Arabic type design in one paragraph

In April 2013 I was asked to write one (!) paragraph about Arabic type design for the Smashing Book #4. Although impossible, I tried to produce a concise summary. Eventually the part of the book it should have featured in got cut, instead I publish it here.


Designing Arabic type requires all the considerations that are well known from the Latin script world: the intended use of the typeface should influence concept and formal characteristics of the design; the medium in which the typeface will be primarily used likely changes design parameters; the voice of the design will have to echo what is required from the design brief, with some room for personal preference by the designer.

But in addition to these aspects, the successful design of Arabic type relies on other considerations too. For starters, designers must be intimately familiar with the script’s morphology – the rules that govern the ways in which letters and words are formed. They are quite different to the Latin script, and may depend on the calligraphic style that underlies a design. An appreciation of proportions, and the difference between essential skeletal structures and discretionary ‘surface’ features is fundamental to any type design, and has to be learned if one is not familiar with the script.

To learn the skills necessary for sound judgements on the above issues, substantial immersion in the writing culture of Arabic (or any other script for that matter), is necessary. In other words, one has to look at established models – which are often historical – and write, and draw, and look again, in order to get a feeling of the script and make the right design decisions. This process is not to be taken lightly, and it will probably take years to develop the eye and the hand, to know the cultural and visual references, to see where novel approaches may fit, and where conventions should be followed.

And finally, for Arabic and indeed most scripts of the world, typographic forms are not remotely as canonised as they are in Latin. Therefore, the process of finding appropriate type-forms which at once authentically reflect the written forms, and at the same time reproduce them favourably in the different medium, is more difficult. Models are fewer, and not as solidly established, and have to be questioned for their suitability and their merits. At the same time, this makes the challenge particularly exciting: in Arabic and other non-Latin script design there is more room for genuine innovation. There are real problems requiring design solutions and informed novel approaches may contribute in a way which has become rare in Latin type design. Yet, this should also be taken with some caution, for not everything that is newer, will necessarily be better!