Complex Dutch Arab Complex – Arabic Font Specimen Book review

First published in English and Czech language in TYPO, No. 36, 2009


Arabic Font Specimen Book review

Edo Smitshuijzen is known for his work in signage design. His portfolio lists a considerable record of projects in this field and he recently published a signage design manual. Since he is neither a typographer nor a typeface designer, his authorship of the Arabic Font Specimen Book comes somewhat as a surprise. Yet, since its promotion exclaims that the book is the “first […] of its kind”, “long overdue” and that it is “extreme in its thorough covering of all aspects relating to contemporary Arabic fonts”, one assumes a significant contribution to the field. The blurb on the dust jacket states that it “is a must have for everyone working with Arabic type or interested in the typography of extremes” and furthers the already high expectations. The price tag of 150€ and the little note “limited edition” are noted in passing, and while wondering if the high price and exclusive print run of 100 copies help to advance the field, we turn to the artefact itself.


General observations

Without a doubt, one gets a lot of book for the money: 656 pages, bound in a blind and gilt-stamped grey cloth cover with silver dust wrapper and three (!) coloured book-marks make for an impressive 2870 grams. This first impression of a lavish production is substantially corrected when opening the book – poor printing quality (b&w laser), badly cropped low resolution illustrations and unsatisfying typography (orphans and widows just to name one flaw) are not what one expects from a work about typography in this price range. In addition, the number of typos, grammatical errors or generally the lack of copy-editing is startling for such a production.

The book is divided in two sections – a general introduction in four chapters, and a voluminous catalogue of commercially available digital Arabic typefaces. The first chapter aims to introduce the subject to the uninitiated. It covers aspects as diverse as Arabic calligraphy and legal issues of font software. Chapter two is entitled “Guide lines for Arabic type design” and touches on the more specialised questions pertaining to typeface design in general and Arabic type development in particular. The third chapter is dedicated to the usage of Arabic type. Entitled “Quality aspects of typography”, it contains a selection of related considerations as well as examples apparently designed by the author. The fourth chapter lists “system and application software” and discusses their functionality for the Arabic script. In addition to the main text, a number of contributions by other authors were published. Mamoun Sakkal participates with a brief introduction to Arabic calligraphy and Pascal Zoghbi discusses questions pertaining to font production. Other texts remain anecdotal in scope and content and do not contribute substantially to the book. Given the “limited edition” of the book and that, the articles by Zoghbi and Sakkal are already available online their added value is questionable and rather seems to inflate an already voluminous edition.

From the title we gather that the author did not concern himself with questions of terminology. The distinction between a ‘typeface’ and a ‘font’, highly relevant for a book directed towards professionals, is not apparent. This inaccuracy is subsequently introduced into the Arabic title. Using the word funtāt is an Anglicism of the wrong term although ḫuṭūṭ ṭibāʿiyyä is actually established usage. More fundamental is the failure to distinguish between ‘Arab’ (referring to ethnicity or anything pertaining to being Arab) and ‘Arabic’ (relating to the Arabic language or anything pertaining to it, independently of being Arab), an error perpetuated throughout the book. Given such laxity with the central theme, one wonders how more peripheral aspects are treated. Peripheral in the author’s mind were apparently also the image credits and references, for there are none. One wonders how one can elaborate on as difficult a subject (on as many pages), without having to credit a single source. More questionable, and in some cases dubious, is the lack of image credits. A rare exception is Mamoun Sakkal’s note (p. 20) about the origin of the calligraphic samples used in his article. Yet, he omits to inform us that Mohamed Zakariya created the artworks for a stern review (Milo & Zakariya, 2006) of Arabic Typography (Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, 2001) that caused considerable excitement.


