Meena Kadri: Indo-centric, Typo-centric: Hand-lettered Typography of the Streets of India

Signs on urban streets of India represent a diverse graphical expression. Meena explores the history, influences, and characterists of contemporary typography of streets of India. When encountering the Indian streetscape, one is struck by the diversity of competing signs. India lacks a shared language so the signs are to decoded by a diverse population. Different regional identities are apparent through graphic styles.

Indians love to design and embellish, from temples to taxis. In India’s early history, art and design were reserved to the upper class who commissioned paintings. By the late 19th century, imagery was more widely produced and accessible to serve commercial purposed. What has changed is the canvas, which is now the city itself. Nostalgia is still highly idealized, and idealism contrasts with the harsher realities of Indian life. The collective fondness for escapism should not be misread as kitsch. Religious expression, also reflecting idealism, is highly present in Indian life. Flamboyance of Indian typography is rampant with a desire for customization – people like to belong yet differentiate. Indians crave both novelty and tradition. Cinema impacts visual communication.

Kadri, Meena_Original

Meena Kadri

New Zealand-born Meena Kadri won a Kentucky Fried Chicken coloring competition when she was six years old and has been involved in design ever since – as a graphic designer, design educator and more recently in the realm of design for social innovation. She taught graphic design for 10 years in China, New Zealand, and at the National Institute of Design in India. She currently explores the intersection of culture, communication, and creativity from New Zealand via her consultancy, Random Specific, plus works as a Community Manager on OpenIDEO. She exhibited collaborative works produced with Indian street painters at the Glasgow School of Art in 2007 and continues to document Indian street typography on trips back to her motherland.

Typography is often still hand-lettered. Indian street signage painters are called “sign-wallahs.” They work from the street for the street, and are respected. They even create vehicular signage which serves as moving signage. The trade is often passed on within a family, children work when they are not in school and some aspire to be sign-wallahs. Like anywhere else, changing technology has been a challenge for the trade.

Meena shared, a project dedicated to preserving the typographic practice of sign-wallahs. With the advent of digital publishing, sign-wallahs are going out of business with people switching to vinyl which is cheaper, quicker but uglier. The project documents the typefaces of sign-wallahs and turns it into digital type to serve as a resource for future generations.


– By Diana Banh @dibanh