What role might type play in working toward a better Western understanding of the Arabic-speaking world? After all, text carries culture embedded in the shapes of its letterforms and words. We turned to Dr. Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, founding director of the Khatt Foundation Center for Arabic Typography in the Netherlands, to hear her thoughts on this question. A specialist in bilingual typographic research and design, she holds degrees from Leiden University, Yale, and the Rhode Island School of Design. We figured she might also be the person to ask about what’s new in the world of Arabic Type.
Western type designers tend to work within the Latin letterform tradition because it’s widely taught, to the exclusion of other alphabets. If Arabic scripts were routinely included in type design programs, students would almost necessarily need to know something about Arabic culture before they could produce effective and aesthetically-pleasing type families. Would a better Western understanding of Arabic typography lead to a better appreciation of the culture?
AbiFarès: It’s a difficult question, how type helps the rest of the world understand Arab culture, especially as the Arab world is not one homogenous, understandable thing. As a designer, sticking to your own language reinforces a feeling of safety in your decisions because you don’t want to mess around with someone else’s culture.
It’s like a sense of humor: if you were born in the culture, you easily pick up on the specific sense of humor. If you’re not, even if you understand the words, the jokes are not as funny. Or say you’re from America and you’re lecturing in a different part of the country from where you were born, and you encounter an audience’s regional accent—there are assumptions that you might make about how educated a person is based on the way he or she speaks.
When designing fonts, there’s a subtlety you feel when you’re working on a script that you use every day; there is a huge vocabulary of shapes already present in your subconscious.
Are design schools worldwide doing enough to teach Arabic type design?
AbiFarès: No, not really. Regrettably, it’s still viewed as a specialty within graphic design. In the Arab world, all the design schools have undergraduate programs that may offer Arabic Type Design as an elective course. For quality Arabic type design, students need to study abroad, often in graduate programs [in Europe or the US.]
Type has always been so closely linked to tech, and it’s expensive to adapt existing technologies and machinery to a new language system. Might that have played a part in the scarcity of well-crafted Arabic typefaces up until now?
AbiFarès: Don’t forget that Latin script has a much longer design tradition than all the other scripts of the world, and there’s a circular reason for it. It’s not politically motivated; some people make it sound like there’s always a political agenda or a cultural insensitivity. It’s largely due to commercial and practical reasons related to the rapid advance of printing technology in the Western world.
Nowadays, with new tech and more interaction of people around the globe, we’re seeing the development of a type design tradition in Asian- and Arab-speaking countries, and even in Spanish-speaking countries where the Latin script predominates, but where there was no established tradition of type design. In many places, designers bought fonts that came from somewhere else; it was a system, and the system was expensive, so they just bought the machine and all the typefaces that came with it.
How far away do you think we are from the point where foundries will routinely offer a wide choice of Arabic scripts? Or at least a good range?
AbiFarès: There are more and better Arabic fonts than there used to be, but there’s still a long way to go and much more to be done. Not enough is being published about it. There are so many books on Latin type design and typography, with valuable information for people to work and study on their own, but for Arabic, there is very little out there. In the past five years there’s been a lot of progress, a better awareness, and a better exchange of information. I have a friend from Argentina now living in Berlin, working with a type foundry in India. This is the kind of new landscape that we’re talking about!
“It is a way of understanding another culture without completely imposing your view on it, or vice versa.”
What interesting new Arabic fonts have you seen recently?
AbiFarès: There is so much good work happening! To name a few: I like Pascal Zoghbi’s geometric monolinear typeface Bukra. It’s based on the Kufic script, one of the oldest Arabic scripts. Wael Morcos and Khajag Apelian’s latest typeface, an Arabic version of Mike Abbink’s Brando, is quite nice; it’s a kind of rounded script useful for different typesetting situations. I’ve seen some remarkably technologically-advanced work by Dr. Mamoun Sakkal, made in collaboration with programmer Aida Sakkal and the Syrian calligrapher Jamal Bustan. He produced Bustan, an Arabic display typeface based on the Kairawani Kufic and the cursive Sunbuli calligraphic styles.
Another typeface design, Qandus, developed within the framework of the Khatt Foundation’s type design research project Typographic Matchmaking in the Maghrib, won a TDC Award of Excellence in 2017. It mixes multi-script typeface families based on Arabic Maghribi calligraphy and Andalusian Latin letterforms, together with Berber Tifinagh script as well. It’s an inventive project that combines languages with a great respect for each cultural tradition in writing and lettering and type design. The design team of Laura Meseguer, Kristyan Sarkis, and Juan Luis Blanco found ways to have these three writing systems become a single family having a civil conversation with one another.
To me, that’s the perfect ideological way of attempting to understand another culture. Not as a mirror of yourself, and not as something exotic either. It is a way of understanding another culture without completely imposing your view on it, or vice versa.
Just as a good conversation has a lively back and forth, not a dominant single voice.
AbiFarès: Indeed! Three people sitting in a room and screaming over each other in a language the others don’t understand is not a conversation. Why can’t we just have a conversation? It’s not that difficult.
See Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès speak at AGI Open in Mexico City, September 28-29, 2018.