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visual communication


I continue to get amped when the works of my former design students collide with my favoured intersection of communication, culture and creativity. While speaking at TYPO SF last month in California, I was alerted to an appetising development which I had missed from earlier this year, by fellow speaker, Peter Bil’ak. Fedra Hindi, the typeface he collaborated on with my former student Satya Rajpurohit, was used on a campaign ingeniously printed on rotis (Indian flatbread served at most meals) which were dished out at the Kumbh Mela, – attended by 80 million Hindu pilgrims across 55 days. No, that is not a typo. India’s Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest congregation.

Unilever approached Ogilvy in Mumbai to advertise its Lifebuoy soap at the Kumbh Mela. Young creative, Vipul Slvi, came up with an idea to promote the soap – and hygiene at large – at an opportune moment during this year’s epic gathering. Teaming up with 100 kitchens across the festival, rotis were branded with the message Lifebuoy se haath dhoye kya? “Have you washed your hands with Lifebouy today?” – providing a savvy and sustainable advertising avenue while creating a friendly nudge around effective hygiene behaviours in general.

Here’s the somewhat schmaltzy coverage clip from Ogilvy – though I’d say you had to be amongst the crowd to dig the real flavour of this innovative campaign.

Images via The Economic Times
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Digitising Indian Ink
Typocentric: Bazaar
Hindi-Hybrid Font-Fusion


Inviting New Yorkers to view their city from a more playful perspective, Aakash Nihalani has been creating street art which encourages dimensional disruptions since 2007. Through his impermanent interventions he seeks to “highlight the unexpected contours and elegant geometry of the city itself.” He’s currently developing a new series of works, in less urban environments, as the Lisa de Kooning Artist in Residence.

Aakash’s signature fluorescent isometric idiosyncrasies emerged when he was taping up his thesis show at NYU. He noticed the shadow of a pedestal which he decided to outline with tape. This observation led to further adhesive explorations, including fusing tape and cardboard, which Aakash eventually took to the street.

Check this fab clip on Aakash’s Stop sign piece in progress: Stop, Pop & Roll

“I kinda like the inevitable destruction. Making sure things last is a cumbersome task.”
– Aakash Nihalani, on It’s Nice That

Aakash’s works in New Delhi from late 2011

Images for Aakash’s Lacoste LIVE camapaign, shot by Mark Hunter

The Lacoste LIVE 2012 Spring/Summer campaign features Aakash, on the streets of New York, in their Unconventional Talents series
More recently Aakash has been producing works as the Lisa de Kooning Artist in Residence. From here he continues to explore and accentuate frozen moments while playing with our perspective preconceptions:

Note-worthy: Aakash’s lively take on Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog was actually shot from above, against a New York pavement:

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Random Specific Musings from the Ramayana
Indo-French Street Skills

All images, with permission, from Aakash Nihalani


A few weeks back I watched a small trader at Dharavi, carefully set up his stall to feature a limited range of goods – perfectly portioned for the daily needs of a household. This practice is common at street stalls in India where nudging micro-sales, in the context of resource constraint, yields better returns than vying for bulk purchase.

Sometimes just enough is the most enticing proposition.
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Quick-pic Tuesdays: Single Serve
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Decorated domestic items speak volumes to exhibition audiences from within the low-income neighbourhoods at Dharavi as well those who have arrived from across Mumbai.

Last week in Mumbai, I visited an inspiring exhibition at my former ethnographic research stomping ground of Dharavi. It was a treat to be taken there by the artist who created the conceptual framework for the show, Nandita Kumar – and to meet many of the slum-based artists she had collaborated with. The installation grew out of a community-based initiative by SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) which cited an opportunity to connect resource constrained urban residents with health experts and artists – to share skills plus knowledge, discuss issues and create ways of spreading messages further in a locally engaging and meaningful way.

Children readily engaged with a hand-operated television set featuring ‘good news’

The installation space, set up within a school at the heart of Dharavi, housed artworks which spoke to local domestic settings – hence the exhibition’s name Ghare Pe – At Home. During my afternoon visit a number of neighbouring school groups excitedly swarmed through and were shown round by the participating artists – who confidently explained their artworks while encouraging onwards conversation on health issues. Young students were intrigued by the many household items which were both familiar yet creatively provocative. The interactive and tactile nature of the show reeled them in as Nandita had intended.

Both youthful and elderly visitors were taking in the show – here checking out a cupboard filled with stuffed emoticon balls. These intended to illustrate how women have diverse emotions but are unable to express all of them openly within acceptable social norms.

Stainless steel canisters are gifted to women at marriage. Here the artist, Sneha, reveals: “I store rice, dal, wheat, jaggery, peppercorns, tamarind and dried chillies – an array of ingredients. To me they are like the flavours of my marriage”

Embroidered figures were inspired by topics from diet to vision

Locals were confronted by images from their own neighbourhoods – here of a woman facing mental health issues who lives on the street outside a roller door.

