Arabic Type: a challenge for the 2nd millennium

© Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares 1998

Attempting an analysis of the developments in contemporary Arabic type design at the brink of a new millennium requires a retrospective/ introspective review. Arabic type has remained to this day strictly concerned with preserving its traditional creation of seductive poetic letterforms that appeal first and foremost to the emotional side of the brain. However, when Arabic type is applied to situations where order and clarity prevail -such as newspapers, signage, on-line... etc.- it is often stripped totally of its beauty and rendered sterile. I wish to achieve through this article an awareness of the fact that Arabic type need not lose its beauty and creativity when applied to modern means of digital reproduction and communication.

Typography in the service of mass reproduction

Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy - the dance, on a tiny stage, of the living, speaking hand - and its roots reach into living soil, though its branches may be hung each year with new machines... -Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style

With the invention of moveable type, Latin Typography has separated itself from calligraphy in order to better accommodate the needs of mass reproduction and consumption. Albeit its development through a long tradition of practice into today's independent field, it still carries the calligraphic seed -the dance, on a tiny stage, of the living, speaking hand- within its form. However this form is in constant change, ever evolving with the evolution of its means of production and reproduction.

Now if we were to compare Arabic typography with its Latin equivalent, we'd have to start from its calligraphic origin, which in the case of Arabic is still an inseparable integral part. Similarly to Latin, Arabic calligraphy originated in the copying of religious texts by skilled scribes and calligraphers, and was elevated to a highly esteemed level of refinement exclusively worthy of representing the sacred word of God. Encouraged by the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam, Arabic calligraphy has managed to achieve the status of spiritual art through the fusion of sacred text and aesthetics. The relationship between type design and Arabesque (decorative motifs and patterns) which is the geometric underlying structures behind both, strongly reflect the love and fascination of the Arabs with mathematics and geometry. These have come to represent symbolically deep spiritual concepts through which even the whole incarnation could be explained.

In the 10th century AD, drawing the Arabic letters was for the first time normalised by the calligrapher Ibn Muqlah. A child of his times, Ibn Muqlah based his norms on geometric forms using three basic elements: the rhombic dot (measured by the pen stroke thickness), the Ist letter of the Arabic alphabet Aleph (the measuring stick of the alphabet), and the circle (the diameter of which is equal to the height of the Aleph). The principles like any type design principles left a lot of space for creative expression and innovative variations. Their main aim was to set a standard level of unification, of even rhythm, of harmony and balance on a page. These rules, not so unfamiliar to any trained typographer regardless of the script and language they may be working with, are still applicable 10 centuries later and will probably go on being a typographer's concern.

On the surface, the differences between the two scripts are their visual appearance and the fact that they run from opposite directions on the page; from left to right in Latin and from right to left in Arabic. But the real differences lie in the technological and cultural developments pertaining to visual communication since the industrial revolution.

This industrial revolution that took western cultures by storm in the 19th century was slow to reach the Arab world , and therefore to help develop its visual calligraphic craftsmanship culture into a fully independent industrial field. While Latin typography have undergone progressive changes, and has evolved harmoniously with the technological developments of its times, Arabic experienced disjointed jumps in its development into today's digital fonts. There is even evidence that printing Arabic with moveable type was attempted as early as the 1500 in Europe, but due to the strong calligraphic nature of the script this proved to be problematic and the problems were not really elegantly resolved until the end of the sixteenth century by the French type designer Robert Granjon at the Imprimerie Nationale in Paris. The Imprimerie Nationale has to this day a collection of copper and lead type in a variety of styles, sizes and languages, including the Monotype Naskhi fonts of the 1950's (with its intricate handsetting system), as seen in its type specimen book Les Caracteres de l'Imprimerie Nationale published in 1990. (fig. 2, 3) Most of these fonts were cut to be used for typesetting and printing specific book projects. This tradition was maintained for a long period of time by some of the most renown designers - such as Abdel Kader Arnaout, (1936-1992, Damascus) - who designed and cut their own fonts for use on book cover and poster designs. The digital technology available to most designers in recent years provides for easier control over the production of one's own fonts. The problems of Arabic type today lie in a cultural and technological gap resulting in the loss of necessary craftsmanship to carry on the developments of the most representative visual expression of this geographically wide-spread civilisation. (for more details and dates on the historical developments of Arabic type see article in Baseline 15)

The modernist approach to reformation During the early 1930s and through to the late 1960s, a series of serious attempts were launched by the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo for reforming and modernising the Arabic language and trying to resolve the the conflict between tradition and modernisation, while dealing with the simplification of the grammatical and the visual (written and printed) problems. A call for proposals generated a large number of entries, originating from the various Arab countries and a few from Europe.

