Falling in love with Malayalam: A Marathi type designer's journey

Malayalam script is generally considered difficult to master. However, a Marathi-type designer, Maithili Shingre, has successfully navigated the complexities of the language and begun creating type designs in Malayalam. She has designed award-winning fonts like ‘Anek’ and ‘Mangosteen’, both of which are Malayalam type designs.
From childhood, Maithili was passionate about painting and drawing. Encouraged by her parents and her drawing teacher to pursue a career in arts, Maithili studied Fine Arts at J J Institute Of Applied Art, where she was introduced to calligraphy. Maithili developed a keen interest in the subject and decided to pursue it further. After college, she began interning with ‘Ek Type’, a type design studio in Mumbai. There she learned the intricacies of type design and calligraphy. Maithili recently shared the story of her journey and love for type design in an interview with Onmanorama.

How did you start doing Malayalam type design?
It’s a funny story-I fell in love with a Malayali boy, who is now my husband, and I started designing Malayalam type to impress him. I got myself a book to learn Malayalam, but I still don’t know how to speak much of it. That’s how it all began. Using the book, I started learning the Malayalam script. For my college assignments, since I could choose any script, I opted for Malayalam and began experimenting with it. When I joined Ek Type, they asked if I knew any script apart from Devanagari, and I mentioned Malayalam. That’s essentially how I got into Malayalam type design.

The Malayalam script is considered challenging to master. As a Maharashtrian, how did you manage to learn it?
Malayalam as a language is still something I haven’t fully mastered, but I definitely took the time to learn the script. It was like starting from scratch, much like a child learning a new language. I practised reading and writing daily, making it a ritual. I would read a paragraph every day and practice writing the letters. I also started watching Malayalam movies. Gradually, I became more familiar with the script. At Ek Type, I began learning Malayalam from a type designer’s perspective. I observed different fonts, both new and old, and analyzed how Malayalam fonts have evolved over the years. It took some time, but it was a rewarding process.

What challenges do you face when working with Malayalam script compared to other scripts you might be familiar with?
In the initial stage, I had absolutely no confidence in learning Malayalam. Being a Maharashtrian, I was more familiar with the Devanagari script. The confidence and natural decision-making I had with Devanagari did not come as easily with Malayalam back then. When designing a type, it is basically for the public. One thing I did was to seek feedback from people whenever I designed something. If people didn’t like my font, they wouldn’t use it, so I was very particular about getting feedback from both the public and other designers. I also get feedback from my in-laws. Whenever I’m confused about a design or need to choose between two options, I show them, and they help me decide.

Tell us more about ‘Mangosteen’ and how that got conceptualized.
At Ek Type, we had small sessions during tea breaks where we would draw and experiment with random letters. I started experimenting with Malayalam letters and posted a few designs on my Instagram account. These letters received a really positive response from people. That inspired me to create a complete typeface, as I had only worked on two or three letters initially. This led to the creation of Mangosteen, which recently won a few awards as well. However, more than the awards, the appreciation from the Malayali community means the most to me. While awards bring worldwide recognition for me, the acknowledgement I receive from people is more worthy.

Are there any specific projects or commissions related to Malayalam script that you found particularly rewarding or memorable?
For me, Mangosteen was one of those projects. I find every project rewarding, to be honest. But Mangosteen was an experimental typeface, a design that hadn’t been seen before, at least not by me. It was a fantastic experience designing that typeface. There were no clients, no briefs-just my own idea, concept, and design. The feedback I received from people was immensely positive and gratifying. Another project that will always be close to my heart is ‘Anek Malayalam’. It’s a super-type family ranging from condensed to wide to thin letters. It’s available on Google Fonts and has also won numerous awards. Anek is a big family, and Malayalam is one of its members. The main reason Anek is special to me is because of the response I received afterwards. It was widely used in movies, magazines, and channels. That was the most fulfilling aspect for me. When Anek received such a warm response, I felt like I was welcomed by the Malayali community.

Future plans?
For now, my future plans revolve around designing type. I want to design as much as possible because I truly enjoy it. There’s nothing else I enjoy as much. I don’t have any particular goal in mind; I just want to keep designing.

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