CHARTING A COURSE FOR ARABIC TYPOGRAPHY

13 November 2006
Tarek Atrissi
Tarek Atrissi

The education of an Arabic designer/typographer is no different than the education of a western one. It includes a basic introduction to Latin typography as well as major historical styles and movements presented in theory and in practice. Arabic typography is, in fact, something of an afterthought that follows a more western tradition, making the learning process more complicated and more demanding. There are no programs or schools solely dedicated to Arabic type or type design but just like many Western schools, most of the existing Arabic graphic design schools take typography as their primary focus.

Yet the reason why both Arabic and Latin typography are equally important is the fact that many Arabic countries are bilingual. It is also because many of the instructors who formed the first generation of Modern Arab graphic designers studied design in American and European schools.

Given this cross-pollination, a viable course must include the following: Separate introductory typography classes in Arabic Typography and Latin typography need to be given to students, as well as courses that cover the historical development of two different writing systems. At an advanced stage, Arabic and Latin typography need to come together when the focus shifts towards adapting the two scripts together, which is often the case. Logos for example, especially typographical ones are often adapted in two languages; corporate identities often work in two scripts yet look cohesive and consistent. And perhaps this is one of the most important factors in studying Arabic typography: The integration of Arabic and Latin alphabets for different communication needs.

It is also important to learn the difference between calligraphy and typography - knowing what are the characteristics of each discipline and how to use them separately. Arabic lettering is built on the calligraphic rendering of form. Calligraphy is hand written and more of an artistic practice with a rich history for Arabs and that has always been closely related to religion. Typography on the other hand is machine-made and is an offspring of calligraphy as a result of the evolution of printing.

Young designers do not have to learn calligraphy because it is a practice that needs specialisation and long years of practice and that is a skill not directly useful to the contemporary field. Designers should, however, have an acute understanding of calligraphy in order to know how to use it for their specific needs. They have to be able to communicate to the (craftsman) calligrapher what they need or to be able to push his skills into challenging results. Indeed it is similar to hiring an illustrator or a photographer but in that context the use of calligraphy is very related to the typographical aspect of design.

Even when a designer is involved in the design of a magazine or newspaper masthead in Arabic, he might need to initially work with a calligrapher and later abstract this calligraphy to create the typographical letter.

But beyond understanding calligraphy, the major focus of the designer should be on typography itself. To be able to work successfully with Arabic type is necessary to understand all the problems in order to bypass them, and eventually solve them. Unlike Latin fonts, Arabic fonts have many problems, which makes the task of creating good design and typography a hard one.

The main problem of Arabic fonts is availability. Compared to the uncountable number of Latin fonts available in the market and emerging everyday, Arabic fonts are pretty insignificant. The 'less is more' theory does not apply here because out of the relatively small existing palette, only ten fonts are up to a high typographic standard, and therefore difficult to have enough faces to be expressive or novel. Typography can either be defined as type design or as design with type. In the West there is a wide selection of available typefaces and designers can be satisfied using these 'ready-made' fonts. In the Arab world though, there are so little fonts that the designer's involvement with both 'type design' and 'designing with type' is more likely to happen. Yet availability is not the only problem, many of the existing fonts merely, and poorly, attempt to imitate the traditional calligraphic style. The result is a failure to preserve the beauty and fluidity of calligraphy. Moreover, typefaces that are stuck in the past and fail to respond to the contemporary needs of our modern times, like legibility in small sizes or efficiency in New Media applications, are inefficient at best. It is hard to use typefaces successfully as graphic elements, which makes it very difficult to find good Arabic design composed solely of type. I have never seen an Arabic typographical poster that could be compared to those by Paula Scher, who uses letters as a major source of graphic elements.

Learning type in Arab countries is even more challenging because the graphic and typographic design profession is still young enough not to have a rich heritage of masters to emulate. A very effective way in creating innovative graphic and typographical language is to make use of the cultural, social, historical and geographical factors to make the visual expression a true reflection of its context. There is a thin line between being inspired from the West and trying to randomly apply a foreign approach in an inappropriate context. That is why the critical mission in teaching Arabic typography is not only in educating how to juggle between two alphabets, it is also in how to create a delicate mix of Western and Eastern charm, while making the best out of the two sides yet keeping the local flavor. When such an approach is taken in design and typography education, a more inspiring quality of work will be the result.

