July 19, 2011
Latin fonts seek Arabic counterparts for an intimate design revolutionBy Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
BEIRUT: For years, art directors, graphic designers and the writers and editors who occasionally poke their noses into the debate have been engaged in huge philosophical brawls over tiny technical details. For ages, they have been willing to throw down over the merits of serif versus sans-serif typefaces - whether or not letters should carry little decorative flourishes, or serifs, like the rightward kick on a lowercase a, the leftward angle on a lowercase d or the miniscule hat that caps a capital letter such as J.
Some find serif typefaces timeless, elegant and easy on the eyes for sustained reading. Others find sans-serif typefaces fresher, breezier and more contemporary. (One typeface designer says a serif font is a classy, well-dressed woman while a sans-serif font is a tragic fashion victim). The different text treatments and legibility issues online versus in print have only complicated these admittedly dorky discussions even more.
If you can take all of that without falling asleep then you are sure to find the book "Typographic Matchmaking: Building Cultural Bridges with Type Design," which was feted with a launch party, lecture and exhibition in Beirut last month, an invigorating read. One of the most interesting debates to emerge in the book - which was edited by Huda Smitshuijzen Abi Fares, an established graphic designer and expert on Arabic typology, and chronicles the experiences of five Dutch-Arab design teams that spent two years devising new Arabic fonts to match existing Latin fonts - is whether or not serifs apply to Arabic type at all.
Designers Peter Bilak and Tarek Atrissi, who collaborated on an Arabic extension of the Fedra font family, concluded early on that serif and sans-serif styles held no place in the history or tradition of Arabic type.
"The only way to make Arabic compatible with serif typefaces is to increase the contrast of the stroke modulation," they write. As such, they were able to match their new Arabic font to both Fedra Serif A and Fedra Sans.
Designers Fred Smeijers and Lara Assouad-Khoury, on the other hand, meticulously translated the rounded serifs of the Fresco font to an Arabic counterpart by inverting them.
"Typographic Matchmaking" is an exhaustive record of a pilot project spearheaded by Abi Fares and the Khatt Foundation Center for Arabic Typography. In an introduction dubbed "Arabic Type in the Age of Digital Production" that knowingly builds on the approximation of Walter Benjamin's famous and oft-
cited essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Abi Fares notes that the low cost and high speed of information exchange engendered by globalization, be it a force for good or bad, has introduced the pressing need for fonts capable of supporting multiple scripts, and has at the same time exposed Arabic fonts as vastly underdeveloped alongside their Latin counterparts.
Building font families in which Latin and Arabic scripts can be seamlessly interchanged is vital for bilingual (or trilingual) cities in the Arab world, whether for signage, advertising, branding or designing publications that speak more than one language. Right now, bilingual books, journals and magazines, whether in Arabic and French or Arabic and English, pose huge logistical challenges. Not only is the cost of translation high (and the precision of language elusive), the physical layout of pages is also significantly frustrated when different fonts are required.
But the ambitions of "Typographic Matchmaking" are more than mechanical. According to Abi Fares, Arabic calligraphers "have distanced themselves from the realities of contemporary Arab visual culture, and their work has become confined to art exhibitions rather than to applied design ... Calligraphy is still venerated as Islamic art's highest achievement and typography is seen as a mere commercial necessity with little aesthetic refinement and value." The "Typographic Matchmaking" project aims to encourage the design of digital Arabic fonts that preserve the Arab and Islamic world's cultural identity while allowing talented young typographers to mess around, subvert and manipulate that culture from within. Addressing the current shortage of Arabic fonts, their lack of variety and their incompatibility with both contemporary technology and current design discourse is, for Abi Fares, a step toward forging a mature design culture - and with it a more powerful, positive image of Arab culture in the world.
To illustrate the project's long-term potential - and the fonts' practical applications for those blinded by the book's descriptions of x-heights, ascenders, descenders, counterforms, glyphs, strokes and the maddening level of complexity wrought by the fact that Arabic type requires four versions of each letter depending on where it is positioned in a word - Abi Fares teamed up with the arts organization Xanadu to organize the Beirut launch party at Art Lounge on December 15. Fifteen Lebanese artists were invited to use the "Typographic Matchmaking" fonts to create artworks that reflect their vision of Beirut. (These works are a necessary antidote to the book's cover, which is surprisingly dull and visually unappealing.)
Of course, for all the technical jargon, "Typographic Matchmaking" does offer fascinating insight into how typeface designers work. One traveled to Cairo to photograph the city's vernacular visual culture. Another conducted comprehensive research on the historical use and development of Maghrebi and geometric Kufi styles versus more fluid Naskh calligraphy. All of them offer a humbling portrait of how painstaking typeface design can be.
