Beauty and the Beholder

The use of emoticons. To express our emotions in a concise way. Emotions are such a personal entity. Yet we managed and got accustomed to expressing it in a single entity. Personal to Single. But very recently, when the different colour shades of the emoticons were introduced, I couldn't help but notice that we have jumped yet another course. Personal to Single to Individual. Now, its not about the first and the foremost, ironic as it may be in this age of speed, we have finally learnt from the tortoise. As much as the tortoise was appreciated for its patience and the hard work, it was about its confidence. That’s what made it stand out. And that’s exactly what we are looking for. Finding our own self. Individuality.

Drops falling slowly on the ground. Light cut through them, giving a glimpse of the colour. The shiny gleaming red almost pierced my eyes. On that very second, everything around me was in a complete silence, as if to help me enjoy that moment. The paint on the brush had thickened. The filbert stroked dark oak wood brush was in a striking contrast with the red paint. The tip of the brush gently touched the wall, marking its territory, ready to begin anytime. The pressure on the brush strokes gradually increased and it was just a matter of time, it will begin its strides.

Hand painted type exuberates this very individuality. Individuality of a person, a community, a culture, a country and the time. But it’s the time itself which distinguishes the hand painted type from a photograph. A photograph captures the time and lives there permanently. Whereas a hand painted type surrenders itself to time. It is the permanent at the same time temporary. It lives the life of a dream in the eyes of a viewer, revealing its beauty, every time you encounter it.

TRUMPETS! TRUMPETS! Trumpets in my ear ! My hand involuntarily killed the alarm. The cacophony of my alarm is in such a striking contrast. Looking around. Looking for a reason to be happy. No. I am happy. I just like the drama. I took support of the wall to get up and the wall just collapsed. I have to deal with the landlord now! Got up. Wore my shirt. Looked at the clock. Grabbed my towel. Right into the washroom.

The brush slowly moved down in sync with the hand. The tip of the thumb was unusually pink due to the pressure and the nail behind the skin. The mark, the brush left was fresh. Fresh and clear. No rough edges but a single patch exuberating confidence and determination. The hand left the wall. The pressure of the hand and the brush wasn’t visible on the patch. It was there, as if it was its rightful place.

The brush hurt my teeth. I remember buying an Ultra-Flexi toothbrush. But this was bloody hard as my landlord’s heart. I could almost see some blood in my mouth. I spit. Shook my head. Took a shower. Got dressed. Looked at the mirror. Packed lunch. Opened the door and headed out for work.

Handpainted type is a project that is dedicated to preserving the typographic practice of street painters around India. The project involves documenting the typefaces of roadside painters across India and digitizing it so that it serves as a resource for present and future generations.

It was probably in my third year of undergrad studies, that I had come across this project. To be honest, I was drawn towards this project. Finally, you could use those hand painted type in your work. Own them. Something that was always so out of reach for most of us, whose lives revolve around the screen. Once again, we could be authentic. Even I wanted to contribute to this project and every time I actually got down to it, something bothered me. Its been five years now and it still bothers me. But the reason I had my opposing view to the whole project was because, it was not so much about utilizing the aesthetics of hand painted type than imitating.

I missed my stop. Got down on an unknown street. Nothing looked familiar. Must have missed quite a few stops. Sun was right over my head, but I had to walk. Few steps ahead, I took a sharp turn. Almost instantly, as if I knew where I was going. The street was crowded. Mothers buying clothes. Fathers holding the kids outside the store. Siblings looking for trouble. Friends flocking along the streets. Lovers looking for the perfect gift. They all seem to celebrate an occasion. I experienced genuineness after a long time. Among the floating heads and their celebration, I got a reason to smile.

The brush stared at the wall for a long time. More like waited. Calculating its next move. Another dip in the paint bucket and it came out with a renewed freshness. This time, it went right at the top of the patch. The hand moved swiftly leaving its clear impression. Without leaving the wall, the hand made a swift turn. Swift, but calculated. Almost as if changing the gear yet maintaining the right speed and finally resting again on a straight path. First step was done and successful, could tell by the lowering of his shoulders. I almost left a sigh if relief.

Max Bruinsma in his article, ‘Design as not yet’ talks about the iconic Stam/Breuer chair and its cheap production now. He writes : ‘Once could argue that the cheap copies, even if they do depart from the original design in details, do better justice to the idealistic social intention of that design, truly available to a mass audience of customers.’

But the same can not be said about the digitization of handpainted type. The very idea behind the hand painted type needs to be explored. For the more romantic souls out there, what is it about them that makes our heart beat faster ?

I was smiling. And yes, it was genuine. Or at least a lot like genuine. I wanted to go up close. Only then I knew I would be satisfied. I could recognize it from a distance, but I wanted to experience it first hand. I went close, that striking red was instantly familiar and that letter was strikingly real. I wanted to touch it, make sure its not just an illusion, not just a mirage. My hands repulsed as soon as my fingers ran across the letters.

A hand painted type suggest that a store has a personality, that its produces aren’t mainstream or mass produced. The grocery store, Trader Joes has despite nearly ten billion dollars in annual revenue in the U.S. store, maintained its decidedly non-corporate vibe by putting up hand painted signs in its stores. If you use any other typeface, it lends its qualities to a product, but a hand painted type incorporated the products attributes.

By digitizing the hand painted type, we are defeating its very purpose. Even if the hand painted type has different layers and easy to customize, it can never hold the viewer’s attraction like its former counterpart. Plus, in the name of preserving the culture of hand painted type and celebrating the painters, digitizing their work is exactly opposite of what they stood for.

How do you preserve a culture? As a designer, who is eager to don the hat of a saviour, needs to be reminded that, pixels are not the ultimate solution. The obvious reason for why, we as designers, turn to pixels, when we think of preserving a culture is because its an easy way out. But it also arises from the fact that, as soon as we start talking about preserving a culture, we talk about it in the past tense. Without looking or examining the present conditions that are deteriorating a certain culture, we come up with the solutions for the utopian future. Why are we so obsessed with the future? The ideal future. In that process, the vision of the future is completely distorted. As designers, we need to think of creating favourable conditions for the culture to thrive, rather than building a morgue for it.

The brush turned towards me. I looked up and saw the guy looking at me. ‘Do you like this?’ he asked. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I felt like I was caught in an act. But the next thing he said, made me uneasy and sad, because all he was doing was preserving the culture.