Azza Alameddine is a native Arabic speaker from Lebanon and has been working for Dalton Maag for a few months. Azza recently ran a workshop for colleagues discussing the characteristics of Arabic typography and explaining best practice for matching Latin and Arabic scripts in logotypes.
“It is our responsibility as type designers to educate graphic designers, typographers and branding agencies about the richness of Arabic calligraphy and the infinite typographic possibilities that can emerge from it.”
Old cities, old calligraphy
Arabic typography started in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, a few centuries after its Latin sister. If we can still see the major calligraphic scripts (Ruq’a, Naskh, Nasta’liq) in the streets of old Middle Eastern cities today, it is because talented masters of calligraphy have refined the proportions and shapes over the years, and the styles have survived because they were clear, legible and beautiful. The artistic development of different scripts also meant that there was more room to express the subtle sensibilities of context. We can actually see that some of the styles used in a specific context back then are still used in the same way today.
Calligraphic Naskh in a 13th century manuscript. Typographic Naskh in a 20th century book.
New cities, ‘new’ typography
Although Arabic typography has always had its shortcomings, it has noticeably regressed in aesthetics and functionality in recent decades. In more modern cities in the Gulf, the geometric Kufi typefaces seem to be setting a trend in the matchmaking culture. Although Kufi has not been used as a reading script since the 13th century, its emergence eight centuries later as an Arabic counterpart for Sans Serif Latin typography (in display but also in text) seems questionable.
The truth is, what we call Kufi today (or some call a hybrid between Naskh and Kufi), is actually a simplification of shapes imposed by the rigidness of Latin typography and rationalised as inspired from ‘Kufic’ calligraphy. If to western eyes matchmaking of the Kufi and sans serif seems to work, to an Arab reader it looks completely primitive and obsolete.
A Latin sans-serif logo matching a very badly designed Kufi-style Arabic;
The top part of ‘jeem’ is square, the ‘dal’ is too closed and too wide.
Arabic is known for its cursive, flowing and horizontal feel. Reading is made optimal when letters don’t really align, teeth are not repetitive; in other words, when modularity is reduced to a minimum. You can imagine then why the geometric typefaces seen everywhere in the Gulf feel as if Arabic typography is taking a step backwards. Geometric typefaces are not a good option for reading. They strip out all the characteristics that make text legible at the expense of matching their features with those of the Latin. A similar rigidity is found in the real Kufi script which is why it was abandoned a long time ago.
Quran in Kufi script from the 8th century. Recent magazine with ‘Kufi’ used as body text.
Although you could argue that looking at a logo is not really ‘reading’ and as a result Kufi could be a good option, in reality the script was never part of Arabic reading habits or visual culture. The only time Kufi might seem like a good choice is if matched with a display, bold, modular Latin. And so, by default, setting it in long texts is widely abusive to Arabic typography.
Arabic-Latin logo matching workshop
Azza’s workshop aimed at highlighting bad conceptual decisions that are often made when matchmaking Arabic–Latin typography today and finding alternatives to these.
The workshop started with an introduction to the different styles of Arabic calligraphy and the contexts in which they were most commonly used over the centuries.
Next, Azza showed recent pictures of calligraphy, lettering and typography taken from the streets of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to illustrate the current visual culture in the Middle East, and draw a parallel between each style’s old and current use. The aims was to bring awareness to the participants about the function of each style.
Some examples of bilingual signs in the Middle East. Latin sans-serif with a Naskh, Ruq’a and Nasta’liq companion in that order. Matching is not an important issue in vernacular lettering, as priority is given to legibility.
The matchmaking concept
Arabic calligraphy is rich in scripts and each one is used for a specific purpose. But, when matchmaking Latin and Arabic, often designers used to the Latin script make choices which are not suited to the Arabic. People are used to seeing particular styles in particular contexts, so the choice of corresponding Arabic style is often made to fit with the feel and function of the Latin typeface rather than its features. A good matchmaking should convey the feeling of its Latin counterpart rather than its typographic features and traditions should be respected.
Workshop participants made their choices according to what had been explained: Ruq’a is informal, Diwani is fancy, Naskh is traditional, Kufi is display….Few of them were familiar with the Arabic script, but the concept was grasped by everyone and they started by copying the corresponding shapes from existing calligraphic typefaces. They had two hours to figure out the letters, draw them, and then try to match the contrast and proportions of the Latin. They did a great job in such a short time, and although not refined, the results are very interesting.
H&M in Ruq’a as the Latin is informal. William Montrose
Vivienne Westwood in Diwani to give it a swashy display feel. Ueli Kaufmann
Balmain in Thuluth for the majestic feel. Michele Patanè
Moschino in Kufi because it is appropriate in this case. José Solé
Marc Jacobs in a slightly modulated Naskh because it’s the most appropriate choice in this case. Riccardo de Franceschi
Paul Smith in a Ruq’a/Diwani hybrid to translate the informal handwriting but also the fancy feel of the brand. Damien Collot
Gucci in Naskh because the Latin can work as text. Deiverson Ribeiro
It is very important that we accept and respect that not all scripts convey the same feeling when given the same features. Actually Latin and Arabic are quite opposites in many ways; this is why even an interpretation of features is sometimes not possible. When you are matching scripts, they should respect your audience’s reading habits, work on their own, and at the same time live in harmony.
To twenty first century designers, calligraphy seems too traditional and ‘uncool’. Everyone wants to experiment with new styles and do something that nobody has done before. But the truth is, if you want enhance Arabic typography, the calligraphic legacy that the Ottomans have so generously inherited us must be preserved.
In the 15th century, calligraphers have refined Naskh to give it a sharper, more modern feel. Calligraphy is not set in stone; it can be modernised in many ways through typography. As long it maintains its primary function (writing beautifully), it can, with the right talent, be adapted into today’s reading habits and challenges.
And so, it is our responsibility as type designers to educate graphic designers, typographers and branding agencies about the richness of Arabic calligraphy and the infinite typographic possibilities that can emerge from it.