Telling your own (his)stories

Starting out with some conventional remarks about the Arabic script, the description soon turns alarmingly flimsy. While it is an explicit goal of this publication to provide information accessibly in order to counter a perceived “complexity” (p. 11), it seems as if the attempt of putting it in “simple terms” backfires. The author describes the Hamza “as an addition to an existing character to create a few extra characters” (p. 14), not realising that it is a distinct letter. He falsely states that it is only used by the Arabic language, and then notes that other languages “apply also other miniature characters as additions to existing characters to make new ones”. If the reader is not already confused, the author concludes: “to complicate matters further, miniatures are also used as extra signs to clarify what may be an unclear letter shape variation”. The confusion over the terms “letter”, “character”, “sign”, “marks” and their respective combinations leads the author to complicate things. From the outset, one might wonder about the need to simplify – does the author presume his audience incapable of handling complex information? The complexity of the Arabic script seems to be so much on his agenda that he describes it as being “more complex than the Latin system of floating accents, since the Arabic system has two layers of marks on top and one at the bottom of the letters”. Did the author not yet come across languages as complex as French or Portuguese?

In turning to the “brief history of Arabic type design” (p. 30) we note that Smitshuijzen resorts to tendentious and stereotypical descriptions. He patronisingly qualifies the Arabic script as having a “handicap” due to its “complexity” and does not shy away from blunt characterisations along national and/or ethnical lines: “Arabs love embellishments and relish tradition which doesn’t help innovation”. We do wonder how such statements relate to the premise of the foreword that “cultural colonialism […] must be avoided” (p. 9).

According to the author, the first moveable Arabic type was cut by Franceso Griffo in 1514, a claim that I was not able to verify (a source would have been helpful). The image shown is clearly a reproduction of the Book of Hours (also known as the Kitāb alāt al-sawāʿī, Preces horariae, Horologion, Septem horae canonicae) presumably commissioned by Pope Julius II and printed by Gregorio de Gregoriis, either in Venice or Fano (Krek, 1979), but neither text nor caption note any of this. The account stays gratuitously inexact from Granjon’s Arabic punches (for a thorough account see Vervliet, 2008) to Arabic printing in the Low Lands, failing to mention Franciscus Raphelengius (Lane, Breugelmans, & Witkam, 1997) while indulging in national stereotypes and equally off-topic considerations.

Coming to the twentieth century and the author’s account of the development in typemaking methods, the reader has already accepted that depth and scrutiny are sacrificed to the variety of topics the author touches upon (for a serious discussion see Southall, 2005). The trivialization could be forgiven, if it were not a one-sided attempt to tell a story. Developments such as the ‘Simplified Arabic’, conceived in the 1950s at Linotype to increase newspaper keying speeds are flatly dismissed as “there was no other way to use western (sic) office machines” (p. 33). In the same spirit, the Department of Typographic Development of Linotype Ltd that was behind the vast majority of typefaces that were used all over the Middle East in the period of early digital typesetting are downplayed as “a group of people”. Had Smitshuijzen read the introduction to the Linotype collection (assembled by the company) 542 pages later, he would have known that this “group of people” was behind 95% of newspaper output and around 80% of the remaining commercial printing in the region (Banham & Ross, 2008). Moreover, he quietly passes over Dr Fiona Ross’ role at Linotype, who was art-directing a large number of highly successful Arabic typefaces during 10 years as head of the department and a further eight years as typographic advisor for non Latin designs. Up to the current day, many of the well known typefaces stemming from this period (such as Yakout, Nazanin and Mitra) are the choice of typographers in the region. Important work in terms of encoding, keyboard layout, input schemes and the first steps of digital Arabic typography, all accomplished in the 1980s and 90s, are either omitted or presented as purely mechanical exercises.

While historic ignorance is one thing, the author even concludes in a sneer against the work done by highly qualified specialists, noting that “Arabic type production remained for a large part a technological quest, steered by technicians, leading on average to poor visual type design quality” (p. 33). Smitshuijzen frequently expresses such disdain for technology. It seems to be a welcome scapegoat for the author, while a profound understanding of the issues at hand is not apparent. Claiming that “concerns about the production technology are fading away, making room for more aesthetic concerns” (p. 36) is only attesting to unawareness of these issues.