The main concern of these proposals focused on the following:

1. The reduction of the number of shapes per letter with or without the separation of the letters from one another by removing the links between them.

2. The reduction or elimination of the diacritic dots (since the old original Kufi script did not contain any).

3. The inclusion of the Arabic accents (soft vowels...) into the alphabet as extra letters.

4. The normalisation of the letterforms and the augmentation of the central height (the equivalent of the x-height in Latin fonts).

The most extensive and visually convincing of these proposals was the project of Mr. Nasri Khattar (Lebanon, 1947) which proposed a radical change that indeed brings Arabic typography to match Latin fonts of that period. Being a graphic designer and a graduate of Yale School of Art, Mr. Khattar follows his modernist Swiss design training to the letter. He creates a type system - that he calls unified Arabic - based on the one-form-per-letter principle, with letters independent of each other (unconnected), with an even stroke weight that unifies them visually, with reduced ascender and descender heights and enlarged x-height. All principles very much in line with most sans-serif fonts of that period in their strife to enhance legibility in small sizes (8pt and less). He later on added more formal styles to his unified font that relate more to the calligraphic pen stroke. (fig.4) These fonts, it was argued when accepted will not only speed up typesetting, but will also make learning and writing Arabic easier. This system of one shape per letter and no connections between the letters is to this day not accepted and not available in digital form on the market. Although it is quite legible, it holds -in essence and in aesthetic feel- a strong resemblance to Wim Crouwel's New Alphabet, where it was assumed that a new visual language was needed to accommodate the new computer age. (fig.5)

In 1975, a lesser known study, published in Paris by Sindbad, was written by Mr. Robert Hamm, a professor of typography and visual communication at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Algeria. Mr. Hamm's book presents another detailed study and proposes a gradual modernisation of Arabic fonts through a design method based on the reduction of all Arabic letters to 2 shapes per letter (one for initial and medial shapes, and one for final and free-standing shapes). He proposes a simplification based on the geometric structure of the Kufi style in combination with the commonly used Naskhi letter shapes. This simplification championed the reduction of the ascenders and descenders of Arabic fonts in order to economise on leading space. He suggested the creation of a strong baseline with a minimum variation and irregularity in letterform proportions,thus reducing the "non-orderly' airy quality that Arabic calligraphy often has. This transitional system (from calligraphy to typography) did not reject the calligraphic nature of the letterforms in the sense that it keeps them attached to one another, and is what is mostly used as the standard in contemporary digital Arabic type designs to this day. Albeit its modernist tone of universal design approach, what is impressive about this study is its analysis of the problems of Arabic letterforms, the strategies it suggests for the adaptation of Arabic type to modern industrialised technologies, and its call for a clear delineation between calligraphy and typography.

Needless to say that these modernist attempts, whether in Latin or in Arabic typography, have enlightened our post-modern design culture in ways that may not have been intended. These projects, however, remain historically important experiments, which ironically are visually easier to assimilate in this age of eccentricities and far-fetched experimentation in type design. We have, to a large extend, managed to curb the digital technologies in ways that can make real (or virtually real) our wildest typographic fantasies.

The PC and the type design revolution

What PCs have brought is access not to designing type but to making fonts. A font made on a Mac by a graphic designer or a non professional will work just as well, in the technical sense, as a font manufactured professionally -and that is revolutionary. -Mathew Carter, Emigre 11

Software development pertaining to the design and production of type has come a long way since the early 1980s with the revolution brought about by the Macintosh personal computer. Software for designing, displaying and printing fonts underwent immense changes making them capable of attending to complex design tasks in order to cater to a wide variety of writing systems and scripts. Now that the technologies available for the production and use of type are far more flexible than ever before and far more adaptable to various cultural needs, the creation of classical calligraphy-like (end note1), modern or even wild fonts are all possible. Moreover, there have been for some time on the market some software applications that are specifically designed for Arabic typesetting which provide a limited range of accompanying fonts (end note2). The question remains why is Arabic typography not booming in the same way that its Latin equivalent is.

