Arabic typefaces worth studying

Gerry Leonidas asked me to put together a list of Arabic typefaces worth studying: examples which I found of particular relevance for students who seek key examples of exemplary practice (something along similar lines as his own list for Greek). The following, generally chronological list, is meant to be an introductory selection, and does not aspire to be exhaustive. It emphasises typefaces with a proven record of use and is restricted to designs for text-intensive applications. This list might get revised occasionally.


The beginnings of Arabic type-making reach back to the fifteenth century, yet Arabic typography of note and merit for contemporary practitioners has a much shorter history.


– Forget everything done in Europe prior to the late nineteenth century, these types have only historical interest but no relevance for current practice. One notable exception is the Maghribi type cut by Marcellin Legrand, see also Aisha.


– Of the Middle Eastern foundry type from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the type cut for the Emiria (also known as Bulaq or Egyptian Government) printing press in Cairo stands out. It is the godfather of Arabic type. Ideally study original letterpress prints such as the 1924 Quran printed with this elegant and timeless design.


– Monotype Series 549: Try to get your hands at hot-metal composed and letterpress printed examples, it was and remains exemplary for Arabic book typography. Look at the photocomposition and early digital versions only as examples of deterioration of quality with advancing technologies, rather than good models (a dark chapter in Monotype’s history).


– From certain quarters comes disproportionate noise about some of the Arabic simplification schemes that were developed around the middle of the twentieth century (notably Nasri Khattar and Lakhdar Ghazal). By and large they were hyped for economic interests of the creators, yet had little to no relevant impact in practice. The one notable exception is of course Simplified Arabic, the type developed by Linotype & Machinery in the 1950s which was based on the typewriter character set. Incidentally, it never was hyped – it did not have to be – and became known as Yakout, which turned into the most used and copied Arabic typeface. Indeed, it might have been one of the most influential ‘inventions’ of Arabic type design to date, and won hands-down against all other simplification attempts.


– The 1970s and early 1980s saw some of the highest activity in Arabic type making in the twentieth century. Notable original designs from this period are Osman Hussein’s Badr (previously known as Osman), Tim Holloway’s Mitra, and Hossein Haghighi’s Nazanin which are both particularly popular in Iran.


Although difficult to find, one should also mention Linotype’s Nastaliq type Sheeraz which predated all following ‘smart’ font formats. Designed by Holloway, Mike Fellows and Fiona Ross, this font was well ahead of its time with its dynamic composition principles, making it the first genuine Nastaliq style type. It later was redesigned and sold as Qalmi.


– More recent works of Holloway which are all worth studying for the superb quality of their drawings are Karim, Adobe Arabic and Aldhabi, released by Microsoft with Windows 8.


DecoType have been producing pioneering work in Arabic type design since the 1980s. DecoType did the bold step of creating their own font rendering engine, specifically tailored to the uncompromising reproduction of the Arabic script with all its features (the ACE engine – initially the acronym stood for Arabic Calligraphic Engine, now Advanced Composition Engine). Note that some early commissions by Microsoft did not use ACE, but relied on existing font technology. Incidentally the resulting fonts are the most wide-spread DecoType fonts because of their inclusion in major operating systems. In their most recent form, all of DecoType’s interpretations of classic Arabic writing styles (Naskh, Nastaliq and Ruqah) in the Tasmeem software should be studied in great detail by aspiring students. Emiri, DecoType’s revival of the type used in the Emiria Quran is equally excellent. For the most recent development of DecoType see the Mushaf Muscat.