"Type design is a private endeavor with a very public appearance," writes Nadine Chahine, who developed BigVesta Arabic with her former professor Gerard Unger (the Vesta and BigVesta Arabic fonts were used in Abu Dhabi recently for an exhibition in the Emirates Palace about the plans for Sadiyaat Island's cultural district). "The final result is like any relationship: It always needs more work, and it'll never be perfect."
"Typographic Matchmaking: Building Cultural Bridges with Typeface Design," edited by Huda Smitshuijzen Abi Fares, is published by the Khatt Foundation with BIS Publishers in Amsterdam. For more information, please check out www.khtt.net
Articles & Blog on Arabic Type, Typography and DesignThe Top 10 Arabic Graphic Design Clichés
The graphic design scene is still relatively a budding profession in the Arab world. The domain has significantly developed over the past decade by raising various creative challenges in developing innovative regional design. Many have succeeded in creating solid and influential design, yet a lot of work has been redundant and repetitive, introducing and establishing some obvious clichés that started to be seen everywhere. Here is our selection of the most redundant design choices to be seen in Arabic design, and hopefully to be avoided from now on.
1- Gold, Gold, Gold...
There is a significant obsession with Gold in the Arab world, from the actual metal to any representation of it. But really, how bling can your color choice be? Gulf air went all the way, turning its fleet into flying golden pieces. They had all their planes painted gold. It is not really clear why gold became a color so popular and associated with the Arab world, but it seems related to the ongoing quest of representing luxury. What better way to do so than a literal reference to the material highly valued since prehistoric times. Golden logos, golden screen graphics, golden signage and golden interiors, clients seems to favor this choice and designers seem to find in it an easy way out. Pantone metallic 871 C stands high then on the cliché list.
2- Ali Baba Typography
This is the typography that hope to illustrate a mix of ancient Arabia with a touch of more current oriental representation. The result is a big no-no: Latin typography that is built from Arabic letters, that is text that seems Arabic, but that is actually not. No example is better to illustrate this cliché trend than the logo of Abu Dhabi, and the custom typography done for it. The concept of the brand of Abu Dhabi is to create an identity that will stand still all the way until 2030. Tough task when its branding seems like a cliché in our current times, let alone 20 years ahead.
3- I want that one
to haunt designers. Let me explain - clients appreciate the success of certain brands and appreciate the accomplishment of their identities and so start asking for similarities. Literal ones. The brief then simply becomes summarized as a request to design “another Al Jazeera logo” or “a replica of the Emirates airline logotype.” A frustrating situation when the client becomes, with the cooperation of the designer, shopping around for logos “off the shelf” and crossing the thin dangerous line between being inspired by good work and reproducing alike solutions.
4- The Camel
The first time I saw a camel was in a European zoo, despite growing up in an Arab country. Contrary to all belief, there are no camels wondering the streets of all Arab countries. Using and abusing the iconography of a camel in the Arab world is like using a windmill to represent the Dutch, German, and Belgian cultures! It is simply weak and inapplicable to the large geographic area of the Arab world. Nothing against the Camel, but graphically it is simply overused. Wait overused is an understatement even; it has been raped as a concept and left dry. Notable runner-ups in the cliché animal categories are the Falcon, the horse and the Oryx.
5- The Palm Tree
Not many arguments are needed to show that the palm tree was turned into an ultimate cliché element. After all, an entire island was built with the shape of a palm tree. The golden palm trees of Dubai airport were not enough of course, and the palm had to be made into a landmark visible from outer space!
6- All inclusive logos
When the entire strategy behind a brand has to be visible within the logo mark, a storyboard turns into a logo. All-inclusive logos could surprisingly contain a lot of narrative elements, and subsequently drive away from abstraction or from the modernist logo design practice. Some of these logos are not necessarily visually badly designed (thought most of them are), but the literal illustration of a story in the form of a trademark seems to be an unfortunate flow of visual communication practice in the context of visual identities.
7- Arabic type crimes.
