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The Formulation of Parameters for Type Design of

Indian Scripts Based on Calligraphic Studies

S.K. Mohanty

Centre for Development of Advanced Computing

Pune University Campus, PUNE 411 007, INDIA

Abstract. A number of parameters were formulated for better analysing the ana-
tomy of Indic letterforms. This methodology contributes to the understanding of
the intricacies of type design of complex Indian scripts.

1 Introduction

There are a great many structural diversities and complexities in Indian scripts. It is the-
refore difficult for type designers to design a wide range of type styles particularly in In-
dian scripts. In this study, different kinds of calligraphic tools and their impressions on
paper were studied for their relevance to type design. Based on this calligraphic study,
a number of parameters were formulated for better analysing the anatomy of Indic let-
terforms. This methodology contributes to the understanding of the intricacies of type
design of complex Indian scripts.
There are fifteen officially recognized languages in India: Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit,
Punjabi, Gujarati, Oriya, Bengali, Assamese, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Ur-
du, Sindhi and Kashmiri.
Out of these Urdu, Sindhi and Kashmiri are primarily written in Perso-Arabic scr-
ipts, but also may be written in Devanagari too (Sindhi is also written in the Gujarati
script). Apart from Perso-Arabic scripts, all the other ten scripts used for Indian langu-
ages have evolved from the ancient Brahmi script and have a common phonetic stru-
cture. However their visual representations are very different from each other in respect
of their shape, structure, proportion, vowel signs and the way they combine with diffe-
rent consonants, to create spectacular and diversified visual patterns when composed in
text. The Northern scripts are Devanagari, Punjabi, Gujarati, Oriya, Bengali and Assa-
mese, while the Southern scripts are Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil.

Fig. 1. Brahmi based scripts used in India. Letter ”A” from Devanagari (used for Hindi and
Marathi), Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Punjabi, Oriya, Assamese and Telugu
It is obvious that a font which has a greater legibility, readability and aesthetic qu-
ality communicates quickly and effectively, whereas a font which is unpleasant may be
rejected by readers. The aesthetics of a font consist of several design elements, including
rows of text, words, individual letterforms, combination of different strokes within a let-
terform, individual strokes, shape of starting and finishing of a stroke, path of a stroke,
thickness and the texture of the strokes. Inter-line spacing, inter-word spacing and inter-
character spacing go along with well designed punctuation marks and numerals.
Good typeface design is a judicious blend of design skill, aesthetics, proper understan-
ding of the script and technology . The lack of awareness, expertise and proper metho-
dology among designers in India poses a challenge in producing good type designs in
Indian scripts. Compared to the Roman scripts, these have more structural and compo-
sitional complexities and are highly dominated by calligraphic quality. Calligraphy is
an art and not just beautiful handwriting. Anybody who dares to create appealing type
styles has to understand the various calligraphic tools and their impressions on paper.
There is a dearth of good literature on font design with respect to Indian scripts.
Designers often tend to add unnecessary flesh to the thin areas of a stroke and also
neglect the subtle nuances of the letterform for a safer reproduction. In the process they
deviate from the core shape of the alphabet. For designing fonts in most of the Indian
scripts, a firm knowledge of calligraphy and understanding of the scripts are very much
required. They help in drawing the characters on the computer screen in a disciplined
way, and in maintaining the consistency of the designed elements throughout, without
depending upon a scanned image or finished letters drawn by some one else. Hence the
type designer can focus on overall aesthetic and intricacies of different letterforms in
terms of their shape, structure and proportion in the design stage itself. The basic shape
of most of the Indian scripts are based on the authentic impression of the writing tools.

1.1 The Calligraphic Tools - a Study

In order to conduct a systematic study of strokes responsible for creating styles in letter-
forms, a set of tools like square cut nib, flattened nibs angled towards left and right, nibs
with round, square and oval tips, split point nib and round brush were specially made.
Using these tools, authentic strokes were drawn and analyzed. For example a nib with a
flattened tip cut at an angle of 45 degrees towards the right is normally used for Deva-
nagari calligraphy. It gives equal thickness stroke structure in straight strokes and thick
and thin effect on curved strokes, whereas Oriya script traditionally uses a rounded tip
or a pointed tipped tool for an even thickness stroke structure. This study of tools hel-
ped in understanding of various stroke structures, anatomy of letterforms and joinery
Computer technology has enhanced the art of type design and typography, which
used to be a hand based skill. Oriya and Devanagari scripts have been selected for this
study, since Oriya was found to be most complex, curvilinear and diversified in its stru-
ctural composition, while Devanagari is rectilinear in nature with a strong straight line
on the top along with a peculiar nature of matra alignment. In Oriya, the multiple co-
unters within a character often make the rendition difficult. All the Indian scripts share
a common degree of complexities: Devanagari, Punjabi, Bengali and Assamese have
very strong horizontal and vertical lines blended with curves whereas Oriya, Telugu and
Fig. 2. Complex structures of some of the Indian scripts. Illustrations demonstrate the possibilities
of vowel combinations with a consonant. Consonant ”Ka” is taken from Devangari, Oriya and
Bangali respectively.

