‘Reading 2006’, published in TYPO 24, 22–31, 2007.
I started to work on Nassim with two straightforward and practical aspirations: firstly, I wanted to learn how to design type; and secondly, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to spend a whole year working on a single big project. I wanted to get in touch, and learn about as many facets as possible. From the very beginning the field of non-Latin design appealed to me and, due to previous jobs dealing with Arabic typography, interest and our enthusiastic programme director, I went for the challenge of the Arabic script. The particular design brief that I devised was to develop a bi-script (Arabic and Latin) typeface which could be used for newspaper production. This had the advantage of a manageable scale and an achievable goal: to offer an (overdue) contemporary approach to the peculiar issues of Arabic newspaper typography.
Yet, I had only very little understanding and previous experience with the Arabic writing system – a few months of a language course and some small typographic projects were the only foundations I could build on. A lot of basic research and learning was needed before I could even think of designing type. Most crucially I learned how to write, first with a metal broad-nib pen, later with a bamboo pen. In these exercises I did not attempt to deal with proper calligraphy, but rather, I tried to familiarize myself with shapes and structures. Since the inherent logic of a script is not obvious to the foreigner, an understanding of how tools and writing techniques influence the shapes is essential.
At the same time I spent a lot of time “looking at stuff” – manuscripts, tiles, inscriptions and typefaces. For example I learned a lot from an interesting parallel between monumental inscriptions and contemporary typeface design: in both fields the craftsman designs on a very large scale and needs to take the translation to a much smaller size into account – one of the fundamental skills I had to develop during the process.
After a few months a basic understanding started to develop and I grew more confident in my judgements and attempts. By the time I started to work on my actual Arabic design, I had already gained significant experience with my Latin design; and it turned out that some of the skills I had developed were equally applicable for the non-Latin part.
In the harmonization of Arabic and Latin shapes, I tried to achieve a satisfying result without compromising the integrity and authenticity of either script. Through tedious trial and error experiments I found surprising solutions – for example in relation to the perceived weight and “blackness” of multi-script text. Instead of equalising the width of the main strokes of both scripts (i.e. the elements shaped by the broad side of the pen), I had to vary their widths to achieve a better balance of grey on the page.
Naturally, I lacked the intuitive understanding of native readers – a skill which cannot be achieved in a few months research. Therefore aid and guidance of both, readers and experienced designers were of utmost importance for my decisions. In this, I was extraordinarily lucky to receive valuable input from Fiona Ross, Kamal Mansour, Mamoun Sakkal and others.
As mentioned above, I did not design Nassim for a particular client or with its potential economic success in mind. Nevertheless, the choice of quality Arabic typefaces is still limited and, one could assume that there is room for developments – and, presumably, a desire for new designs. For instance, Yakout, the currently most widely used Arabic newspaper typeface, was designed in 1956. In any case, a richer variety of typefaces would certainly benefit Arabic publications.
For me, the fascination of typeface design stems from its multilayered nature. ‘Writing’, either with “pre-fabricated letters” (as Gerrit Noordzij defines typography), or in the traditional sense, is one of the fundamental and defining achievements of humanity. It is inextricably linked to politics, religion, trade and: civilisation itself. As Florian Coulmas notes, it “is not to say that writing caused civilisation, but the reverse is not the whole truth either. Rather, writing has to be seen as a result as well as a condition of civilisation, as a product shaped by civilisation and a tool shaping it.” As a typeface designer, one works along this threshold. We create and define this basic means of communication, yet our work is defined by conventions, models, history and traditions. Apparently, we do not deal with this background consciously at every decision, every curve and every pixel; indeed, you would risk your own sanity if you tried. Nevertheless, these considerations are the bits which give this craft its appeal and which constitute the real challenge.
On a more technical level, a typeface is an intricate system of relationships and interdependencies. The actual complexity depends on the brief, but it is safe to assume that the bigger the family grows, the more scripts, technical refinements and typographic options it includes, the more challenging it gets. Seemingly small decisions, changes or additions to the characterset might trigger multiple reverberations throughout the system and cause, often unexpected, more work. Therefore a clear head, good documentation and as transparent a workflow as possible are absolute necessities – values which certainly also lend themselves to other design problems.