Obvious wrong choices in Arabic typography could be an elaborate category with its own subcategories. But the most obvious clichés in Arabic type usage is probably building Arabic words out of deconstructed, rotated, and scaled Latin letters from popular Latin fonts. This became a trend that started in the Gulf, and has been adopted around he Arab world, unfortunately. Poor selection of appropriate Arabic fonts for specific projects is often a problem as well. This can range from choosing overused Arabic fonts to being influenced by well-marketed or known fonts that actually do not measure up to the publicity promoting them. Or even the effort of going all the way to develop a custom Arabic typeface that turns out to be of poor quality. In short, the failure of these fonts is usually due to the lack of necessary or proper typographic research prior to making decisions with regards to Arabic type. Or simply forgetting that good typography is never the result of a rushed design process
8- Exotic by force
Some elements are used almost by force to set an Arabic mood that seems more “exotic” than authentic. Arabesque patterns can be a simple example: They are part of the rich Arabic visual culture, yet when the most common and overused basic arabesque pattern is stuck as the ornamental background or main element of a project, it shows nothing but a failed attempt to localize a certain graphic language. Arabesque patterns are complex and a field to be investigated on its own. Using it without any real effort to explore its possibilities falls in the same trap of making design choices that convey a preconceived faulty reflection of an exotic image of the Arab world. The same patterns are overused again and again. The above example, a signage in a shopping mall, is a double-trouble example. A repetitive pattern choice used in the most inappropriate context, making the legibility of the text on the sign very difficult.
9- Islamic 2.0
The rich and diverse heritage of visual culture in the Arab world can sometime be used in a traditional way that risks to look old fashioned. It is natural that even very classic elements tend to be reinterpreted in a contemporary context. Doing that in the most obvious way seems to be one of the most common clichés, what we call traditional 2.0 (or even Islamic 2.0). An example of this would be taking the most classic calligraphic (and ornamental) styles and coloring them with computer generated flashy gradients.
10- Popular repetitive
Popular visual culture can always have its own charm- yet there is a specific popular design language that is far from following any design or layout rational and that is a combination of computer layout abilities, cheap advertising form, and loud commercial character. Nothing illustrates this more than the most common mass CD cover designs widely visible across the region. They are just a group of chaotic random messy designs.
They say clichés become clichés for a reason. The fact is today that these repetitive solutions are overused and have worn thin and will take us further from creating any innovative and sustainable design solutions much need in the region.
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3 comments postedGoldIt is so true about the Gold!By Marwa N.H on 16th April, 2011 at 8:15 PMNumber 11Overall, excellent insights and commentary; however, I beg to differ with numbers 4 and 5. Camels and palms are ubiquitous in Saudi Arabia and, while not unique to the peninsula, certainly are strong icons to the rest of the world. A week does not pass that I don't see camels and after two years I am still dazzled at each sighting.
I would add a new one: the be-thobed Saudi male of late 20s with outstretched arms, as though to suggest "the world can be yours" (particularly favored in banking and telecoms ads).By Wordsmithy on 4th June, 2011 at 6:43 AMoriental-ezemHahaha, couldn't agree more! I suppose it all stems from our own sense to be orientalists. It's kind of like biting on your own flesh!
Entertaining article, but you can get some good out of these cliches sometimes!By omar on 21st June, 2011 at 9:58 AM
Designers are a particular type of tourists. They travel to get inspired, to experience a foreign design culture that often inspires them in their creative practice and routine. Having lived, worked and studied in different countries, and constantly traveling to be part of design events around the world, I am very well aware of the positive effect that travel has on widening your design practice. It was after all the main reason for my design studio’s focus on cross cultural design. This is why I decided this year to start my first “Nomad office” experiment: Moving the office for one month to a new city, where we continue working and serving our clients as usual, yet benefiting from a new location to explore a new design culture. A one month change of location that allowed us to experience an environment in a slightly deeper way than typically shorter travel visits. Our choice this year was Barcelona, the Catalan capital that magically blends both metropolitan and small-town atmosphere. I share here my top design picks that intrigued and inspired my creative side.
Anonymous Sculpture on Platja de San Sebastian
Barcelona is the city of monumental art. Every city corner seems to have its own beautiful street sculpture: The surrealist “head” sculpture of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein; Rober Llimós’s “Frame” sculpture; Antoni Llena’s curious “David & Goliath” sculpture; Miro’s Dona i Ocell and many many others. My personal favorite monumental street sculpture was by far the one at the Platja de San Sebastian, which to my surprise is an “anonymous” piece of art: It is not clear what the title of the sculpture is, and who is the designer behind it. My investigation with the locals didn’t lead me to any further info. In any case, this beautiful three dimensional design embodies the spirit of the 1992 Olympics games, ever present across the entire city.
Identity system at MareMagnum
You know that a visual identity is complete when even the signage icons are so unique and speak the same consistent visual language as the rest of the design elements. The visual identity at the MareMagnum shopping is such an example of consistent design. The iconic illustrations are recognizable, playful, functional and in line with the logo design and the rest of the identity system.
