The Sign Gurus
Urban Indian market streets are a visual riot. There are so many layers, languages and signs. Every surface is screaming for prominence to advertise a local mom and pop shop, a western brand retailer, a medical specialist or a spiritual service. Amongst the mayhem are carefully crafted, hand-painted sign boards of all sizes. Each stretch of street has its own sign painter who defines the visual character of the block with his particular typography and illustration experiments.
The Delhi based designer Hanif Kureshi has started the Hand Painted Type project to honor and try to preserve some of the vernacular typefaces of India. I love this project and the attention it gives the painters. I was thrilled to see it mentioned in the Huffington Post recently. But once digitized, the typefaces lose their original charm and liveliness — their street aura sparked from the unique meeting of brush, hand and varied urban substrate. As many things handcrafted go, Kureshi tells the story of the local painters being put out of business by digital print technologies. There is no small irony that he chooses the same digital medium to embalm these beloved typefaces.
In the markets, the new digitally created signs have nothing on the hand painted ones. They show the common symptoms of individuals getting their hands on a new technology — design software, laser cutters, digital banner printers, etc. — and going crazy with it without any idea of how to design a sign. You see photographic images of chicken carcasses, roughly cut out of their backgrounds, color altered to shades of fluorescent pink and set on a yellow outer glow and a turquoise background. And you see the lapse in material quality: The plastic banners literally fade in comparison to the vibrant colorfast paint next to them. But shop owners want these signs because they are NEW.
I have hopes of the sign painters surviving though. The first, and traditional, reason is cost. Having a small sign hand-painted is likely still cheaper than getting one made with newer technology. In India value is not placed on a craftsperson’s skills or time, but in the cost of materials. So if you want a sign painted on an existing wall, the only material costs are the paint. This isn’t exactly a growth trajectory for the painters, but it has kept the business alive this far.
On the other end of the economic spectrum is the technologically savvy/weary “design class” and their (our) love for whimsy, nostalgia and craft. The sign painters’ trade in India may survive for the same reason that it is resurgent in the west. The difference is that in the west, the shifts away from and then back to the hand-made aesthetic have been so distinct that skills have died out in between and have had to be revived and reinvented each time there is a spike in appreciation. In India, with its many coexisting eras, there has been no ice age. Global “cool” has emerged alongside the steady plod of local “bygone.” The traditional skills are still here and evolving generationally. What a resource to treasure!
What would any cafe or gourmet market in an upscale urban neighborhood anywhere in the world give for a sign like these?! It is our job to not see the creativity of the sign painter, poster illustrator and truck decorator as dying charms of the past. We can connect them to the present projects of the design class and lead the way to elevating the value of their well honed skills and unique design sense into our combined version of the 21st century. How could we live in our self-created digital future if it is devoid of beauty like theirs?