October 21, 2021
October 21, 2021
In a civilisation as old as ours - we have so many cultural influences - from food, to fashion, to craft. In a medium like graphic design which is relatively new, how can we use these influences to make it authentic to us?
Now what exactly is authentic to us? There is a saying in Hindi - “Caravaan aate gaye, hindustan banta gaya”. As caravans and ships came and went, they left us their language, their dress, their food, their architecture, art and technology.**
**Language - English. Dress - some say that the saree with the one pallu over the shoulder is influenced by the greek toga as Alexander paid us a visit. Food - gobi manchurian, thanks to the Chinese settlers in Tangra, Kolkata. Architecture and art - Mughal pietra dura, marble edifices, geometric structures. Art - persian miniature paintings.
Graphic design can be broken down into these 5 components. 1. Typography, 2. Colour, 3. Imagery 4. Illustration 5. Medium (paper/web/mobile)
Each of these present an opportunity to express a certain character for the overall piece personality we are trying to build. Assuming that being Indian is part of the brief - how does one achieve that?
In order to infuse indian-ness into graphic design, one must first try and find the essence of what about it is Indian? Is it its ornamentation? How does one bring in ornamentation into design, without resorting to adding paisleys?
Going into the detail of how this can be infused in the 5 components of design as mentioned above.
Much like how a fashion designer might start with a piece of fabric, which already has a lot of character - its fluidity, it’s weave, its thickness, a graphic designer starts with the choice of a font. While letters when they come together tell you something explicitly in the words they form, the way the letters are shaped tell you many things implicitly. Observe the shapes of the letters - their edges and their curves. What exactly from the Indian essence are you trying to showcase through type? Is it that it's delicate? Or is it ornamentation? This essence can now be found in various typefaces. Dig further deeper and see how the lines modulate from thin to thick, and have a certain unusual angle, that portrays a boldness, an avant garde edge to the earlier mentioned delicacy and ornamentation. Fonts can be so many thing n s, if one allows themselves to feel - they can be fluid, lyrical, or edgy and bold. Alternately, one may choose to use a font which has the least amount of character - in order for all the other 4 elements (colour, imagery etc) to allow for expression.
An overt way of saying - this is indian, is to use the devanagari font - but please don't do that - it's cliche.
Indian colours are not just what you see on trucks. A garish combination of hot pink, bright orange, blue, green, all combined together in a kaleidoscopic clip art mess. My client Tarun Tahiliani is an indophile and all his designs, his shoots are all inspired by Indian art, architecture, and people. In building his identity, we chose beige as the primary colour, as for him that is very Indian. It's the colour of Indian mitti. Botanicals like indigo, madder, turmeric, have been used in dyes for thousands of years in paintings, and textiles. If one looks at miniature paintings, the beautiful ombres of pinks and blues from pastel to nude, much before the english brought them in to suit their pale complexions. So an old faded rose madder is not really an English colour, it is very much Indian. Let's move away from the obvious kitsch choices to depict Indian, and show what is historic, authentic and has depth. All of us don’t love trucks, bollywood and drama, just because we are Indian. I for one, can’t stand bollywood or oversaturated colours, and that doesnt make me any less Indian.
Image: a miniature painting from India. Image source - unknown.
Here we have the maximum opportunity to be explicit about ourselves, should we like to be. The use of Indian models, with brown skin tones, textiles, objects of decor found in our kitchens, and in our cupboards to style the scenes, small things that really make something authentic, “however global” the scene might be. We don’t have to use stock photos with white models. It's what you choose to believe, and how you choose to make things cool for your audience.
In the image - a still from the website we built for luxmi tea - luxmigroup.in
Indian art is more stylized than western art. They are not photographic representations like the paintings of the renaissance. This is not better or worse, it's just a different style. There are a variety of art styles, from miniatures, to patachitra, to kalighat style to the bengal style. The illustrative style used in your communication could pick up nuances from these. Or, one could also mix it up and use indian characters/objects in a renaissance style painting, much like Raja Ravi Varma did.
In the image: A still from luxmigroup.in site - illustration, content and design, done by us.
Ornamentation is integral to India. Every girl would be familiar with this - when they are stepping out of the house, their mum will say - at least wear a small pair of earrings. Even our food is ornamented - with a bit of tadka, and a bit of achaar. We are a layered society, we are not minimal. Our bidri pots, our polki jewellery. This is something we identify with, and find comforting and familiar. While scandinavian minimalism might be cool for some, it's not the only way to be modern. Minimalism does not equal modernity.
“Modernism is not in the dress of the Europeans, or in the hideous structures where their children are interned when they take their lessons…. These are not modern, but merely European. True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters.” Rabindranath Tagore.
In the image: Tea packaging for Makaibari tea.
Handmade: In a country with an ancient history of the handcrafted - from textile to pottery, we have a thing for texture and layers. Try and add this into your work, whether it be with adding in foils, embossing, uvs, etc, textural papers, images with texture. In an otherwise cold medium made by machines, it is now possible to bring in the handcrafted feeling using a wacom tablet or an ipad pro with pressure sensitive pens that have the gorgeous inconsistencies of the hand. One can build lines that are not perfectly straight, much like the hand would do.
So whether the medium is paper or digital, one can bring in ornamentation and the feeling of being handcrafted, if that is to represent something made in India.
In the image below: a screenshot from a shopping site build for a carpet company Obeetee (from obeetee.com)
On an individual level, each of us is an assimilation of our ancestral and personal choices.
Having been brought up in Kolkata, my influences are a mix of Bengali, European and Rajasthani. I went to a school founded by a Frenchman, reading Shakespeare & Dickens as part of my course. I grew up learning the piano where the instructions were in Italian. My childhood lessons in art involved studying renaissance paintings from a book by Rosenthal. My Bengali surroundings makes me love anything with mustard oil. I have a weakness for fine Jamdani cotton, a respect for literature, for writers, and a left leaning bent of mind. My marwari ancestry instilled in me a love for churan, papad and idiosyncratic bengal-marwari foods like gratin (a kind of bake) with cheese toast. As I grew up and began to make my own choices, I learnt the salsa, which led me to learn Spanish in Spain, and be influenced by their raw passion and irreverence. I learnt contemporary dance, that made me appreciate childlike playfulness, and the acceptance of a certain weirdness, a raw form of expression. I learnt ceramics that make me love the geometry of pots, glazes and playing with mud.
Every single one of these things mentioned above contribute to my current practice in design, and the choices I make. I wasn't taught design in college, and while sometimes I resent that, most times I rejoice in it, because I had the opportunity to question everything while I learnt, instead of accepting certain axioms of truth.
In the image - a still from my website - pallavinopany.com . Collages done by Nidhi Hiregange.
One may question - when you design something, it is not the same as art, there is a 2nd person involved, the client - so, how do your personal influences matter? When you start out as a designer and you do personal projects and build your portfolio, there are certain people who are attracted to your work, and it's most likely that they are attracted to your choices, the ability to articulate your influences.
Culture is India’s soft power. We are known historically for our textiles, our food, our music, our film, our passion. So it is in our power as designers to not conform to scandinavian and bauhaus methods of design build when technology wasn't as versatile as it is now. It is in our interest to dig a bit deeper and build out indian communication design, in websites, in books, so that the world can taste our delicious layers of history and culture.
Beyond the collective, bringing in your own personal experiences to design makes it richer, as sometimes we underestimate the multiplicity of cultures we have witnessed, each of us growing up, in this diversity, layered with 30,000 years of influences.