8 June 2022 -

India’s rapid increase of internet and media consumption paired with local design communities’ frustration with limited local branding and advertising due to lack of variety in fonts for their own writing systems indicate a rising demand for new typeface designs in local scripts.

My research at the University of Reading’s MA Typeface Design course (MATD) focused on the history and character of the Tamil script to facilitate typeface designers, students, teachers and those working with the Tamil script in any other profession. Tamil is not just one of India’s 454 languages but also declared as its very first classical language and also used as an official language in Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. Tamil script use can be projected at 48.1 million people, yet texts about Tamil from a typeface design point of view are scarce making it a relatively under researched subject matter. Students on the MATD engage with archival materials as part of the curriculum with the importance of using primary sources for constructing narrative. Following the global pandemic of 2020, the start of a gradual ease in restrictions provided an opportunity for researchers to access relevant and rare materials available at institutions. Funding from the Design History Society has granted me the opportunity for visits and access to relevant archives and reading rooms.

The shapes of typographic characters evolved from preceding forms that were present before the introduction of printing technology. Thus understanding the shapes found in inscriptions and handwritten texts informed my understanding of character shapes and to further break them down into anatomical components. During visits to some archives in London I found and inspected a number of tactile examples in Tamil script. Below I summarize a highlight of found objects that were essential to my research.

The British Library provided me with the oldest objects I was able to access during the pandemic. I had the opportunity to see a real palm-leaf inscription, handwritten and printed books by Beschi, Tamil dictionaries, a reproduction of the Flos Sanctorum, French and German publications summarizing the world’s writing systems. Many of the retrieved items were fragile and/or with restricted photography, thus visiting in person was necessary to be able to see them.

St Bride Library showed me the widest range of typefaces and their uses. Objects included the Old Testament in Tamil printed in 1714, which is one of the earliest known examples showing Tamil type, and John Murdoch’s catalogue of Tamil printed books with inserted printed type examples. The library also holds a range of Tamil type specimens by Vepery Press, Serampore Baptist Mission Press, Edmund Fry, Watts, Figgins, and Central Printing Office, as well as
publications demonstrating uses of such types. Many examples showed use of Watts’ Tamil type.

I was fortunate to receive an invitation to the Type Archive. Although this came as a surprise, I was able to accept the invitation thanks to funding from Design History Society. The Type Archive stores an example of each Monotype machine model and still operates a few of them. Here I was shown a live demonstration of mechanised punch cutting as well as the punches for all four of Monotype’s Tamil types. Additionally, the archive holds a DeLittle collection as well, which includes a pantograph machine and sets of Tamil plates as well as the Tamil wood blocks made from these. These Tamil wood types along with Sinhala types were requested by a client in Sri Lanka, however the order was cancelled which put DeLittle in financial difficulty and consequently closed its doors.

Author details:
Sophia Tai
MA Typeface Design 2020-21 at University of Reading
@SophiaTypeLove on Instagram/Twitter


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