An embroidered item from a workshop session exploring personal health histories. “Three caesareans. One appendicitis. One miscarriage. And like an ending to a poem, one last family planning scar” Image source.
The initiative behind the exhibition, Dekha Undekha (Seen, Unseen) brought together mentors in photography, textiles and ceramics with local residents of Dharavi and beyond through a series of workshops run over the past year. Participants were asked to draw household items and body parts that they were happiest with alongside other exercises which helped them grasp artistic abstraction and skills, connect as a group, discuss health issues plus focus on themes. Conversations went back and forth between composition, concepts and technique plus personal hygiene, mental health, maternal care, sanitation, waste disposal, domestic violence and superstitions.

Exploring everyday addictions

Dishracks displaying household utensils are exhibited with pride across homes at Dharavi. Blended with photography they speak here about local health issues – especially surrounding sanitation.

Embroidered work depicting bacteria. “If you think about it, looking at microbes through a microscope makes them appear like they all set for a wedding – stained in many colours of royal purple, hot pink and pistachio green. They look so dressed up!” – commencing a conversation about what can be done to prevent the spread of diseases.
Image by Neville Sukhia


Sneha’s stovetop exhibit portraying domestic harmony and violence.

Spirited local artist Sneha has been a victim of domestic abuse. One of her artworks encompasses a decorated stove top. “Some days are marriage, some days are war.” One side of the stove shows happy days full of colour while the other side is filled with fear and a darker side of home life. She told me assuredly that “learning about intention, sequence, themes and action helped guide the emotions we felt to connect with the health issues we discussed in a way that would appeal to people out here.”

Asmabee with a selection of photographs by various local artists, including her own.

Dharavi-based artist, Asmabee, hadn’t touched a camera till about a year ago. Last month she earned a photography prize at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in well-heeled South Bombay. She acknowledges that participation in Dekha Undekha has given her confidence and won her local respect. Having worked at Dharavi a few years back, I was in awe at the ease of the local artists I met in articulating both their personal feelings and aspirations for their communities. They had also zealously encouraged visitors from their diverse neighbourhoods to come see the show and to continue discussions beyond its walls. Ghar Pe has been an expertly conceived exhibition and goes a long way in triggering significant conversations and solution-seeking – applaudably with, not for those in low-income communities. It would seem that At Home is a great place to start.

Related posts:
Random Specific Images of Dharavi on Flickr
Women Together: Incentivising Savings


Aspirational Supplement
Leveraging beauty aspirations to influence vitamin uptake – Indian calcium packaging.
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Check out more Random Specific images on Flickr


Transcendental Trade

Weights are anointed with holy powder at Grant Rd Market daily. Just one of the many intersections of creed and commerce to be observed across India.

Check out more Random Specific images on Flickr

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Raja Remixed

July 4, 2011

Earlier this year I stumbled on this skilled spot of street art, tucked away on a stair well in Haus Khaz Village complex in Delhi. On reflection I mused – not only was it undeniably hip – but also drew relevantly on the prolific costumed capers and adaptive character of it’s inspiration: the iconic Air India maharajah.

I was transported back to airline’s posters which I’d been in awe of as a child travelling to India. Was there any location where the maharajah didn’t feel at ease? Wasn’t he a great host, buddy, traveller – with elegant charm and worldly wit? A bit of digging round proved him to be the brainchild of in-house commercial director Bobby Kooka and illustrator Umesh Rao of JWT in 1946, way back when Air India was Tata Airlines. Initially their character was merely destined for an inflight memo pad, though he clearly had his sights on riding more than paper planes. Impressively the maharajah did not remain grounded as a static image as many brand front-figures of the day – but jetted zealously round the globe in dynamic and debonair style.

The maharajah still continues to make appearances – though he doesn’t seem to get up to quite his old high-flying hijinks, he’s not looking bad for 65! Great to see that at the hands of Delhi street artists, he still manages to show folks that he can spin it grand style.
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Divergent Symbol Norms

May 14, 2011

Foreign visitors to India are often startled by the prevalence of this symbol – featuring on temples to trucks, doorways to stairways, fabrics to food decoration and even electoral ballot papers. Many locals could enlighten them that the symbol is called svastika (स्वास्तिक). Some might add that it comes from the the Sanskrit word svasti – sv = well; asti = is – encompassing good fortune, luck and well-being. Others, noting a tourist’s repulsion, may offer that the symbol differs in rotation from the offending swastika by 45 degrees and mention that it’s local history predates Nazi Germany by over 5000 years.

It has been said that the svastika’s angled arms indicate that the path of our aspirations is seldom straight and takes unexpected turns. They also convey the indirect road to faith – in which intuition superceds intellect. Four dots are often included which symbolise North, South, East and West – or in Hindi: Uttar, Dakshin, Purab and Pachim. Reverence of the symbol is given by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists across the nation.

Travellers who pay attention to the widespread veneration for the svastika are likely to reassess their symbolic norms – and appreciate they’ve encountered a case of cross-cultural same-same-but-oh-so-very-different.

