03 January 2007

Calligraphy painting by Mohammed Ehsaei

The past few years have been quite exciting for Iranian graphic designers. As Iran's design gains more international attention, the graphic designers face new challenges and rewards. In winter 2002 a poster exhibition by Iranian graphic designers called "Un Cri Persan" (A Persian Cry) was held in the city of Echirolles as a part of the Month of Graphic Design in France. The exhibition exposed a wealth of works that somehow escaped the spotlight for almost two decades. Ever since then Iranian graphic designers, many of them already internationally known, have been sharing more of their magic with the rest of the world.

One of the qualities that makes current Iranian graphic design unique is its typography. The country has a rich history of visual arts and moreover the better part of this heritage consists of calligraphy. Throughout the times calligraphy has been inventing and reinventing itself and has influenced other forms of art. The incorporation of calligraphy into Islamic architecture is a fine example of this union. In recent times these treasures of beauty and harmony have inspired painters, sculptors, and in particular: graphic designers.

In comparison to Europe and North America calligraphy is a far more popular and practiced form of art in Iran and in most other countries around this area. You can spot at least one piece of calligraphy hung on the walls of most Iranian households.

Perhaps these are all reasons why it is not so easy to draw the line where calligraphy ends and typography starts. Some of the masterpieces of Iranian design are often the results of a collaboration between a designer and a calligrapher. One of the classic examples of such collaborations is the logotype of the Reza Abbasi Museum. The late Morteza Momayez (1936-2005) used the brilliant calligraphy of Iranian master calligrapher Mohamad Ehsaei to create this logotype in 1976.

Mohammad Ehsaei has created numerous logos using various traditional aesthetics. His "Calligraphy Paintings" are highly praised for their complex compositions. In many of his works Ehsaei has extracted the essence of letters and traditional compositions and used them to create abstract works that are unmistakably Iranian in tone and character.

So what is it about Persian calligraphy and the writing system that makes it so desirable to work with?

The secret lies in the script and its mechanics. This script, that is written in Persian or Farsi, is known as the Arabic Script. It should be noted that the technical term Arabic Script refers to the script used in Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, other Arab countries, and more Indian regions where the Pashtu language is spoken. Moreover it used to be the official writing system in Turkey before its westernization by Ata Turk. Therefore its use for writing in over a dozen different dialects and languages has prompted a natural cultural adoption of specific styles and characteristics.

The national language of Iran is called Farsi or Parsi. Farsi and Arabic use a similar alphabet but Farsi has four extra letters. In Arabic there is no Pe, Che, Zhe or Ge sound. That's why in UAE you get Bebsi instead of Pepsi. Although both languages have borrowed from each other through history, Farsi's vocabulary and grammar are very different from those in Arabic.

Farsi is written from right to left and it consists of 32 letters. Almost every word can be written without lifting your writing hand from the paper, meaning that usually all characters are connected. This makes Farsi a very fluid and flexible script. To be able to understand the complexity of the script it's better to have a rough idea of the anatomy of Farsi letters. To make that easier, let's forget about calligraphy for a moment and look at fonts designed for everyday purposes.

Each letter can have a maximum of four different forms:

Free form: When it appears without being connected to another character.

Initial form: When the character is the first character in a word, therefore only connected to the character after itself.

Medial form: When the character is connected to the characters after and before itself.

Final form: When the character is connected only to the character before itself.

As a characteristic of the particular letter, different forms of a letter have in fact one single shape with different extensions reaching out of that shape. These extensions end either on, below, or above the baseline. The extension always lands on the baseline if it is going to join two characters. In other words - every two characters always meet on the baseline.

So what happens as you type?
Farsi fonts have to be "smart fonts". The font has to decide which form a letter should appear in, depending on its position in the word. Open Type has solved the problems by providing all the different forms of the letters and all the exceptions and special connections. Here is an example of letters joining as a writer types a four-letter word.

Now let's continue with calligraphy. Here is where the fun begins:
Nastaligh or Nastaliq is a cursive style developed in the late 14th century in Iran. It allows very dense compositions and is very fluid and expressive. Nastaligh is not directly bound to a baseline. The letters float and continue all the way below the baseline. This results in a well balanced line usually with an upward momentum at the end of the line. Understanding and mastering this balance takes years of rigorous practice under a master. A piece of calligraphy can be most beautiful when the artist bends the rules to create a unique yet aesthetically pleasing composition.

Shekaste Nastaligh (meaning "broken" Nastaligh) is a style born out of Nastaligh. It is more angular and suitable for fast writing. And its long oblique strokes imply an incredible sense of motion and rhythm.

In the late 1800s two master calligraphers, Mirza Gholamreza and Mir Hossein, explored visual qualities of Nastaligh by creating pieces known as Siah Mashgh. Siah Mashgh was originally just a practice for the calligrapher to warm up his hand and to refine the shape of letters by repeating them over and over. These practices resulted in a page filled with words and letters, hence the name Siah Mashgh literally meaning "Black Practice". When calligraphers realized how stunning some of these pieces were it was turned into a style of its own.In these pieces the sole intention of the artist is to create visually stunning works. Words and letters are repeated regardless of meaning, all for the sake of composition and style. In some ways, a Siah Mashgh explores the concepts of typography in a more complex manner.

Reza Abedini is one of the contemporary designers who has explored and expanded the possibilities of Farsi typography. In many of his works Abedini breaks up the baseline and manipulates individual words and letters to achieve his unique typographic style. Although Abedini uses modern typefaces, he tries "to revive the poetic qualities of Persian calligraphy in his posters", as he puts it.

Since 2003 The 5th Color - a group currently made up of four well established Iranian designers: Majid Abbasi, Saed Meshki, Alireza Mostafa Zadeh, and Bijan Sayfouri - have organized three typography exhibitions in Iran.

Members of The 5th Color represent a generation of designers who have had a considerable role in shaping and fostering graphic design in Iran in the last two decades. Saed Meshki has brought typography into music stores and bookstores with his designs. In the past few years he has focused on book design and has started his own publishing house called Meshki Publications.

Another member of The 5th Color, Majid Abbasi, is the creative director of Did Graphics, a leading graphic design studio in Tehran. His works often feature very peaceful Farsi typography, giving the viewers a chance to appreciate the elegance of the letters.

Typography exhibitions organized by The 5th Color have been an opportunity to see works of up and coming designers, design students and big names in Iranian design all in one place. The first exhibition was held to commemorate the 100th birthday of Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951), an Iranian avant-garde writer. The event was titled "The Blind Owl" (Bouf-e Kour) after Hedayat's best known book.

The 2nd and 3rd exhibition were held in 2004 and 2006 with the subject of Molavi a mystic Sufi poet in the 13th century - and Iranian proverbs.

Farhad Fozouni and Iman Raad are two of the younger artists who stand out for their typographic approaches. Through their relatively short careers as designers they have created a wide range of charming and playful works.

With all the energy and enthusiasm of designers the following years are definitely going to be full of surprises and astonishing works coming out of Iran. Thanks to all the artists who participated and sent us their works.
This article originally appeared at It is reprinted with permission.