Turning to another major contributor to Arabic typography, DecoType, Smitshuijzen perpetuates the strategy of belittling outstanding achievements. His attempt to link DecoType’s work to that of a certain Dr Plooy lacks any evidence and contains numerous false claims. Smitshuijzen candidly overlooks 25 years of pioneering work in the field and refers to some of the most widely used digital Arabic typefaces in the Middle East (such as the DT Naskh and DT Thuluth) as “a few (system) fonts”. The accompanying margin note claims that DecoType “devoted their lives to adapting the Arabic script to modern technology”. Quite the opposite is true. The software developed by DecoType was born out of the desire to conceive of a system that is not restrained by established typesetting technology. All contributions of DecoType, from their first experiments with smart fonts in the early 1980s, over the Microsoft OLE Ruqah typeface, to their latest implementation in WinSoft Tasmeem, were based on a thorough understanding of the Arabic script and the dedication to its uncompromised reproduction.

Tellingly, Smitshuijzen complains in numerous other instances that the software is “proprietary”, not realising that the approach he advocates does exactly what he is insinuating DecoType is doing. Smitshuijzen even explicitly proposes that given the standardization of communication devices “all languages have to conform more or less to these standards” (p. 36), contradicting his claimed support of “nativism” in our “more and more globalised contemporary design culture” (p. 9).

Impressions of technology

The section entitled “Font family” (p. 46) reads like a basic introduction to typography that, apart from its popular approach, does not get the facts right. The author claims that “differentiation in size has been the traditional way in the Arabic script to show different typographical functions”, missing out on colour and style-mixing among others. It seems to be a function of this limited knowledge about the Arabic script that leads Smitshuijzen to his proposals that are exclusively based on Latin typographic practice.

The same section curiously includes redundant technical information, treating OpenType as a recent development that does not yet seem to be entirely familiar to the author. In many instances he refers to OpenType fonts in the future (“OpenType will also be based on Unicode” p. 53) – although the font format has been around since 1996 and is widely in use since 2000. The author’s contempt for technology also leads him to confuse the Unicode standard with “font technology”. In the section about “extended character sets” (p. 49) the author misreads the Unicode standard as producing “standard” and “expert” character sets, the latter comprising “small caps and old style numerals”, a distinction unrelated to Unicode, and utterly transformed by OpenType. His proposal to devise similar “expert sets” for the Arabic script remains unelucidated – a pity, since the issue of westernising Arabic typographic norms this would raise is worth discussing in depth.

Smitshuijzen’s notes about technology are so unsound that it would go beyond the scope of this review to discuss them; suffice it to note that the information is either outdated (such as system-wide Arabic OpenType support on Mac OS X, introduced in 2006) or not profound.


A policy paper for Arabic type design

Reading through the introductory part, we note some opinionated and biased remarks, but the text does preserve a certain relation to the subject. This changes with chapter 2, “Guidelines for Arabic Type Design” (p.63), in which Smitshuijzen outlines his opinions and the reader gathers insights into his actual motivations to write about Arabic typography.

The language of the author is remarkably loaded when stating that “extremely underdeveloped” Arabic type design has to “blossom […] on meagre soil”, and we get the impression that this description serves the purpose of advancing an agenda. Smitshuijzen refers again to the known enemies “extremely complex type production machines” and “a need to follow an intricate calligraphic tradition” which he blames for “no real progress”, indicating the other side of the agenda. Smitshuijzen essentially suggests a bi-polar situation in which Arabic typography is in a state of despair and prescribed ‘modernisation’ is the only way ahead. To support his claims he employs a curious mixture of tactics. After diminishing and ridiculing achievements in the field and exaggerating the complexities and hurdles for good Arabic typography, Smitshuijzen sets out to single-out another enemy of his cause: the native users of the script.