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Disrupting Typographic Transit Norms


Less is More, set in unadorned typeface Helvetica (more for Helvetica fetishists)

We’re so used to global transport networks featuring unimbellished typography in their signage and way-finding systems. Fair enough given that commuters require information to be legible, especially at high-speed interchanges or at unfamiliar junctions where there maybe all manner of other distractions. Fonts in the context of transit tend to be of the less-is-more, non-decorative, minimalist variety.

Frutiger pops up on Swiss road signs, at London’s Heathrow airport, on the Dutch national railways, and more. Univers strikes signage on the Montreal Metro, San Francisco’s BART and the Frankfurt Airport. Helvetica graces the NYC Subway system, my former regular transits on Hong Kong’s MTR, the Madrid Metro and beyond. (Its unobstrusivenss promoted typographic creator and critic, Jonathan Hoefler, to quip on it’s elusiveness to being evaluated: “Its like being asked what you think about off-white paint?”) If you’re a transit-type nut – you can check out more wiki-liciousness yourself, while everyone else reads on.

“Dilli-Metro” hacked in typeface Shree 715 (thanks to local type-geek Ghate)

On my recent trip to Delhi I encountered more of the uniform minimalism associated with mass public transit signage. Though tracking down the typefaces used proved to be a much tougher journey. I started by consulting with my cluster of global type-recognition experts, who all drew frustrated and occasional blushing blanks. My obsessive typo-curiousity evetually led me to Mudra Max’s wayfinding consultant, Sanjeev Hajela, who had led the team which devised signage for the Delhi Metro. The Hindi is Shree 715. The English is Brunel (Positive). Again, if you’re type-obsessed, you can venture on to Brunel’s relative obscurity yet public prominence and leave everyone else to stay with my train of thought.

Finally getting to the point – what really sung out at me during my own stop-hopping Delhi Metro experience, in India’s crowded yet colorful capital, was this exuberent diversion from standardised norms. Guys – don’t you just feel like you’re missing out on the party?

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Typocentric: Bazaar

March 12, 2011

Last month I had a blast hosting the Typocentric: Bazaar workshop at Delhi’s UnBox Festival. We had global players join local folk to construct typographic forms from objects commonly found in Indian markets – buttons, bindis, decorative mirrors, candles, textile embellishments, match-boxes and more. I had initially proposed the workshop to run over three days which somehow got condensed to three hours – but much fun emerged on this insane time frame. Having graphic designers joined by those with backgrounds in anthropology, education and finance led to a random-specific blend of capacities which kept everyone typo-ventilating throughout.

I got a particular kick out of working alongside my gifted former student and pixel-pro, Abishek Ghate, who experimented with constructing typographic forms out of various elements to devise the intense workshop format.

We started out by having small groups create Hindi words in Devanagari script out of bindis. For those of you who are in the dark, bindis are the red or coloured forehead markings worn by many South Asian women – often but not always signifying marriage.

Bram Pitoyo, Digital Strategist at Weiden + Kennedy, collaborated with others to form Usha (उषा) meaning the first ray of light from the rising sun.

Another group took a different path to create the same word. And that’s the arm of Kriti Monga from Tumeric Design – a typographic doyenne – who wears it on her sleeve. Some of you may recall her superb visual journal from Design Yatra which featured in Creative Review.

Workings + resolutions for Sakhi (सखी) – an endearing term for a girl, a friend, a confidante.

Babe (बेब) – phonetically from English and peppered through Hindi conversations when hotties are on the radar.

We then switched to a smorgasbord of elements from local bazaars. The pressure mounted and creativity escalated as teams raced against the clock to follow typographic guidelines while exploring the limits and opportunities that their designated objects presented.

Decorative mirrors, often used for textile ornamentation, were used to artfully form the word Chhavi (छवि) which means reflection or image.

A team working with matchboxes experimented with multiple approaches to celebrate the name of our hosts: The UnBox Festival.

Impressive collaboration from those who worked with coloured buttons to create the name of our host city: Dilli/Delhi (दिल्ली)

Decorative flourishes from a group working with gotas – pleated fabric embellishments used to adorn sarees and other traditional clothing.

And pyromania ensued to give justice to the word Lau (लौ) or flame, built with candles.

Ghate and I were joined in energising participants by Codesign founder and UnBox spearhead, Rajesh Dahiya – who was a former colleague of mine at India’s National Institute of Design, where he continues to teach typography as adjunct faculty. My Design Observer co-contributor and by now close conference-buddy, John Thackara, had to put up with our fervored racket from his more earnest workshop which took place a just few paces away – luckily I made up for it the next day by swinging us a table at the ever popular dining spot Gunpowder. With it’s scenic view, this was a great vantage point to reflect on the UnBox Festival – where I had also presented as Community Manager on OpenIDEO. It had indeed lived up to it’s promise to encompass work and play across contexts and mediums plus “rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation for those interested in social and cultural change.” While many of the conference sessions were focused on more worthy pursuits, we’d like to think that Typocentric: Bazaar ignited a hankering for the handmade, a love of the local, a craving for collaboration – all within the alluring hype of type.
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Typocentric Bazaar on Flickr
Overlap: Intersection of Desi & Diasporic
Viva Vernacular