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The distinctive handpainted signs of India are rapidly being superseded by digital alternatives.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The distinctive handpainted signs of India are rapidly being superseded by digital alternatives.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.


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