He advances his agenda by stating that “fear for too much Western influence is unfounded, some aspects of type design are universal endeavours, irrelevant of a script”, although having already demonstrated a lack of knowledge of both script and type design. Smitshuijzen continues his case for the inevitable Western influence on these “underdeveloped countries” (p. 66) with a cascade of utterly dismissive notes about the native cultures. He notes that products coming from “Arabic (sic) societies” which “show generally a very low interest in graphic design” are “just painful to look at” and “make any ambitious graphic designer cry” (p. 65). He then complains that “Arabs still buy handmade calligraphy” and their “children are brought up to obey rules”, all hurdles in the way of Smitshuijzen’s agenda of so-called ‘modernisation’. His note that the “Arabic language has a position in society different from the West” which does not allow Arab society “to update the culturally important text in the Islamic (sic) Quran” is yet another trivialisation of an intricate question. Smitshuijzen concludes that Western influence happens “mostly because of lack of interest from the Arabic (sic) countries themselves” (p. 66) and that “designing proper fonts (sic) simply never had the interest of the Arabs”. The reader is left with the impression that Smitshuijzen is fundamentally depreciative of the native culture and therefore calls so urgently for a radical ‘modernisation’.

In utter contradiction to the former remarks, Smitshuijzen then raises the concern of “cultural colonialism” because of “Non-Arabs having high-pitched opinions” about the Arabic script. The reader wonders on what pitch the author would locate his own opinion that classifies it a “conservative point of view” to see “the essence of the Arabic script” in its writing tradition. Smitshuijzen concedes that with the computer it is possible to reproduce the “complicated rules” of the Arabic script, yet he insists on it being a “tortuous way to produce text”. We wonder if he tried, and note (having worked with Tasmeem on complex Arabic texts with hundreds of footnotes and multiple levels of text distinction) that the opposite is true. An example addressing these issues can be seen in Letters of a Sufi Scholar, The Correspondence of `Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (16411731) (Akkach, 2009).

Smitshuijzen summarises his opinions with a curious parallel, in which the “French (sic) painter Picasso” was influenced by African art without losing his European roots. If the Arabs the author is referring to, are as Arab as Picasso is French, they do not need to worry about any influence whatsoever.

More worrying are the author’s elaborations about so-called complex scripts. Referring to unspecified research, Smitshuijzen notes that in reading a complex script the capacity of the brain is “consumed to make sure that the message is decoded properly and there is literally less energy left to think about the content” (p. 67), a claim contradicted by the renowned linguist Florian Coulmas (1991, p. 230). Smitshuijzen implies that peoples using complex scripts have less capacities to “contemplate the reading” than peoples using the “Greek invention […] of a simple 24 letter alphabet” and its Latin derivative. He concludes that the extent of the influence of the alphabet on the “Greek consciousness” is “a matter of opinion” – which does not indicate sound research – but that “a simpler script certainly helps to widen the general participation in the important activity of reading and writing”. I hasten to add that an inverse link between script complexity and adult literacy has long been debunked; we need look no further than Japan for proof of this.


A conspiracy?

The section “Adobe, Arabic type design & communication software” (p. 69), reads like a conspiracy theory. Smitshuijzen draws a contemptuous image of Adobe aiming for market monopoly to the disadvantage of the tricked user and discusses other questions that are not relevant to his subject. He twists the sound decision by Adobe to leave catering to a specific market to the established experts at WinSoft into a “lack of interest in quality control” (p. 69). Turning to the latter, Smitshuijzen gets more explicit in remarking “sub-standard quality of some parts of the ME versions” (p. 70) and noting that “these essential parts are probably functioning only temporarily”, without indicating in any way what deficiencies he is referring to. His additional comments about Tasmeem show utter ignorance of the software while the very existence of Tasmeem contradicts his claims of Adobe monopolising the market. Smitshuijzen states that “the function of [Tasmeem] is not entirely clear”, but fails to note the difference between the Naskh and the Emiri typefaces, which affirms the lack of scrutiny that leads him to the first comment. In another instance, Smitshuijzen notes that they are “basically one font (sic) under two names”, which, taken to Latin typography, would be comparable to the failure to distinguish the hot-metal Monotype Bembo and Adobe Garamond Premier Pro.

