Growing up in Lebanon, Nadine Chahine was never an artistic child, but as she got older her creative talents emerged through a frustration with the expressive limitations of Arabic fonts. Unlike the Latin lettering they jostled with on outdoor billboards or inside the brochures she produced in design school, Arabic type choices were frustratingly scant. That’s what drove her to create her own and redress the balance: today, she holds the role of UK type director at Monotype.
In school she was “very much a maths and science person” who would spend hours creating intricately detailed farms out of Lego (more on that later). She wasn’t one of those people who speak of rabidly drawing, and still modestly claims that she’s no good. “I don’t really draw on paper because I cannot draw as nicely as I imagine in my head,” she says, “my hands fall short of my ambition.” However, her love of typography clicked when in her second year studying graphic design at the American University of Beirut, she was “enchanted, and it was very inspiring for me to see the Arabic calligraphy heritage we have and look at the Arabic typefaces. I’d think about how they’re not what we want to see, and what I wanted to work towards.”
At Monotype, Chahine helms a team creating Latin and Arabic typefaces for clients around the world. Her Koufiya typeface was the first to include simultaneously designed matching Arabic and Latin parts, and other fonts in her portfolio include Frutiger Arabic, Neue Helvetica Arabic, Univers Next Arabic, Palatino Arabic and Palatino Sans Arabic. A recent project saw her designing a four-weight typeface called Dubai for Microsoft that aims to “create harmony between Latin and Arabic” and “carry the vision of the city.”
In whatever she makes, she cites “the streets of Beirut” as her primary influence—“not as they are now, but how I wish them to be.
We didn’t have the typefaces that allow us the kind of expression I was looking for—contemporary, modern, informal, happy, fun, even straightforward well-designed classic typefaces. We were missing so much.
We spoke to her about where she is now, the future of Arabic fonts, and the meditative qualities of drawing type.
What was the graphic design culture like in Beirut when you were growing up?
I grew up in the war so it wasn’t exactly the best time for these things. In terms of arts Lebanon has always had a very strong art and cultural scene, but it was quite limited in terms of graphic design and typography. In the ’90s it started to change, and now we have established programs in the universities.
In Lebanon it’s more about the coexistence of Latin and Arabic—there’s a lot of advertisements in Arabic sitting next to ones in English, so the coexistence of the two scripts is very prominent.
Do you think being surrounded by those juxtapositions was important in informing the work you went on to make?
When I was studying graphic design in the ’90s most of the courses we had were based on Latin scripts, we were designing brochures in English and did very little work in Arabic. Then when we came to design these things in Arabic we didn’t have enough fonts—it was very limited, and the quality was quite poor, so that inspired me to want to make my own.
When we spoke about your beloved Lego farm, you were talking about how as a kid when you found something that interested you, you could happily do that for five or six hours at a time. Is it the same for you designing type?
It has a very meditative effect. I don’t design as often these days but when I get into it I don’t want to do anything else. It’s just amazing to design when I get into that mood. When I had 12 days off at Christmas I rested for the first couple of days and then when I started designing I didn’t do anything else for the rest of the vacation. I almost kicked a New Year’s party as I wanted to stay home and design. Just food and design and sleep!
Now that you’re heading up a team it must mean you spend less time on the actual design side of things.
There’s pluses and minuses though. In terms of positives I’m involved in many other design projects where I can be part of the concept and the process and see a typeface take shape. We discuss its development and I can be part of the process without drawing outlines myself.
My team does such great work and I learn from them, it’s a pleasure working with them. If I say “let’s try this” they will do something amazing, and they run with it. So being part of that conceptual stage and just being part of a team approach is really nice.
I guess it takes quite a lot of skill as a design director or any sort of boss to inspire that sort of work ethic though, how do you make sure you get the best out of your team?
We put a very strong focus on design discourse, so we give a lot of feedback and also discuss design themes and look at other work and decide on elements and areas we want to research more. It’s not just the practice of sitting and designing.
It’s also important to recognize the strengths of your team; Where are they strong? How can you support them? We never feel we’re in competition. One of the things that helps is that I don’t design Latin typefaces. I can, but if I design I want to do it in Arabic. All I want is for the team to be as successful as they can. We’re succeeding as a team—it’s not me versus them—so that really helps.
I’ve been very lucky at Monotype as I’ve had a lot of creative freedom to do what I want and design what I want, and I want the same for them. I want them to feel they can pursue what they want.
We look at designers as people, and they need to grow. If we’re looking at people as humans we’ll get more loyalty and engagement, as we want to succeed together.
When the Dubai font for Microsoft was launched you spoke a lot about the historically prohibitive pricing that prevented many brands or agencies in Arabic countries from investing in fonts, how far do you think that’s changing?
The situation with Arabic is extremely hopeful; we’re going through a renaissance in Arabic type design with the number of qualified type designers, the quality and quantity of their output, and the embracing of branding agencies and designers of them. There’s an awareness and willingness to invest in typefaces—it’s so much better these days. That’s partly helped in the advancement of technology that supports Arabic scripts. The software we use to develop Arabic scripts is amazing— we’re able to do so much with minimal effort, so designing Arabic becomes comparable in hours to designing Latin, and it didn’t used to be like this.
People are seeing what you can do in Latin type and wanting to have that power of expression in Arabic too.
The market within the Middle East still needs to have a bit more awareness of the importance of intellectual property and paying for licenses, so plagiarism is rampant, but big brands in the Middle East are keenly aware that it’s very trendy now to have your own custom typeface.