A wish list for the 2nd millennium

Today with the Arabic fonts available on the market, there seems to be an alarming lack of sufficient variety, quality and innovation. As graphic designers are very well aware of, it is practically impossible to achieve good typographic design using badly designed fonts. The reasons for this stagnation in qualitative type design is a result of aesthetic, technical, educational, and cultural obstacles. I will do my best to point out these problems, in the hope of instigating active responses to them.

-The aesthetic aspects

A certain state of stagnation has followed Arabic font design since the old movable metal types. With the invention of digital typesetting, these old metal types were often digitised and reduced to a range of sizes that the computer could easily accommodate. The blind appropriation of these fonts digitally has generated a set of aesthetic problems that need to be reconsidered.

1. The problem with the original Arabic type designs is that they were in principle not designed to be used at sizes smaller that 14 pt, since they were originally intended as display fonts that followed in their design the handwriting of the calligrapher. These fonts when scaled to smaller sizes using one mathematical template, often lose their detail and consequently their clarity of form. It is better to reconsider designing special variations on each font (for display text 18 pt and above, for text around 12 pt, and for smaller sizes 8 pt and below) that will ensure legibility and elegance at all sizes.

2. Most Arabic fonts available on the market often fail to have a unique visual or functional character that best accommodate specific types of design applications. Practically the same font is seen used in design situations where it may not fulfill its function as optimally as it should. They seem to be hopelessly copying existing traditional calligraphic styles (which they fail to match in grace and fluidity) most appropriate for manuscripts or monumental decorative applications. There are, however, a few exceptions to that rule where context and legibility are given the highest priority.(fig.6) Often these special purpose fonts are designed for large scale projects and private clients (on-line use, signage projects...), hardly if ever do they make it to the wider market. (fig.7 and fig. 8)

3. The essential mismeasurement of Arabic type based on the letter Aleph as the determining factor of the point size whereby it is matched with the x-height of its equivalent size in Latin fonts -and should have been instead matched with the capital-height- results in making Arabic text always appear smaller and lighter than Latin fonts. This convention when remedied could improve the balance between Arabic and Latin scripts when used simultaneously.

4. The Arabic alphabet consist of only 18 basic letter shapes, which logically would make drawing Arabic fonts quite a simple task; the complexity lies in the amount of ligature sets. Unlike the Latin standard set of letters that determines the visual appearance of the font design (ie. Hamburgevios), Arabic has no such set and all the basic shapes need to be drawn not only as freestanding forms but also in their variant shapes and as ligatures (end note 3).

5. It may sound absurd to discuss kerning in a calligraphic script like Arabic. Unlike Latin calligraphic fonts, Arabic script does have within one word some letter(s) that are not connected to the rest. When kerning and word spacing are not properly dealt with they can lead to confusion. The Arabic alternative for justification - normally achieved in Latin type by adjusting kerning and word spacing - is called the Kashida (also known as Semitic Justification). It is done by stretching letters horizontally in the aim of avoiding word breaks which are impossible in Arabic. (fig. 9) The Kashida ads a harmonious balance to a block of text when the scriptorial rules that govern its use are respected - which is seldom in digital fonts for lack of contextually intelligent software and/or knowledge.

6. Numerals and punctuation marks that accompany the majority of Arabic fonts are often treated as an after-thought. They do not seem to be given the appropriate design attention and always appear to be hardly in line with the rest of the design.

-The technical aspects

1. The handling of Arabic characters in computers requires a specific type of contextually intelligent software that automatically inserts the right ligatures as the user is typing her/his text on the regular qwerty keyboard. This software having basic functions similar to those of the GX Apple Macintosh font format (which unfortunately for Arabic type users did not become the standard), is independently provided by various DTP applications such as Quark Xpress and Adobe PageMaker in their Arabic versions. The only problem for font designers is that to this day there is no one standard Arabic type software that is supported by all graphic and DTP softwares. (like Postcript, al, that are available for Latin type). In the early 1990s the Unicode standard for character encoding was published which allows for the expansion of the character sets from 256 glyphs to 60000 and more, thus allowing for the co-existence of many scripts within one system (end note 4). All these technological developments create rich possibilities where dynamic fonts can become complex pieces of software and not just a set of glyphs. Arabic type where contextually sensitive ligatures are essential, can benefit greatly from such developments.