Turning to Adobe’s end users, Smitshuijzen laments that products of the company “have become more complex over time” and remarks that “there is hardly any user around who really masters all the functions of the complex software”. Leaving aside the nonsensical assumption that all users’ needs should overlap precisely, it is worth noting that the recurring notion of “complexity” seems to trouble the author. The reader is left with the impression that Smitshuijzen is spiteful for feeling out of touch with current technology.

The section about the Adobe Arabic typeface promises to be more pertinent to the subject matter. Smitshuijzen dedicates a full paragraph to the people involved in the project, yet misspelling their names. The author emphasises the “Anglo-Saxon” (p. 76) education of renowned designers, seemingly in an attempt to discredit them. This goes some way towards national and indeed, ethnic contempt towards a group of distinguished professionals who enjoy wide respect. It seems that this approach is reserved for all who do not belong in a small group of select protégés, one of them named as an example to follow in the very same paragraph. Continuing in this tone, Smitshuijzen describes John Hudson as a “self-taught type designer and font technician who stumbled into this profession by his unstoppable infatuation with books”. Personal attacks are saddening in any forum, but in a book of this level of aspiration are unforgivable.

The notes about the production process inflate information from the developers with the usual wails about “complexity” (p. 77) and “endless lists”, confirming the impression that the author is troubled by complex information. The conclusion demonstrates again his narrow scope by noting that “the expansion of the glyph collection (sic) to serve more languages than the two languages required in the brief can hardly be seen as a functional extra” (p. 79). Smitshuijzen trivialises the needs of Kurdish, Pashtu, Sindhi, Uighur and Urdu users without batting an eyelid. Curiously, the author even points out that the oblique versions are not related to “any sensible script tradition”, while in other instances, he is the most fervent advocate of a break with this tradition – switching positions to serve the point he wants to make, even if his argument is orthogonal to the one in the previous section. Ignorance of multilingual computing is manifest in his calling Unicode support and vocalization “motivated by scholarly idiosyncrasies” that are not “functional priorities based on an intense experience with the language and its use”. It slowly dawns on the reader that Smitshuijzen relates to the Arabic script as a set of shapes that should be standardised and ‘modernised’ just like the logo of a company. Any notion of what a writing system is about is sorely lacking.


Teaching a subject one does not know

While the stated goal of this publication is to help in the selection process of a typeface for a graphic design assignment, the author ventures also into the field of typeface design. The text remains in the limbo of the perceived “complexity” of the task, and attempts to simplify it (or at least its account). A few common-sense considerations regarding the scope of a design are followed by a description of a dubious process. General questions are thrown at the reader without actually giving tangible advice in answering them: while “the ‘colour’ of the new design has to be decided upon” (p. 83), there is no clue as to how one should go about it. Nonsensical sentences like “the Naskh style is the most applied style, the Kufi style comes second” add to a blur of uninformed guidance.

Technology is not the domain of the author, and his description of character sets, encodings, codepages, Unicode and FontLab will impede any aspiring typeface designer. In a curious moment of what he would call traditionalism in another context, Smitshuijzen admits that “some conventions [in type design] are hard to defy. Letter proportions and letter spacing are one (sic) of those” (p. 87). The section about OpenType does not go into the subject matter, but is essentially an inflated description for users, rather than type developers. Yet, not even the user perspective is properly addressed for Smitshuijzen’s account of application support for OpenType is factually flawed, even though this information is well documented and easily accessible. The examples created by Smitshuijzen for chapter 3’s discussion of “quality aspects of typography” (p. 103) offer sharp insight into the author’s own depth of skills in typographic design. That he supplies his work as examples of quality, rather than refer to established canons betrays both an inappropriately high opinion of his own merits, and a lack of general typographic history background.


