60 minutes with Shiva Nallaperumal: ‘There is design in everything’

The award-winning type and graphic designer speaks about being inspired by Tintin and building a distinctly Indian design movement

November 02, 2019 05:31 pm | Updated November 04, 2019 10:49 am IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Shiva Nallaperumal’s room is an intriguing maze of books. In the turquoise-themed pad into which the graphic designer, illustrator and type designer welcomes me, cupboards and cupboards of books overshadow a Mac lurking in the corner. This is his bedroom, which often doubles up as his workspace. The 26-year-old is excited to give me a guided tour, showing me a plethora of titles he is excited about — from Tony Normand’s Film Posters of the 80s to a book titled The History of Horror Movies .

Getting started

As a child, Nallaperumal’s father made a deal with him: he would buy him books, however expensive, but not video games. To get back at him, the boy would deliberately ask for the most expensive books available — and to his dismay, he always got them. Among them were scores of Tintin comics. When I ask him about the first ever work that drew him in, he says, “Why don’t I show you,” and hands me a Tintin album of the 1960s — it is as good as new. “My family is very big on Tintin, so when I was born, we already had two sets of collections. And I would copy out these comics as a three-year-old. Tintin sort of became an obsession thereafter.” When he got to school, he was instantly branded the ‘art guy’.

Approaching a wooden cupboard entirely dedicated to rare books, Nallapermual pulls out what seems to be a dusty newsletter from one of the drawers and carefully removes it from its plastic file. The header says, ‘My Experiments With Truth by M.K. Gandhi’, and below it in smaller font is written, ‘Chapter 1’. “This is the original edition of the book when it was serialised and published on a weekly basis,” he says. “Guess how much I got it for? 200 bucks!” Before I can respond, he whips out another book. “It’s written in a script called Grantham that’s no longer used. It’s basically Tamil with a lot of changes to transliterate Sanskrit.” The interest with which he explains each of the elements is akin to that of an utterly fascinated child. Clearly, it is this keen eye for not just the content, but also the type, paper layout and illustrations, that led him to his career.

A different world

Upon reaching college, a career in animation seemed like a feasible option, and so he was formally initiated into the world of graphic design. This is also where he realised he had a keen interest in every facet of culture. “I was not really differentiating between music, cinema and art. I loved them all equally. That is when I realised that there does not exist a field where graphic design is not involved. So, I slowly moved away from illustrations and drawing and started pursuing design seriously.”

He went on to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) under design giants like Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller. Upon graduating, he went on to be an intern with Pentagram, and was part of Miller’s team there.

Since 2018, Nallaperumal has, together with Juhi Vishnani, headed the Mumbai-based November, a studio for graphic design and typography. November was recently inducted into the coveted Alliance Graphique Internationale, a club comprising the world’s leading graphic artists and designers. It is among the first Indian companies to do so.

“I did always want to come back,” he says. For him, returning to India was an effort to find answers to many lingering questions.

“We have had graphic design since the 60s, so why is it not huge in India, despite being so basic? Of course, MTV made a big difference, and the boom of visual media also helped. But why haven’t we heard about Indian designers?”

This break between culture and design is something that has troubled Nallaperumal since his undergrad years. “All we learned about was Western ideas and design movements of the 1940s. We can identify American, Swiss or Japanese design, but not an Indian one. There has never been any proper documentation of Indian graphic design, but design schools are the ones who should be taking the lead,” he says. The context was most often overshadowed by technique. And this, according to the designer, mars the cultural aspect of the work.

Michael Farr’s Making of Tintin — gifted by an uncle to an 11-year-old Nallaperumal — proved to be an eye-opener with its approach to documentation and contextualisation. It carefully charted out the various processes that went into the creation of the comic, and was replete with references, first drafts and re-drawings. “I wanted to make something similar,” he says.

A typeface called Enemy

His first unofficial project was to design and author a typeface called ‘Enemy’, in 2014. “It was a stencil font and till date is one of my biggest-selling typefaces,” he says, adding that typefaces are the basic tools for graphic design. As a student, he had been one of the few who got instantly hooked to how these tools were made, which led to a lot of experiments with letter fonts. Learning under Tal Leming, a legend in the type world, only peaked this interest. “Typography is what language looks like. It’s a very nuanced field with a real-world functionality, and typeface defines the reading experience. It’s a subliminal but powerful tool.” Interestingly, Nallaperumal has never used one of his own typefaces. “I am too much of a fan of other people’s fonts,” he says with a laugh. Another font he designed, called Calcula, released in 2017, took three years to take shape, and is inspired by Kufic lettering and explores the space between lettering and typeface design. Oli and Rekall are the two latest additions to his typeface library.

How does one bring in Indian sensibilities to the global platform? “We are so used to designing in the Western mindset. All it takes is to contextualise. There is a huge disconnect between art, design, architecture and other aspects of culture — there is no holistic approach. We need to understand outside our immediate environment.” Design movements are born when these genres seep into one another. Bridging this gap is what defines a design movement, he says. And this is what November is driving at. As I flip through the company’s font book, Nallaperumal, who created the design identity for Kyoorius Designyatra, a design conference that was held in Goa this September, speaks of his upcoming projects, one of them being a collaboration with Tara Books. Of several other projects in the nascent stage, he says he will keep them under wraps for now.

gowri.s@thehindu.co.in

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