Latin fonts seek Arabic counterparts for an intimate design revolution
BEIRUT: For years, art directors, graphic designers and the writers and editors who occasionally poke their noses into the debate have been engaged in huge philosophical brawls over tiny technical details. For ages, they have been willing to throw down over the merits of serif versus sans-serif typefaces - whether or not letters should carry little decorative flourishes, or serifs, like the rightward kick on a lowercase a, the leftward angle on a lowercase d or the miniscule hat that caps a capital letter such as J.
Some find serif typefaces timeless, elegant and easy on the eyes for sustained reading. Others find sans-serif typefaces fresher, breezier and more contemporary. (One typeface designer says a serif font is a classy, well-dressed woman while a sans-serif font is a tragic fashion victim). The different text treatments and legibility issues online versus in print have only complicated these admittedly dorky discussions even more.
If you can take all of that without falling asleep then you are sure to find the book "Typographic Matchmaking: Building Cultural Bridges with Type Design," which was feted with a launch party, lecture and exhibition in Beirut last month, an invigorating read. One of the most interesting debates to emerge in the book - which was edited by Huda Smitshuijzen Abi Fares, an established graphic designer and expert on Arabic typology, and chronicles the experiences of five Dutch-Arab design teams that spent two years devising new Arabic fonts to match existing Latin fonts - is whether or not serifs apply to Arabic type at all.
Designers Peter Bilak and Tarek Atrissi, who collaborated on an Arabic extension of the Fedra font family, concluded early on that serif and sans-serif styles held no place in the history or tradition of Arabic type.
"The only way to make Arabic compatible with serif typefaces is to increase the contrast of the stroke modulation," they write. As such, they were able to match their new Arabic font to both Fedra Serif A and Fedra Sans.
Designers Fred Smeijers and Lara Assouad-Khoury, on the other hand, meticulously translated the rounded serifs of the Fresco font to an Arabic counterpart by inverting them.
"Typographic Matchmaking" is an exhaustive record of a pilot project spearheaded by Abi Fares and the Khatt Foundation Center for Arabic Typography. In an introduction dubbed "Arabic Type in the Age of Digital Production" that knowingly builds on the approximation of Walter Benjamin's famous and oft-
cited essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Abi Fares notes that the low cost and high speed of information exchange engendered by globalization, be it a force for good or bad, has introduced the pressing need for fonts capable of supporting multiple scripts, and has at the same time exposed Arabic fonts as vastly underdeveloped alongside their Latin counterparts.
Building font families in which Latin and Arabic scripts can be seamlessly interchanged is vital for bilingual (or trilingual) cities in the Arab world, whether for signage, advertising, branding or designing publications that speak more than one language. Right now, bilingual books, journals and magazines, whether in Arabic and French or Arabic and English, pose huge logistical challenges. Not only is the cost of translation high (and the precision of language elusive), the physical layout of pages is also significantly frustrated when different fonts are required.
But the ambitions of "Typographic Matchmaking" are more than mechanical. According to Abi Fares, Arabic calligraphers "have distanced themselves from the realities of contemporary Arab visual culture, and their work has become confined to art exhibitions rather than to applied design ... Calligraphy is still venerated as Islamic art's highest achievement and typography is seen as a mere commercial necessity with little aesthetic refinement and value." The "Typographic Matchmaking" project aims to encourage the design of digital Arabic fonts that preserve the Arab and Islamic world's cultural identity while allowing talented young typographers to mess around, subvert and manipulate that culture from within. Addressing the current shortage of Arabic fonts, their lack of variety and their incompatibility with both contemporary technology and current design discourse is, for Abi Fares, a step toward forging a mature design culture - and with it a more powerful, positive image of Arab culture in the world.
To illustrate the project's long-term potential - and the fonts' practical applications for those blinded by the book's descriptions of x-heights, ascenders, descenders, counterforms, glyphs, strokes and the maddening level of complexity wrought by the fact that Arabic type requires four versions of each letter depending on where it is positioned in a word - Abi Fares teamed up with the arts organization Xanadu to organize the Beirut launch party at Art Lounge on December 15. Fifteen Lebanese artists were invited to use the "Typographic Matchmaking" fonts to create artworks that reflect their vision of Beirut. (These works are a necessary antidote to the book's cover, which is surprisingly dull and visually unappealing.)
Of course, for all the technical jargon, "Typographic Matchmaking" does offer fascinating insight into how typeface designers work. One traveled to Cairo to photograph the city's vernacular visual culture. Another conducted comprehensive research on the historical use and development of Maghrebi and geometric Kufi styles versus more fluid Naskh calligraphy. All of them offer a humbling portrait of how painstaking typeface design can be.
"Type design is a private endeavor with a very public appearance," writes Nadine Chahine, who developed BigVesta Arabic with her former professor Gerard Unger (the Vesta and BigVesta Arabic fonts were used in Abu Dhabi recently for an exhibition in the Emirates Palace about the plans for Sadiyaat Island's cultural district). "The final result is like any relationship: It always needs more work, and it'll never be perfect."
"Typographic Matchmaking: Building Cultural Bridges with Typeface Design," edited by Huda Smitshuijzen Abi Fares, is published by the Khatt Foundation with BIS Publishers in Amsterdam. For more information, please check out www.khtt.net
Latin fonts Arabic counterparts
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