August 17th, 2010

The new rupee symbolHow many of you readers like the new rupee symbol?

I don’t (despite a caveat, which we’ll get to). Here’s why.

It is extremely predictable

Everyone knows what a Devanagari “r” looks like. It’s an elegant letter, but is that enough? If you think about it, the other major currency symbols come with a lot of history. There are several hypotheses regarding the origin of the $ sign, for instance. Was it from an 18th- and 19th-century abbreviation for the Mexican peso? Does it recall the Spanish “pieces of eight”, the ones that were mined in Peru and shipped across the Atlantic to Europe to pay for Spain’s wars and fuel a worldwide 16th-century price boom? Does it have something to do with the Greek god Hermes? There are more — lots more.

The sign for the UK pound sterling, £, originates from “L” for the Roman libra, a unit of weight. The word comes from the Latin for “weighing scale”. So it is well over 2,000 years old.

The euro, €, is, and looks like, something delivered by a committee. E for Europe. But also € from the Greek letter epsilon, or Є. So it is even older than the £. And at least it looks interesting in different fonts.

The yen sign, ¥, is boring. Fortunately, we hardly ever need to use it in India.

It is not user-friendly

You can make the $ with two strokes of a pen — one wiggly one and one straight down. Satisfying.

You can make the £ likewise with two strokes, one wiggly, one straight. Even more satisfying to execute than the $, though handwriting experts may cavill that the last stroke doesn’t point egotistically straight down the page towards the writer.

The € can also be dispensed with in two strokes, and happily the straight stroke (as in the £) leaves your pen heading rightwards, which is convenient for starting the next word or number.

The rupee sign? This will take all of four laborious strokes. A curve, a diagonal slice, and two short horizontals. You try assembling all these strokes correctly while writing in a hurry. And nobody writes slowly and painstakingly nowadays.

What’s more, while writing, not many people like sharp angles. They are less easy to execute than curves. Which is why the Devanagari “r” usually gains a little loop in the middle where the curve meets the diagonal. That will turn four strokes into three. But now imagine a rupee sign with a loop and two horizontal strokes. Yuck.

Do a scribble shortcut, and leave out one of the horizontal strokes. Now you have a traditional Devanagari “r” with one horizontal line. That would look like a vowel sign added to the consonant: “ru”. That is no longer a symbol, it is an abbreviation.

The ¥ is boring. It takes at least three strokes, and also fails the handwriting test.

It bothers and tricks the eye

Have you seen the rupee sign in print? It’s quickly taking over in the print media. It is not well designed.  In headlines it looks remarkably blocky next to the elegant shapes of the professionally designed fonts we use. In text it cannot properly be made out because the two horizontal strokes obscure the lovely curve of the Devanagari “r”.

What’s worse, when you place it before a number, it looks at first glance like a “2″, especially for one accustomed to reading Hindi numerals. So, what used to be “Rs 5,500″ will now look at first glance like “25,500″. That is a design problem.

The $ does not look like a 5. The £ does not look like an L. The € does not look like an E. (It looks like half an egg.) The ¥ is boring.

It is unrepresentative of India

Yes, Devanagari, alongside Roman (English), is the most widely used script in the land. But that does not make it representative of the nation. So why should the Devanagari “r” stand for the Indian rupee? I happen to think the Telugu “ra” is beautiful. The Bengali “r” has promise. The Tamil “r” is intriguing. Why not any of those? Indians not familiar with Telugu, Bengali or Tamil would then be able to see the rupee sign for what it really is: a symbol.

If none of the non-Devanagari signs are politically palatable, then how about English? We use it all over. Why not fool around with the well-established R?

For that matter, why not dispense with alphabets altogether and invent a pure symbol?

Too difficult, perhaps, because (and here we come to the caveat)…

The other designers seem to be asleep

The official rupee sign may not be so bad after all. Do please have a look at some of the other designs (here’s a larger image). Terrible! If those were the kinds of options the government had, then thank you very much after all, Udaya Kumar — he designed the chosen sign.

What do you think? digg:Shortchanged? newsvine:Shortchanged? reddit:Shortchanged? Y!:Shortchanged?