Els Quatre Gats
This famous Barcelona café might well be a tourist trap. It is in every tourist guide and one of the massively promoted highlights of the city. Yet I was encouraged to visit it because I wanted to see its printed menu, which seems to be designed by Pablo Picasso in one of his first commercial commissions. Picasso’s graphic design skills weren’t unfortunately what I expected. At least not in this menu, where his nice illustration is just stuck on its cover. A practical reminder of the specific differences between the world of fine art and the world of informational and typographic graphic design. The interior of Els Quatre Gats is however what I found most rich. And this relation between the mood of the café and its printed menu is what I wished could be more present: How would the graphic and typographic design of the menu reflect this rich iconic Modernista interior? It seems like a wonderful assignment to give for design students; or a nice challenge for anyone who wants to surpass Picasso in one way or another.
There are so many museums to see in Barcelona and to my surprise my favorite was not a visual arts museum, but the science museum CosmoCaixa. This most visited museum in Europe reflects the best practice of exhibition design: Navigation through the space is well planned and structured. Playful and engaging interactive design station cleverly presents all sorts of fascinating science areas. Information design and graphics are nicely implemented. A must visit for anyone interested in space design and creative experience design.
An advertising campaign with a strong graphic approach, good typography choice and simple iconic illustration is something advertising agencies in the Arab World could learn from. I enjoyed seeing this colorful campaign across the streets of the city. The campaign basically warned against penalties imposed on aggressive or inappropriate street actions. In Barcelona, everything fits but no everything is allowed.
As a type and typographic designer, I was obviously interested in researching the local type design scene. My favorite type design source from Barcelona remains Type Republic, founded by designer Andreu Balius. This independent type foundry provide type with a local flavor and even with a wider Mediterranean flavor.
Granja M Viader
Barcelona’s oldest milk bar, this charming cafe feels authentic and is actually delicious. The walls inside Granja M Viader are fully decorated by century-old advertisement. It gives the place a vernacular dimension, rightly reflecting its long history which started back in 1870. Besides enjoying the famous “Cacaolat” drink, the framed historical prints on the wall are a guarantee to keep any designer visually engaged. It is simply like being in a cafe with a special “history of graphic design” theme: Plenty of typographic details to look at; Logos from the 1930s; as well as expressive charming illustrations.
The Farmacia Nadal sign is just one of many beautiful examples of charming street typography, graphics and urban art. This specific example might be a very visible one, since it is located on the famous La Rambla street. Yet every corner of every street presents so much hidden street graphics to look at: Shop signs, Pictograms, graffiti, wayfinding icons, door numbers and all kind of real street art. Two books superbly document this. ”Barcelona Grafica”, by America Sanchez, features around 2000 well photographed and documented selected examples of urban graphic art. “Graphicity Barcelona” by Louis Bou, offers as well a visually stunning collection of street graphics.
Santa Caterina Market
It is not surprising to see great architecture in Barcelona. This is after all the city of Gaudi. But what makes the Santa Caterina Market a unique public space is the fact that it combines glorious architecture with a refined taste for colors. The market’s roof wave-like structure is covered a magic carpet of endless colorful ceramic tiles, creating a unique blend of graphical 2D design with 3D architectural design. It simply reflects the actual rich colors inside the market. This is a must see, particularly if you manage to see it from a window or balcony in the surrounding buildings.
There are definitely so many more inspirations from Barcelona. But what I listed above is what topped my notes in my sketch book. For now, next year’s “Nomad office” destination is the main brainstorming topic!
This entry was posted on Friday, October 22nd, 2010 at 11:22 am and is filed under Visual Culture, Type Design, Blogroll, Design, Various, Academic, Articles, Typography. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
Lettering, stenciling and shop signs, as part of the urban typography that dominates the visual language of Caracas, capital of Venezuela. Photography by Hilda Mecharrafie.
We travel, and always look at the street typography that defines the character of every city and new urban environment we experience. I enjoyed documenting the street graphics and typography in my latest trip across Panama, and so did Hilda in her travel in Venezuela. A quick preview shown in the images below, giving a taste of the rich typography in central and Latin America.
Preview of street typography from Panama.
This entry was posted on Friday, January 30th, 2009 at 11:49 am and is filed under Visual Culture, Design, Various, Typography, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
For the past couple of years we have been working regularly on building the visual identity for the Faculty of Arts, Media and Technology at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands (HKU). Since then, we have designed several of their publications as well as a series of sub-identities for specific academic programs initiated by the school as part of the whole visual identity.
