Modern Arabic Typography: Challenges and Opportunities

Stuart Tayler interviews Mamoun Sakkal, December 17, 2004

ST: I am a final year Graphic Design student studying at Bournemouth Arts Institute, England. I am currently doing a research project and my chosen subject is Arabic typography and it's westernisation. I came across your work in the book 'Arabic typography' by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, and I was wondering if you could find the time to answer some questions I have?

MS: Thank you, I am glad you are writing about Arabic typography, and will try to answer as much as I can.

ST: Do you think Arabic typography needs to evolve and move forward? If so, in what way, and how, should it be modernized?

MS: Of course it should like everything else in life. Since typography is closely associated with the reproduction of text, it has to respond to the changing technologies for text production. This means that in addition to the ability to design appealing typefaces, designers have to know much about how these typefaces will be used and reproduced in order to provide the most appropriate design solutions for the end result to be as legible, expressive, and easy to use as possible.

ST: There appears to be a divide of opinion in Arabic typography between those who wish to strictly adhere to calligraphy and those who push it so that it becomes unrecognizable, compared to calligraphy. Is this true, and where do stand on this subject?

MS: I think those who believe that typography should strictly adhere to calligraphy are in the minority. It may be more reasonable to say that some want typography to be based on calligraphy and others don't think that this is necessary, or think this is even undesirable.

I am in the first group because I strongly believe that calligraphy is the sound foundation for recognizing Arabic text and for shaping the Arab aesthetics in connection with text. Typography is a practical or applied art whose paramount function is communication, and communication requires that any new forms produced should still be related to those forms that are familiar to millions through a period of more than a thousand years.

There is of course some need to be able to reproduce Arabic calligraphy in an authentic way, but the majority of type designers do not subscribe to this opinion, rather they know that typography is and should be different. The question is how different. Without ruling out the possibility and validity of designing typefaces with totally novel forms, the fact is we have a tremendous wealth of calligraphic styles which make it quite easy to come up with styles that are quite modern while at the same time based on traditional models. This is true in two senses: one, the basic architecture or structure of the letter forms has to be recognizable and thus similar to the basic archetypes of the script, and two, there are hundreds or thousands of calligraphic variations on the common styles that make it easy to deviate from those common styles.

For more discussion about this issue see the book Letterletter: An Inconsistent Collection of Tentative Theories That Do Not Claim Any Other Authority Than That of Common Sense by Gerrit Noordzij especially the first few chapters.

ST: What is your view on the westernisation of Arabic typography? Is it a positive thing?

MS: By itself, westernisation is not a positive development because it implies departing from the traditional forms in order to become more like the European models. However, there is a positive aspect to learning from the west and that is to set high standards for design, execution, and dedication, as well as the ability to view our own heritage with a fresh eye that can extract new values from it in order to develop it in new directions.

For related views on westernisation see my articles An Islamic Image: Calligraphy as Graphics and An Islamic Image: English in Arabic Garb.

ST: You say that westernisation of Arabic type is not a positive development. However when you are modifying an Arabic typeface to match Latin, is this not westernisation in a way? I realise you can still base these designs on traditional Arabic forms but if you are modifying Arabic letters to have a set x/meem-height, ascender and descender height, are you westernising the letters? I ask this because another source I spoke to said Arabic doesn't really have a proper x-height, and an article in 'Eye' magazine said "there are potentially five zones" compared to Latin's three.

MS: Modifying Arabic typefaces to match Latin is of course an aspect of westernisation, and it is not a good development when done without regard to the essential qualities of Arabic script and its calligraphic tradition. At an early age, I wanted to explore the possibility of complete compatibility between Arabic and Latin scripts, and the possibility of creating highly uniform and simplified typefaces. I found that it is possible to achieve both goals, but I also found that I don't have to resort to extreme modifications of the letter forms to achieve satisfactory results in this regard.

It is correct that, in general, Arabic does not have a single equivalent to the x-height of Latin typography. Different styles of Arabic calligraphy can have as little as two or three heights in the x-height zone as in Kufi, and up to ten or more heights as in Thuluth or other cursive styles. And one traditional style of Arabic calligraphy, the Square Kufi, achieves total uniformity of shapes and proportions but is certainly the exception.

