BOOKS & ARTS
Experiments in Radical Design & Typography
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
Appropriating the predator-drone & other notes on the new design system.
How does a magazine like SAAG understand space & geography? How does it grapple with the many South Asian communities—those acknowledged as such, and those that aren't—to begin to identify the wrongs we must right from a long legacy of media that construed and continue to construe "South Asia" so narrowly?
When I set out to design a whole new SAAG, these questions were on my mind. Unconsciously, material things—street signs we passed by, patterns we'd been looking at for years but noticed again for the first time—gave me some answers that buttress our current design system, allowing for a conversation within the team from many countries.
These ideas came from my own subjective personal experiences, yes, but that intimacy I felt led all of us as a team to wonder: what might everyone else find intimate? How do we bring it all together? The design system is an expression of solidarity—finding commonality in what we all see or read; wear or draw—while admitting exception and difference, and also that this is, of course, an ongoing process.
Disaster Timeline: Cover Artwork
Our first issue allowed us to think about space on a broader level too. More specifically we asked: How does networked space see?
Through the eyes of capital and the modern surveillance state—much like the seeker-head of a predator drone—the human subject has reached the zenith of abstraction. Humanity is now a set of data points, and collective struggles, in turn, simply distant blips on a radar.
Visibility doesn't come easy. In an attention economy with content tethered to the whims of capital, only the profitable survive. Large-scale disasters cannibalize attention, obscuring the slow devastation occurring across regional, social, bodily, and psychic scales on a continuous loop. It’s a circular timeline.
In a sense, the apparatus of surveillance defines the contour of strife: what better way to capture that present state of invisibility than to mimic how the predator drone sees the regions discussed in the issue?
Thus, the cover art for Issue 1 by Mukul Chakravarthi attempts to capture the cold cartographies of collective strife through the aesthetics of the modern surveillance state. The appropriation is an affirmation of our editorial commitment to deeply human narratives that emerge in the form of rigorous local reporting but also, critically, in the aesthetic responses of struggle and dissent, many of which you will find in the issue.
The custom display-face was derived from a grid system mapping the eight main cities—from Islamabad in the west to Naypyidaw in the east—that feature in the first issue. It was an exercise conceived to be just as spatial as it was typographic. The intention was to construct a display-face that gave form to regions that otherwise figured in the margins of the globalist imagination.
The iconography is the foundation of Volume 2. I truly hope you come to remember these icons and the content and forms of creative work they represent.
The process began with my own archival, oral history and mixed-media research, which led to a great deal of conversation and more findings from the whole design team. The iconography is inspired by textiles across many South Asian countries and communities. It is a visual representation that interweaves recurring patterns across geographies and peoples. Each icon is a recurring motif in textiles from seven or more contemporary South Asian nations, and countless communities within them.
SAAG's general approach to "South Asia" is pertinent here. We deliberately does not construe "South Asia" specifically in terms of geography. This is because we recognize, as our archives indicate, that: 1. Diasporic communities originating in the subcontinent exist in countries as far east and as far west as any map will show. 2. "South Asia" is generally conceived of as countries within the subcontinent, but the history of its terminology is often nationalist, divisive, and problematic for many peoples even within the region's most populous country.
As Benedict Anderson has argued, it is also a construction to some degree of the rise of area studies; its arbitrariness can be seen in its inconveniences: some countries in what is academically considered "Southeast Asia" share more historical, cultural, and linguistic similarities with those considered "South Asian", and vice versa.* For the purposes of our iconography, we researched motifs stretching from Laos to Iran, as well as the Caribbean.
Typography & Colophon
Our web typography was also selected carefully. Our primary typeface, Social by Dinamo type foundry, reflects the playful, collaborative spirit of SAAG as a "multi-people, multi-width mega collaboration" itself. It's also a remarkably sturdy sans that allows us to be flexible: based on the theme of each issue, we want to use a new display font entirely. We hope it keeps you on your toes.
The body text for the work we publish is set in Erode by Nikhil Ranganathan and Indian Type Foundry (ITF), a startlingly original, idiosyncratic and yet almost unobtrusive typeface that we greatly admire. Meanwhile, each issue of Volume 2 will use a different display typeface. For Issue 1, we chose the spiky and precise TT Ricks by TypeType.
Our colophon—conceived by Prithi Khalique and designed in many iterations and styles by Hafsa Ashfaq—is a nod to our print future, inspired by one of the works first cited when SAAG began: Rabindranath Tagore's painting Head Study, a work of dazzling ingenuity that provides the metaphorical architecture for our identity. Of all the decisions we made, this one came the easiest to us. A design system that coheres around our collective past feels best to embody our aspirations for the future: we cannot predict the future, but we can take stock from the conceptual frameworks our many contributors provide to us. Moving forward, the design system will move much like the issue artwork itself: fluidly adapting to best represent the radical potential of the present in its aesthetic form.
Our new website is a complete overhaul, and a sharp contrast to the original SAAG website as well. We think fondly of what we made for Volume 1: its maximalist, wild, and mysteriously glitchy exterior paired with very serious work and dialogue. But if the eternal doom scroll has taught us anything, we are inundated with maximalist content. What we wanted was care, intentionality, attention, flexibility: an ease to the user experience that reflects the care we took to make every choice inspired by South Asian custom, movement, or labor.
We hope that our new website—designed and developed by myself and Ammar Hassan Uppal, with help and feedback from editors and designers on the team alike—flows much more organically, whilst feeling both tactile and geometric. We felt that the digital space shouldn't distract from the ideas and concepts of the difficult material discussed in Issue 1 of Volume 2 as well as in the archives. It should enhance it. What you see is also a website intended to take on the spirit of the issue currently featured, adapting at each turn. At the same time, we wanted to inject a little whimsy into the experience: easter eggs sprinkled through the website, which we hope you'll find.
We hope to evoke a more orderly and idea-focused experience of SAAG’s content, and challenge the dominant sense that the "avant-garde" need be synonymous with disorderly maximalism; instead, we eschewed both maximalism and minimalism—as well as the neo-Brutalist response to minimalist design—with a warmer color palette and approachable typography. In Volume 2 of SAAG, we hope to demonstrate that we take the intellectual and conceptual happenings and developments in the worlds of design, typography, web development etc. just as seriously as anything else. Stay tuned for forthcoming content and events on the many political-aesthetic challenges contemporary designers face, as well as how they understand, learn, teach, and reckon with the histories and legacies of design.
Top of mind for us throughout this process was affect and emotion: how one might feel when one logs onto the website or reads one of our pieces? We do hope you feel welcomed. ▢
* Benedict Anderson, A Life Without Boundaries (Verso, 2018)
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
The display-face superimposed on the cartographic grid system it arose from.
South Asia as a Term
Indian Type Foundry
Divya Nayar is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer based in Queens.
12 Mar 2023
Mukul Chakravarthi is a Senior Product Designer at Fidelity Labs, a Visiting Critic at Massachussets College of Art and Design, and former Adjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is also a typographer, interaction designer, and architect based in Boston.
Prithi Khalique is a visual designer and animator based in Dhaka and Providence.
Hafsa Ashfaq is a visual artist, graphic designer, currently an editorial designer for DAWN. She is based in Karachi.
Ammar Hassan Uppal is a professional designer and web developer based in Lahore.