2011 and onwards

On Thursday, January 26, Typographica posted its most recent best-of-list of typeface releases for the year 2011. I am honoured that Nassim is included in this selection of excellent creations, and feel particularly humbled in view of some of the worthy honourable mentions. Thierry Blancpain’s review is enlightening and critical at once, succinct and without flourishes; a rewarding read for me. It follows Typefact’s selection of Aisha in their selection of the best releases of 2011, concluding a year of great personal reward. But beyond my personal satisfaction, it gives me an opportunity to look back and attempt — what must remain — a subjective review of the year.

Typographica’s selection summarises another year of bustling activity in a blossoming field, seemingly untouched by economic crises. Indeed, typeface design appears to become ever more popular and self-sufficient, spawning new foundries, independent designers, dedicated education courses and software developments for these increasing numbers of letter-form-fiddlers. The changing technical means for designers and foundries are indicative of increasing commercial opportunities. In the few years that I am active in this field, the hegemony of one tool, last updated during my studies in Reading, has been fundamentally challenged by a number of alternatives, most recently in the form of Robofont’s release in autumn.

Even in the slower-moving world of education, both public and private, the impact is felt. Type-design courses seem to be the thing to add to the curricula of graphic design schools and universities across the globe. Formal type education, not just some optional extra-curricular side-interest to a graphic design curriculum, seems to establish itself. Clearly, the jury is still out on their mid-term viability, and in particular that of its hundreds of yearly graduates too. How many type designers can make a living from as narrow and specialised a trade? Are these boom years that will see a noticeable deflation in some years to come?
If we look at submissions to Type Design competitions — and there a few now — we see rather startling numbers. And many of them, both selected and not, are quite good too. Though, one may add, many of them are quite similar to one another too.

The wealth of expression, of interpretation, of changing tasks and media, the increasing number of designers, educators, researchers and, last but not least clients, are all good things. They make for an innovative field, better graphic design, better typography, and a better world, it is hoped.

That the BBC Worldservice chose to go for as new a territory as webfonts for its Arabic-script sites is testimony to the potential of current developments. The launch of the Arabic site set in Nassim in January 2011 was a milestone for me; but it seems safe to assume that its pertinence might transpire beyond the immediacy of personal reward. Just to name one example: 12 months ago, Google’s Chrome browser did not render Arabic webfonts yet, but by the time the Persian site was launched in April, the application’s rules were changed to allow for inclusion of the necessary tables in the fonts — a small step for the Internet, but quite a step for Arabic typography. It is particularly significant because it stands for one of the first instances in which new technological developments are employed for a non-Latin script as they emerge, rather than with the lag of years or decades to Latin typography that used to be the norm in the past century. Indeed, I don’t know of any other website of the scale of traffic as the BBC news sites that employ this new means on as wide a scale. And concurrently, the technology allows for design choices that had been prohibited before — the typographic palette of the BBC’s GEL (Global Experience Language) was not translatable to Arabic system fonts.

The launch of Rosetta in 2011, a typefoundry dedicated to world scripts, falls neatly into a series of developments that promise further advances in the field. For example the Thuraya typeface, the graduation project of Kristyan Sarkis can be named as one of the rare experimental display typefaces that actually has an interesting approach and re-thinks conventions of Arabic type (and it was duly awarded a TDC medal last year). It is noteworthy, that contrary to many other current display faces, it strongly builds on historic models, from which it derives much of its interest. Similarly, the award Mirjam Somers received for her Nastaliq typeface at the Letter.2 competition underlines what might be the beginning of a wider appreciation of a current in non-Latin typeface design that so far remained outside of the limelight. This delay is not entirely surprising, as contrary to the more visible strands that promise the ‘new’ for its own sake, without much regard or understanding of the ‘old’, comprehension and recognition of such works requires an effort from the audience. It doesn’t suffice to read the sexy tagline that promises to reinvent the wheel, to assess the quality of something as complex as a typeface (be it Arabic or any other script). There is nothing to ‘demystify’ about Arabic typography, as is often claimed these days, but there is a need for solid explanations and informed decisions in typedesign, which in turn require thorough study and practice. As anywhere else, also in Arabic typedesign there is nothing like a free lunch.

The mainstream recognition of projects informed by historic research makes one hope that the level of discussion of Arabic typography gradually raises. It may hint at an increase in demand for more differentiated opinions and a more critical assessment of non-Latin typography on a wider scale. Often, it seemed, that new typefaces were praised for the mere fact of being not of the Latin script. With a more diverse field, and more diverse approaches, this may change.

Whether 2011 was a seminal year in this respect is to be seen, but certainly a number of events indicate a change of winds. That typefaces from the young foundry Rosetta were selected by three independent judges of the Typographica selection speaks for its catalogue. That they are all designed with non-Latin scripts in mind, speaks for itself.