for another social enterprise to offer custom signs or prints to a Western audience to support the sign painters. Maybe somewhere between Indian Hippy and the cool interior stuff you get from Fab?

  • Dear Chew,
    it’s sad, but we must think of it as about something normal because of the ongoing technology development.
    I like these visual examples as they very much tell about the traditional typography involved many years ago.

  • I agree with Martin, it’s nice to bring a traditional art form into the digital realm. It both opens it to millions of new people and immortalises it to an extent.