The catalogue

The actual catalogue of typefaces shows a strong bias that borders on patronage for some groups and individuals, and a negative misrepresentation of others. The introductory texts for each “major foundry” were provided by the respective company and are the most sound bits of information of this publication. Smitshuijzen did not employ any criteria for inclusion or exclusion, other than subjective judgement. This leads him to include typefaces of dubious provenance, pirated material that is sold under different names (crediting them by their inclusion), while he fails to include mainstream typefaces of recognised quality such as the Tasmeem Naskh. The apologetic introductory note that accessing all information about a typeface is not always straightforward does not relieve Smitshuijzen of his responsibility to verify information (p. 150). Giving 1994 as the date of publication of Linotype Mitra is only one example for the lack of scrutiny apparent in this book. Smitshuijzen prominently presents an unheard of “Khatt Font Collection” (p. 159) that contains typefaces that resulted from a project initiated by the author’s wife. All typefaces in this “collection” note that they were “first issued by Khatt Foundation”, even though the typefaces that where distributed by Khatt were unfinished and dysfunctional fonts, far from any professional standard. The falsification continues in some of the introductory texts that were not provided by the developers. According to Smitshuijzen, Tasmeem “comes with two similar Arabic typefaces” (p. 522) and the collection is “extended with ‘normal’ fonts (sic) that do not use the ‘calligraphic enigine (sic) of Tasmeem”, none of which is true.



This book is a misleading, highly biased and uninformed account of some aspects of Arabic typography. It is written by an author whose querulous lament of “complex and unpublished rules” (p. 63) of Arabic calligraphy are testimony to an approach that combines a lack of knowledge with preconceived ideas. Smitshuijzen does not bother to study the subject thoroughly, either through learning a language and writing the script, or developing related craft and design skills; this author does not have the means for a qualified judgement and exposes his shortcomings in every other paragraph. Yet, he maintains a pretentious and tendentious voice towards other contributors in the field.

The deficiencies of the catalogue are a pity, for a well-edited and researched presentation of digital Arabic typefaces would have been a valuable contribution to the field. Unfortunately, Smitshuijzen chose to venture into other aspects, harming the quality of the catalogue. If the time and effort spent in generating unfounded and biased information about history and typeface design would have been dedicated to produce an objective and well-presented type specimen, this publication would have had a great potential.

The surprisingly apologetic foreword states that the author has “often wondered whether [he is] the right person to do this work” (p. 9), and there can only be one answer. The question that remains is why he decided to enter an area he does not care to learn about in the first place? Perhaps he is giving the answer himself when noting that “Western designers […] are at times attracted to less sophisticated professional cultures” – it just came as a surprise, that there was a bit more to it. He makes a good point, though, when he writes that “one needs patience and perseverance in life and in type design” (p. 84) – and I couldn’t agree more.


Works Cited

Banham, R., & Ross, F. (2008). Non-Latin typefaces at St Bride Library, London, and Department of Typography & Graphic Communication. London: St Bride Library.

Coulmas, F. (1991). The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell Publishers.

Akkach, S. (2009). Letters of a Sufi Scholar, The Correspondence of `Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731). Boston – Leiden: Brill.

Krek, M. (1979). The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Movable Type. Journal of Near Eastern Studies , 38 (3), 203-212.

Lane, J. A., Breugelmans, R., & Witkam, J. J. (1997). The Arabic type specimen of Franciscus Raphelengius’s Plantinian Printing Office. Leiden: The University Library.

Milo, T., & Zakariya, M. (2006). Beautiful book made to the highest western standards. Al-Computer, Communication and Electronics , 64-73.

Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, H. (2001). Arabic typography, a comprehensive sourcebook. London: Saqi.

Southall, R. (2005). Printer’s type in the twentieth century, Manufacturing and design methods. London: British Library and Oak Knoll Press.

Vervliet, H. (2008). The Paleotypography of the French Renaissance. Boston – Leiden: Brill.