Kannada have curvilinear and multi-tier structure with a contrast of matra combinations.
Matras, the top and bottom elements, are vowel diacritics that combine with consonants.
Based on how the typefaces are manipulated, mainly three different approaches of
tools are available for font design on computers.
Bit map approach: Fonts are described by binary bits.
Outline approach: Letterforms are defined and manipulated as outlines com-
posed of various curves, vertical lines, horizontal lines
and so on.
Algorithmic approach: Also called the skeletal approach. A tool or pen is identi-
fied and its path is traced, to draw the character. Even fa-
milies of type faces with varying designs can be generated
by changing the parameters in the program.

2 Parameters for Type Design

2.1 Character Parameter
Letters in any script have to be analyzed in order to identify the groups with respect to
the typical common characteristics of the letters. This parameter helps to identify the
letters with respect to their common groups. For example in Oriya script (see Fig. 3),
the letters can be grouped according to their shapes as:

1. Letters which end with a vertical bar.

2. Letters which end with a circular stroke on the top.
3. Letters with a tail at the end.

In Devanagari (Fig. 4) the letters can be grouped into three groups:

1. Letters having a vertical bar at the extreme right .

2. Letters having a vertical bar at the centre.
3. Letters that are hanging with a small stem from the top line.

According to the character parameter, one can easily identify the letters in respect to
their groups in any script, which helps to a great extent in designing ”matras” (different
Fig. 3. Oriya script: letters ending (1) with a vertical bar, (2) with a circular stroke and (3) with a

Fig. 4. Devanagari script: letters having (1) a vertical bar at their right, (2) a vertical bar at their
centre and (3) hanging from the top line.

vowel signs) for proper alignment with various consonants and conjuncts. Interestingly
there are mainly three groups, each are represented in Oriya as well as in Devanagari
script, but may differ in other scripts.

2.2 Structural Parameter

Letters in any script have to be analyzed and a number of groups (Fig. 5) have to be
formulated based on the common basic shapes which form the characters. This helps
the designer to maintain consistency in design throughout the characters in the font.
Most of the Indian scripts are complex because of the combinations of a number of
curves and straight lines either vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. Hence, the number of
basic shapes is large. The situation further becomes complex when the matra combina-
tion takes place. Here the conjuncts are not included in the example. Although in many
of the Indian scripts, different conjuncts form new shapes of their own, the basic element
remains from the root consonants.
Fig. 5. Creating groups according to the character’s structure (Oriya script).

Fig. 6. Grouping the characters according to their structure (Devanagari script).

2.3 Width Parameter

In any script all the letters are to be analyzed according to their actual width and the gro-
ups of letters having equal width are to be identified. This parameter especially guides
the designer in defining the proper width of the character, thus ensuring desired inter-
letter spacing, and to define the number of matras and their variants in shapes for a har-
monious text composition.

Fig. 7. Grouping the characters according to their width parameter (Oriya script).
Fig. 8. Different width parameter values (Devanagari script).

The basic Oriya letters fall into three groups (Fig. 7). The first group contains letters
that fall into a square. The second group contains slightly wider letters. The third group
contains letters wider than the first two groups. In Devanagari group one is the narrowest
character. The group width values are specified in the units of x, such as 29x, 34x and
so on, whereas the x-height is 40x.

2.4 Joinery Parameter

In any script the nature of the joinery of two or more strokes in a character has to be
defined and accordingly the characters can be grouped together. Three different types of
joineries are normally observed in a letter form, i.e., Tangent joinery, Corner joinery and
Perpendicular joinery. This helps in selecting different types of notches for improving
clarity and reproduction quality.

Fig. 9. Joinery parameters

In Devanagari, all these types of joinery are seen, whereas in Oriya, only two diffe-
rent types of joinery are observed, i.e. tangent and corner. Perpendicular joinery in Oriya
is seldom observed because most of the letters are round.

2.5 Proportion Parameter

This parameter determines the vertical proportions and measurements of a script. This
analysis is very important for defining a well structured shape of appropriate size and
form in a multi-tier letter structure. These proportions not only guide the design of the
individual characters, but also help in designing the bottom and top matras with respect
to the proportions of the base characters.

Fig. 10. Ascender, x-height and descender line placement.

In case of Oriya characters, a horizontal line centered in the ’x’ height helps to iden-
tify the lower portion and upper portion of a character. The position of the line can vary
according to the design requirements, but for a text face, dividing the x-height into two
equal parts represents an ideal proportion. A measurement equal to the x-height can be
divided in the proportion of 6:9 which provides adequate space for descenders and helps
to increase the clarity of text at similar point sizes when matra combinations occur with
conjuncts. Thus, nine units are provided below the base line for descenders or bottom
matras and 6 units are provided above the top line of the x-height for ascenders, or top
matras. This guides the type designer to further manipulate the proportions intelligently
to suit the font for which it is aimed.
In Devanagari the space for top matra (the distance between the top line and ascender
line), x-height and bottom matra (the distance between the base line and the descender
line) are in the proportions 8:16:8.