Like anywhere else, culture, religion and politics exert as major effect on lettering and typography. The conservative attitude that governs all these three sectors in the Arab world is reflected as well in type, which remains a very traditional field not open for innovative contributions. The shift towards globalisation nowadays - particularly through the web - should have a positive impact in bringing influences of foreign cultural trends that will bring positive progress if incorporated well with every country's own cultural heritage and the visual form of its written and spoken language. Academic institution should stress however on the fact that in the world of Arabic typography and design, renewing should not be just for the sake of renewing but rather for solving current problems to take Arabic typography a step further.

Perhaps when academic institutions will be able to afford a bigger focus on Arabic Type Design, a new generation of Arabic fonts will arrive and make things much easier. This could happen probably with the introduction of graduate schools majoring in Arabic type design, who will be able to prepare the students to fully explore all aspects of Arabic type design, in particular the neglected technical aspects that are pretty complicated with a script like Arabic. It is only then that radical progress will happen: when specific software and technical solutions will be created in the Arab world instead of the West, taking into consideration the real problems facing Arabic type designers and breaking the technical limits that are imposed nowadays by big western software companies. Designers then will know how to bring their creations to be fully operational on computers. Undergraduate studies in design will never have enough time to fully focus on type design, but they can prepare designers to do so in the future if that is their interest. A clear description of the responsibilities of making type design as well as a better overview over the technical/production side of it will be a good addition to the smaller attempts and exercises in designing letters or words or titles. However, in order to have more people interested in further focus on type design and hence educational systems specially dedicated to respond to this need, copyright issues and intellectual property laws should witness a major reform. Piracy of fonts is way too damaging for the industry in the Arab world and it seems that the efforts and responsibilities are not only in the hand of the designers but equally in the hands of the consumers.

The constant struggle of trying to make effective modern Arabic graphic design was the springboard for a project that I developed the last three years: A website about Arabic typography - http://www.arabictypography.com - which aimed to create a modern user interface that proves that existing problems with Arabic fonts are no limits to create fresh typographically designed pieces. The main function of the site is to play the role of a communication platform for Arabic type and hence to exchange ideas between various people interested in the field, Designers, calligraphers, typographers, technical people and more, in order to create a discussion and an awareness of what it will take to solve all previously mentioned problems in the absence of major Arabic type or graphic design associations. With the emergence of a fast growing community of Arabic designers, interest and individual efforts in the field of Arabic typography are highly needed. When these various individual efforts will be brought together, higher standards will generate and team work will eventually produce a stronger educational system for the Arabic designer/typographer, who will be more ready to break all the current limitations and carry the industry to the next step.




About this article
This article was originally edited by Steven Heller, The education of a Typographer, published by Allworth Press

About the book
Exploring the methods for teaching and learning typography, this book features more than 40 essays from top experts and educators in typography today. These essays run the gamut from introducing the themes of type and typography to various complex and rare strategies for learning. Contriburos include Allan Haley, Art Chantry, Stefan Sagmeister, Tarek Atrissi, Denise Gonzales Crisp, Nick Bell, Ed Fella, David Jury and Katherine McCoy

Tarek Atrissi
Beirut born Tarek Atrissi holds a BA in graphic design from his homeland Lebanon, a Masters of Arts in Interactive Multimedia from the Utrecht School of the Arts in Holland and an MFA in Design from the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he studied under Steven Heller, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister. His work has been exhibited in the Guggenheim museum and is in the permanent design collection of the Bibliotheque National de France. He has been featured in major international design books and annuals, and has received prominent international awards, including two Adobe Design Achievement awards, the Type Directors Club, and four Ibdaa 99 awards.

Tarek is the principle of Tarek Atrissi Design, based in the Netherlands, and focusses on creating a modern Arabic graphic design language. He is the founder of www.arabictypography.com, an online communication platform for Arabic typography.

American magazine Step Inside Design chose Tarek Atrissi as one of the 25 rising design stars for 2004; while Print magazine nominated him for 20 under 30, the annual review of the most achieved visual artists below the age of 30.