Early in 2009 we were asked to develop a new visual identity for the Faculty in Hilversum. The school, with its expanding new programs, aimed at lifting its house-style through a new image. Their main objective was to visually accentuate the Faculty’s independence from the central school in Utrecht. Our creative process focused on achieving this goal by creating a solid and consistent identity, which we have been using this past year on a variety of printed and digital promotional material we designed for the school.
The visual style developed from combining rough manual sketches with bold tight-set typography and a bolder set of colors. The variety of hand drawn doodles used highlights the creative process of the students, and is meant as a contrast with their final outcome of digital media projects: Emphasizing hence on the sketching part of the process as a fundamental aspect in conceptualizing and visualizing digital media art. Our main challenge with the identity was to allow the usage of visuals from students’ projects, often stylistically different, without loosing the school’s visual identity or consistency throughout. This is another reason why typography acts as a main component of the identity, as it unifies different visual material regardless of variation in styles.
Among the different materials we designed were the vertical signature brochures of the school, which we printed on heavy-stock rough paper to enhance the raw feel of the visual identity and complement the bold typography and colors used. Other items we designed varied from animation, packaging, postcards, posters and stationery.
Since our start as a design studio, we have been heavily involved in designing original Arabic typefaces, and through our 10 years of design practice at Tarek Atrissi Design, we have left a visible mark on the typographic landscape. Our fonts are to be seen used across the Arab world, in print, on air, on newspaper headlines and as part of elaborate corporate identity systems. The last two years haven’t been an exception: we have designed several corporate and custom Arabic (and bilingual) fonts for different clients, many of which we haven’t posted yet on our blog or website.
One font I am particularly proud of and excited about is the font I am sharing in this blog post. The custom display font for the Arab Museum of Modern Art, “Mathaf”, a new museum opening today in Doha - Qatar through its inaugural exhibition “Sajjil”. The Arabic and Latin font is the result of months of intensive work, and is one of the main components in the visual identity and branding adopted for the museum.
Unlike many of the typical briefs we usually get for designing custom fonts, this typeface design commission for such a high profile organization was really out of the box. It challenged us to put into it the creativity and experimentation that we usually put into self initiated type design projects. The bilingual typeface we were asked to design was more of an artist experimentation: It had to look far from a digital typeface, but rather a hand scribble; a personal signature; a quick spontaneous-looking hand writing that looks more like a scribble taken from an artist’s sketchbook. This request was a particular design challenge. Especially for an Arabic font as anyone would imagine: Creating the illusion of a hand written scribble in a script that has connected letters was a tough task. Which might explain why as a matter of fact there aren’t this sort of digital Arabic fonts available out there.
The design process was very exciting and defined by experimentation. In the first phases of the project we explored all sort of manual lettering work. The focus was on finding the right formula to create a spontaneous writing style, while keeping in mind the challenge of matching the Arabic and Latin parts of the font to communicate the same spirit. There is basically nothing we did not try: Creating metallic brushes from Coca-Cola cans and writing with it; Graffiti writing on large newspaper sheets; Asking extended family to write quickly in charcoal pens; and looking in our archive for collected old Arabic newspapers which still used manual hand calligraphy for typesetting all headlines. Several design rounds made us finally use the outcome of a specific handwriting that filled in our stack of sketches. This material was scanned, digitized, and then developed and refined further to create the basis of the design. Twenty two rounds of presentations were needed to polish the final design. The final character set, particularly in Arabic, included a wide set of ligatures that allowed a more natural flow of the script. The final design echoed in one way or another some of the initial inspirations we used while developing this typeface: street hand made lettering that could be found in different sizes, forms and textures- and that I have for long documented as part of my visual research. Previews of the final font, as well as some selected samples of from the process, are shown as part of the images showcased here.
Above: Preview images of the process development of the design
Without being labeled as an Arabic font with calligraphic features or a font with contemporary typographic features, the Mathaf-script typeface is above all a font reflecting a personal expression. An expression that is maybe typical to any piece present in a Museum of Modern Art.
To me personally, regardless of the final outcome of the design, the simple fact that we were commissioned for this project is a double rewarding honor: On one hand, it is a confirmation that the type of Arabic fonts we have often focused on developing are highly in demand: Fonts designed by graphic designers for graphic designers; fonts that have strong characters and that are ideal for usage in corporate design and branding context, and that are designed to communicate a very specific mood or message. On the other hand, by being asked to take part of visualizing the written voice of “Mathaf”, we are in one way or another given the honor of being part of Arab modern art, typographically speaking at least.
Above: Samples of the font usage within the branding and identity system of Mathaf. Showing the countdown posters for the opening event; application of the font on pins and printed matters; and screenshots from promotional video using the font for on-screen titles.