Life in contemporary Western society comes with many luxuries. One oft-overlooked luxury: access to expressive typefaces. Unless you’re a graphic designer, you might not appreciate—or even notice—the way a newspaper’s letters convey a reliable stateliness, or that the typeface in your phone was engineered exactly for on-the-go glanceability. Infinitesimal differences in typography can help us make sense of our surroundings, and add texture to our visual world.
There are tens of thousands of unique fonts for Latin languages—an estimated 100,000, at most. That number dwindles to around 100 for Arabic, despite its being the fifth-most spoken language in the world. Of the ones that are available, many were made by Western designers with Western tools, resulting in a lack of nuance. “We’re very unhappy with the situation today,” says Lara Captan, a Beirut-born, Amsterdam-based type designer, of the dearth in expressiveness available in Arabic letters. “It might sound extreme, but it’s a loss of cultural identity.”
Captan recently spoke at the Typographics design festival in New York, where she discussed why she co-founded the Arabic Type Design-Beirut (ATDB) program at the American University of Beirut. The short version of the story goes back to the scant supply of interesting Arabic typefaces: without young designers creating new fonts, that number can’t grow. The longer version goes back several centuries, to when Europeans created the first movable Arabic type in an effort to convert North African Muslims to Christianity. “Politics are politics,” Captan says. “But since they didn’t consult Arab Muslims, the letters turned out to be really terrible—like a child was writing, but worse.” As Captan explains it, this was a tragic beginning for Arabic type design.
Fast forward to the 1850s, and to the invention of moveable type. The technology was groundbreaking for Latin languages, which use discrete letters. But Arabic can’t be expressed in boxes; it’s a connected script. Moreover, its letterforms follow different shapes depending on the letters coming before or afterwards. Nevertheless, these printing techniques lead to the creation of “Simplified Arabic” typefaces, which designers like Captan say fail to capture any kind of local voice. “It’s the Westernization of Arabic letters,” she says. “Other people see it as modern, but if you look at contrasts, proportions, letters, how they are in context, it’s quite a reductive form.”
But now, Arabic type is seeing a wave of change and experimentation. In 2005 the Lebanese type designer Rana Abou Rjeily created an experimental typeface that had detached letters, but still expressed Arabic with authenticity. Nadine Chahine, the UK type director at Monotype, recently spoke with us about her focus on creating Arabic typefaces. And Peter Bil’ak, founder of Dutch type foundry Typotheque, is two years into running type foundry TPTQ Arabic, which specializes not only creating typefaces, but in getting Middle Eastern designers interested in expanding fonts for their native language. Bil’ak’s TPTQ co-founder Kristyan Sarkis works with Captan on the ATDB program, which will kick off its second six-week edition this summer. The class aims to create a base layer of knowledge about the Arabic script tradition, so that students can creatively iterate while staying true to the roots of the language. From there, the class looks at the technology that makes this possible. There’s not much of it: few software programs allow the kind of type design that you see in the Latin-language world. That, too, is slowly changing, with new apps like Glyphs that allows for Arabic design.
So far Captan’s class has only produced experiments, rather than fully-fledged designs. She’s working on her own type design, too, with a programmer who’s fine-tuning the intricacies of the letters, but she says that Arabic type design has yet to see its Helvetica moment. “To be Helvetica, behind it there was calligraphy, typefaces, more abstraction, new tools, and then they could say, ‘We don’t care about the past.’” ATDB is working on building that first component by developing a foundation of knowledge in the script. It’s still early days, though. “We haven’t reached modernity,” Captan says. “That’s where the breakthroughs happen.”