London: Following the redesign of the mother-page of the BBC News in July last year, today the BBC Arabic launched their new website. It is probably one of the first, and certainly the biggest site yet to use webfonts – Arabic webfonts that is.
Typography as a defining element of the site
This is an exciting development as such — Arabic typography catching up with the latest technological developments — but I am particularly delighted and proud to say that the BBC design team chose my Nassim typeface to fulfil this role and serve as the main typeface throughout its Arabic news site. Nassim therefore becomes the first Arabic typeface that makes the leap to the Internet and facilitates what has long been impossible to achieve: distinguished Arabic web typography. I am humbled that Nassim becomes part of a project that aspires to become “the best digital media brand in the world”.
The path for the new concept and look was paved by the redesign of the whole BBC website with a focus on type as central element of the brand. In this compelling account by the makers you can read about the newly introduced grid-layout and how the concept of the new BBC design strongly emphasises the role typography plays on the site:
“A key feature of the new GVL (Global Visual Language) is a much more dramatic use of typography. As well as Gill Sans we’ve introduced big bold type in Helvetica or Arial and restricted variations in size so that we have much greater consistency across the site.”
The new design harmonises the many sub-entities and employs clear, sober, functional and aesthetically pleasing typography. That Nassim was chosen to perform such a prominent role in the design of the Arabic news service is of course a source of great satisfaction and achieves what I had aspired to in its creation: a typeface that delivers news to Arabic readers on a big scale.
A dedicated design
When I first designed Nassim, I drew inspiration from classics of Persian typography. Letters like the very round Mim echoed a style we are most familiar with from Iranian typography and graphic design. As the BBC team ran their first tests with Nassim, this particular flavour was soon discussed and I set out to develop a custom version more in line with the customs of Arabic type. The challenge in this endeavour was to come up with a solution that on one hand corresponded well with the BBC Arabic site, and on the other didn’t loose the distinct character that made Nassim win multiple design prizes.
In close collaboration with the designers and editors of the BBC World Service I revised a number of features and letters to accommodate for the style and specificities deemed most appropriate for the Arabic language website. The resulting BBC Nassim stays true to the qualities of the original design, whilst toning down some idiosyncrasies and giving it a generally more “Arabic” look.
Optimised screen rendering
A more technical challenge was to translate this new look to the final browser rendering of the font. The web is displayed on screens whose typical resolution (72 to 96 dpi) still is substantially lower than any conventional home-use Laserprinter (1200 dpi). This lower resolution results in uneven edges, visible pixels and/or blurriness of letterforms in small sizes. In order to reduce these effects as much as possible and retain the original letter shapes, a process called “TrueType hinting” had to be employed. I am grateful to my colleague Thomas Grace for his contribution on this level, for his task was not enviable. It could be compared to drawing a beautiful and complex Arabic letter shape with subtle curves and details on the tiles of your bathroom. You can only choose between black and white, and you have only a handful of squares to represent a letter. This coarse approximation of the letter is then interpreted by a rasteriser (which varies depending on platform and browser) and taken out of your control. I am quite thrilled about the effect we were able to achieve nonetheless: solid and clear letterforms in small sizes and well rendered, crisp and unique Arabic type in headlines.
Challenges for Arabic typography on the web
More technical work and testing had to be done for Nassim to be displayed in your browser — webfonts are new, but Arabic webfonts were pretty much unheard of until now. Browser and cross-platform compatibility for anything more complex than ASCII proves to be still problematic. The problems we encountered range from the Apple OSX system that as of yet only partly, and insufficiently supports Arabic OpenType features, to Google’s Chrome browser that flatly rejects any fonts with elements that are fundamental for Arabic rendering or the Windows rendering engine that does not allow for Kerning between Arabic letters and punctuation marks. Unfortunately, the current situation does not allow for an equal user experience, and there are still a number of issues to be addressed. We hope that developers will soon catch-up with the demand for improved non-Latin typography on-line and off-line, and embrace the technical developments necessary for most non-Latin scripts.
One step ahead, but more to come
Maybe we can hope that this site is but a step that will trigger increased interest, development, more opportunities and investment in Arabic typography, irrespective of medium, language and country. Such developments would, in turn, be intricately linked to substantial changes in politics and societies – changes that recent events throughout the Maghrib and the Middle East give hope.
صبح الخير المغرب، صبح الخير الشّرق الأوسط!
I would like to thank the BBC Future Media team for their excellent work, professionalism and friendliness, albeit the sometimes stressful and challenging task. My colleagues Thomas Grace and Tim Ahrens, whose technical expertise helped a great deal, and my publisher Rosetta whose logistical backing enabled me to concentrate on my design work.