2.6 Grid Parameter

A proper grid has to be identified before the final design is carried out. The grid has to
be designed very carefully keeping in mind the legibility of a font in a small point size.
Proper care must be taken to define ascender and descender spaces for upper and lower
matra combinations along with the conjunct characters.
Example: Oriya and Devanagari scripts
The Grid design has to be clearly done considering the x-height, conjuncts height
and descender space for bottom matra combinations and different weightage in the font
family in Indian scripts. (x-height in the Indian scripts refers to the height of a standard
consonant, since there is no distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters. Inte-
restingly conjuncts height increases downwards below the baseline.) The vertical sta-
oking of conjuncts in Indian scripts necessitates a greater descender space. This makes
the grid design more challenging when the matra combinations involve also bottom co-
Fig. 11. Horizontal guidelines.

2.7 Tonality Parameter

In type design, tonality is of two types.

1. Different weights of a typeface, where variations of weight are designed so that ty-
pographers can achieve a pleasant gray tone on a page. This gray tone is called ”co-
lour” in typography.
2. The other kind of tonality occurs within a font, where each character has tonal va-
riation in its strokes. For example, a ”dry brush” stroke may be solid at the starting
point and become transparent or grained at the end. Unfortunately no proper tools
are available so far in the computer medium to design fonts that give a natural dry
brush effect as required by the calligrapher’s intuition.

Fig. 12. Varying the tonality parameter (Oriya script).

2.8 Parameter for Spacing

Text composition is an integral part of type design, and letter spacing plays an important
role because the eye requires some white space around a character for ease of recogni-
tion. Spacing is likewise important for words and lines. Thus, inter-letter spacing and
word spacing are related and have to be defined very carefully, with attention to the type
size of a text, because a 72 point size letter in a font is not just a linear or photographic
enlargement of an 8 point size.

Fig. 13. Types of letter spacing occurring in Oriya differ delicately in their optical volumes. In
Devanagari script, most of the times vertical bar becomes a guideline in defining space values.

Extra space is needed on both sides of the actual letter, so that the space between two
letters when it is composed, paves the path to identify an individual letter as a distinctive
form. The spacing between the words which appear in text is called word spacing which
normally varies from half character width to one character width depending upon the
design of typeface and the alignment parameter. Interline spacing: it is very important
to determine adequate interline spacing for a font according to the point size, weight of
the font, and the complexity of the script (particularly with regard to vertical stacking
of matras and conjuncts), in order to make the page well balanced with a pleasant gray
tone in the mass of text.

3 Conclusion

As was stated at the very outset, the main aim of the paper is to illustrate and delineate
the intricacies of designing fonts for Indian Language Scripts, using Oriya as well as
Devanagari Script as a test case. The main hypothesis of the paper is that although Font
design (as traditionally viewed and this is uncontestably true) is much an art, it is also a
science in that a certain number of scientific objective parameters go in the design of a
font. These parameters though universally applicable have to be modified and adjusted
from script to script in order to suit the demand of different cultures and their perception
of a script as both functional as well as pleasing to the eye of the native viewer.
The application of these parameters to other scripts would enable faster and easier
font design which is both aesthetic as well as functional, enabling the font designer to un-
derstand the intricacies of complex scripts such as found in South Asian languages. It is
hoped that this paper would be a stimulus as well as a starting point for better perception
and comprehension of font design both as an art and scientific tool. This methodology
will enable the calligraphers, type designers, design students and computer scientists to
interact closely in order to explore deeper and contribute to this fast emerging area.

4 Glossary
Consonant: A letter representing a speech sound in which the breath is at least
partly obstructed, and which has to be combined with a vowel to
form a syllable.
Conjuncts: A letter which is a combination of two or more basic letters. The
shape of the conjunct may or may not give the clue of the consti-
tuting letters.
Vowel: A letter representing a speech sound made with the vibration
of the vocal cords , but without audible obstruction. English
examples: a., e, i, o, u.
Script: A distinctive and complete set of characters used for the written
form of one or more languages.
Font: A set of symbols used for display or printing of a script in a par-
ticular style.
Matra: Vowel signs that combines with a basic consonant or conjunct.

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DAC, Issue No. 5, March 1994.
3. Jiarang Li, ”Generation of some Chinese characters with METAFONT, - Tex for Scientific Do-
cumentation”, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc, 1985.
4. Richard Southall, ”Designing a new typeface with METAFONT, Visible Language”, xv. 14,
5. Edward Mendelson, ”Scalable Fonts for PC”, September 24, 1991, PC Magazine.
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7. Bapurao S Naik, ”Typography of Devanagari”, Mumbai, 1982.
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