How E-Commerce is Reviving Artistic Typography in Advertising

Kitch typography in a ad

Kitch typography in a ad

An unlikely category, but I think it’s the shop-window phenomenon that’s responsible.

FlipKart, SnapDeal, Myntra, they’re all selling the same stuff. And saying the same stuff (XX% off, Great Deals). The only way they can differentiate themselves is by typography and colour.

Multiple brands on a YouTube ad for

Multiple brands on a YouTube ad for

The Retro-Typography Revival

There’s no one brand colour or custom typeface (they’re all selling multiple brands), so colour and type can finally strive, unrestrained, to achieve a Commercial Artist’s original purpose, which is to have a party and make stuff look delicious, digging like a child in the drawers of graphic design’s musty cupboard of influences.

Modern renditions of decorative motifs like ribbons

Modern renditions of decorative motifs like ribbons and stylized borders

And given that Art Deco, Commercial Art’s most flamboyant period, was driven by a similar gusto, (they had just shed the stifling ‘simplicity’ baggage of the Bauhaus) and went on to stick it to the Germans with decorative motifs, extreme thick-thin contrasts, and Cassandre’s stylized illustrations, it’s no wonder that Myntra’s ads often draw inspiration from this period in form and spirit.

Big Discounts = Big Beautiful Typography = Happy Designers

The clients want it! There’s finally a point of collusion between the suits and designers, in that the numbers need to be big and beautiful. Finally designers can play those old no.7 tricks they love, contrasting BIG numerals and with a teeny-weeny percentage glyphs and ‘now upto’  and ‘off’.

Old style numerals. Notice the teeny-weeny 'o' with the line under it.

Old style numerals. Notice the teeny-weeny ‘o’ with the line under it.



Retro revival is a wave taking place in graphic design presently, and it’s driven by various things, a rejection of Apple’s skeuomorphism, HTML 5’s capabilities in rendering type, its responsive capability (necessitating stylised graphics to compensate for the flat colours) and great screen resolutions, among other things.

But to have the revival enter the advertising world, saddled with corporate typefaces? That’s a breath of fresh air.

Enter designers. Finally!


Commercial Art’s Conundrum


A period advertisement for cigars

A short preamble 

Alain De Botton hypothesizes in his book ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work‘ that the real reason for the pervasive disillusionment in our society is that our jobs have been disconnected from purpose and meaning.

Before societies and businesses became as complex as they are today, he says, in a far simpler world, every professional had a very clear cut role to play in society. A fisherman hauled in fish for a village, that would starve without his efforts. The direct human connection made his life’s work fulfilling and meaningful.

Contrast this with an accountant (it’s always a poor accountant!)  lost in the bureaucratic order of a huge corporation that makes, say, biscuits. He has no idea of how his day’s work really contributed to anything, other than giving him something to fill in his timesheet! HR departments in big companies really exist to fill the void caused by this divorce of purpose from our jobs.

Venkat Bhai, my favourite person in the office, beams at the camera at lunch time.

Venkat Bhai, my favourite person in the office, beams at the camera at lunch time.

Indeed, Venkat Bhai, our canteen in-charge, is arguably the happiest dude on the floor. He’s always smiling, and his movement can be surmised from the cheers of adulation that follow him as he, quite literally, purveys the grease that keeps the wheels of the office turning!

Mike Rowe, of the popular show ‘Dirty Jobs’ has a wonderful talk on a Ted where he makes a similar point. ‘Roadkill picker-uppers whistle to work’ he says, as he makes a strong case for hands-on work.

Does a Commercial Artist ever really feel a sense of purpose?

Isn’t every designer a closet artist? All the good ones are at any rate, escaping the confines of form and function and ‘purpose’ to scribble in their diaries, caricature a face, or illustrate some fantastic character.

You could argue that it’s actually quite simple, that when you see an ad you made in a magazine, for instance, the client’s message has been disseminated, and a sense of purpose is achieved.

But the likely truth would be that when a designer sees his work out there in the world, he’s normally thinking wistfully of how he may have done it better, or on rare occasions, how thrilled he is that the work ran the hierarchical gauntlet and emerged relatively unaltered! He is certainly NOT thinking of how the ‘purpose’ was served. That’s someone else’s job.

A conundrum?

More fundamentally, the creation process for commercial and intrinsically motivated art have an insidious distinction.

As a self motivated artist you aim at ‘connecting’ with the work and reaching a state of ‘flow’ where you’re almost one with the what you’re creating. You’re intensely focused on the task, all your senses are on full alert yet you’re manifestly calm. A piece of work gets its power from your attachment to it.

Commercial art, not so much.

This is a very cynical evaluation, but the whole idea, after a few years, often tends towards disconnecting enough with the work so that you don’t feel the stab when a suit gives you his unstudied opinion on how the colour doesn’t work! When you manage to disconnect enough so as not to feel anything, you begin to pride yourself on being ‘thick skinned’, which is great news except that this ‘thick skin’s’ function is not so much to buffer you from the hurt of slander but to build an impenetrable wall between you and the work.

If the thing you have to do to get the most pleasure out of your work,(and in the case of art it is to ‘connect’ with it), is exactly what you cannot afford to do on a daily basis, then there lies an unresolved conundrum, a recipe for frequent bouts of discontent. And if the creation processes for intrinsically motivated art and commercial art are so vastly different when it comes to a fundamental factor like connectedness, then things like personal style, a work’s personality, indeed all the things that give a piece of work individuality, all come into question, and the umbilical cord between cathartic art and commercial art seems to be tenuous at best, and capable of being snapped at the whim of the first unimaginative MBA.


I do love my job. It’s fun. And I wouldn’t trade it with the accountant. There are lots of people in the commercial art world who are really happy with their jobs. But when I came across Alain De Botton’s theory of disconnectedness of purpose and meaning, I thought I owed my line of work as a commercial artist a tough examination.

Cigar ad image by Double–M on Flickr using attribution license