2. The availability and abundance of type design software for Latin type has generated such a deluge of font designs in the past 15 years, the lack of which for Arabic type has contributed to this stifling creative stagnation.

Of course in computer technologies, change is fast moving and the picture may be very different in the near future, but what always dictates these fast developments is a strong need within the market and the seductive potential profit that it will generate.

-The educational aspects

The educational aspect in the sense of a well informed tradition in typography is of course essential in bringing the field to a higher professional standard.

1. To this day there exists no clear grammar - a set of published simple design rules for creating good Arabic type and typography. Nor is there a guide book in the spirit of Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style that deals with layout and typesetting issues. All of today's books on Arabic script -most of which are at least 10 years old- do not go beyond the traditional conservative calligraphic drawing rules of Arabic letters, and they tend to look complicated enough to discourage any dedicated young would-be type designer from ever crossing the threshold.

2. In 1992, a graphic design program was launched at the American University of Beirut. The 4-year fully accredited program within the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture is still unique within the Middle East. The program offers design courses in line with its equivalent in American art schools, however, it holds a unique vision in its teaching of typography. Its ambition lies in encouraging research and furthering the development of Arabic type design. (fig. 10-12) The program tries to portray in its design philosophy 'the needs of a multi-cultural community... a mixture of East and West...' (end note 5), an image that Lebanon is trying to recapture after its long and destructive civil war. The opportunity in such a program lies in the fact that it enjoys (by the mere fact of belonging to the same Faculty, and not being isolated in a specialised art school) a close relationship with the computer engineering program and has therefore the possibility of collaborating on the creation of just those software applications badly needed for the Arabic type industry. Let us hope that we will not have to wait long for such ventures to take life.

-The cultural aspects

What is often cited as the major problem in the stagnation of creative designs for Arabic fonts is cultural misconceptions within the Arab world of the importance of this field in our present information age. While calligraphy is held in high esteem and respect, its poor cousin type design is close to totally overlooked as a mundane commercial art.

1. There seems to be a very relaxed law enforcement action against copyright issues in Arab countries -Lebanon in particular, where such laws are very extensive in compliance with the Bern convention of 1933- which dampens and discourages the creation of good quality fonts for the wider market use. This often results in many one-a-day type of fonts that lack any aesthetic quality and are often copied and drawn by non-professional designers. This situation of copyright infringements should be remedied and strongly penalised if graphic design and the quality of visual communication is to ever reach a higher professional standard in these countries.

2. There is a lack of typefoundries specialised in Arabic type, and which have a clear vision and philosophy about the creation and promotion of Arabic fonts -in the way that Emigre or FontShop do for their Latin fonts. Most typefoundries are western-based and oriented, even when they offer a minor selections of non-Latin scripts. When published, Arabic fonts are presented either in the most unlikely way as an alphabet with 29 separate letters (no numerals nor punctuation marks), or as random sentences that rarely display all the characteristic ligatures and characters. Often a lack of the proper presentation of Arabic fonts in a comprehensible type specimen sheet displaying various sizes and design possibilities in a block of text format (fig 11), makes the choice of a font over another a game of Russian Roulette! Again the lack of traditional convention is to blame.

The designer creates a work, bringing to it a series of culturally influenced or determined assumptions, perceptions, and ways of understanding, creating and producing. In this sense, the designer is not the singular originating point of the work but a player in what may be seen as the apparatus of a specific form of cultural production -Diane Gromala, Emigre 40

The creation of Arabic type designers association that promotes and contributes to further developments of Arabic typography, and that questions the future of Arabic type design, could be what is most needed today to help solve many of these pressing issues. For designing with Arabic fonts remains to this day at a level of mediocrity that will be totally inacceptable to the young generation of world-conscious and information-empowered graphic designers. They and all involved in this field today have the responsibility to raise the standard of type design to best represent their culture within the world community of the 2nd millennium. Every designer of Arabic type, is imminently involved in a challenging form of cultural production.

| Side notes: Comparison of Latin and Arabic scripts | End notes | Figures 1-5 | Figures 6-12 | Bibliography |
| Arabic Calligraphy |

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares is a graphic designer working in France. She teaches at the Graphic Design program of the American University of Beirut. She is currently working on a sourcebook about contemporary Arabic type design and typographers.
This article has been published in Baseline InternationalTypographics Magazine issue #26 1998 -, and reprinted here with permission.

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