So, my proposal for a uniform x-height for Arabic in the paper I gave in 1990 at Cambridge University should be viewed as only one part of my body of work in designing Arabic typefaces, and its goal was to show what one would do if total compatibility with Latin was the goal. The results of this proposal are only satisfactory in a limited range of styles and can not be used as a general rule when designing Arabic typefaces without problems, despite the fact that I did indeed design several typefaces based on this proposal, for example Sakkal Shilia, Maya, Sameh, Arabtek, and Al Futtaim. This body of work is intended for display and headline uses, and is concerned with producing a strong, contemporary graphic statement. None of my more recent typefaces intended for text uses follow this proposal because legibility and ease of reading are more important here.

ST: In terms of Arabic typography, what do you think can be learnt from Latin typography?

MS: See #3 above. In more detail, I think designers of Arabic type can learn from Latin typography to provide the variety needed to help produce well designed and typeset text. This includes the fine details of designing the individual glyphs so they look and print in the most legible, beautiful, and expressive way; the ability to fine tune the composition of letters next to each other to produce a pleasing paragraph or page; and the production of variations of a typeface that are needed for expressive typography. That is, to produce complete type families where the text setter has at his disposal different weights and widths to accommodate text and display needs.

This is why most of my recent type design projects are for families of fonts rather than individual fonts such as Sakkal Kufi and my most recent type Sakkal Majalla.

ST: Should Arabic typography be driving towards being more compatible with Latin typefaces, or should it also be developing in it's own right?

MS: Arabic typography should develop in it's own right and in multiple directions at the same time. One part of this development is and will continue to be influenced by Latin typography, and in this regard, my view is to have a thorough understanding of the calligraphic traditions in order to produce typefaces that are of lasting, rather than transitory, value.

ST: If evolution of Arabic type is needed, do you think there is a case for separating from calligraphy, and not working from it, so that it becomes more typographic?

MS: Evolution is certainly needed, and separation from calligraphy already exists and will continue to exist. But complete divorce from calligraphy is not desirable and does not provide the typographer with any advantages. The reason is the fact that there is no inherit problem with basing typography on calligraphy. Basing Arabic typography on Arabic calligraphy does not make it any less typographic. The intentional disregard of the basic calligraphic rules just to make type completely different does not produce type of lasting value because it cuts it off from a rich heritage that is already established in the conscious and subconscious of the people who use the Arabic script.

ST: In your opinion is Arabic typography advancing in the right direction?

MS: Arabic typography is advancing in multiple directions most of which are positive developments. Those who produce typefaces that are arbitrary and not based on solid foundations are doing a disservice in the short run because they are not contributing the proper education to the public. In the long run, I believe such work will be dropped out by natural selection and the common choice of the users of type. For a related discussion see my article A Brief Survey of Proposals to Simplify Arabic Script.

In addition, I find that some designers and educators keep repeating erroneous statements that do not have any basis in fact which basically state that calligraphy is the root of the problems of Arabic typography. This view is wrong because calligraphy has its own domain and does not by any means dictate what typographers should or should not do. It is the weakness and limited creativity of designers of Arabic type that produces the lamentable conditions of Arabic typography today, and it is ironic that they would blame their problems on Arabic calligraphy. In other words, poor type designers will produce poor Arabic type whether or not they base their work on calligraphy. In my opinion they produce much worse type when they do not base their work on calligraphy because they lose the corrective benefits that come from relying on well tested heritage. See for example the discussion thread in discussion forum

ST: In your opinion, what, and how much of an influence do you think that corporate work, such as commissioned typefaces and logotypes, is having on Arabic typography?

MS: It is difficult for me to make an educated guess in this area because I do not have much data to work with. I think it is still quite rare to commission typefaces. This is changing slowly and may become more prevalent in the future.

ST: I have seen that some of your work involves adapting existing logos into their Arabic versions and have a few questions about this: (8.1) How do you go about these designs? (8.2) how much of an influence is this kind of work having on Arabic typography? (8.3) How much importance do you place on visually matching the logo compared to keeping authentic Arabic letter forms and compared to keeping legibility? (8.4) Are there good and bad examples?

MS: When a logo already exists in a Latin script version, I try to find the most suitable Arabic style that is appropriate and then modify it to match the proportions, details, and spirit of the Latin. The more successful designs are those where the Arabic still has a comfortable and natural feel to it.

This type of work occasionally brings out some forms or details that are interesting and can be incorporated into other typeface projects.

When working with a logo, the designer has more latitude and freedom to modify the letter shapes. First, because in one or two words he or she is able to control all the details that make up the complete design and can make the necessary adjustments that make the whole design look good. Second, because legibility is less of a concern here than it would be in a typeface that will be used to set long texts in a variety of conditions.

As with every other aspects of design, there are of course good and bad examples. For good see my work

ST: Do you think the need to match Latin and Arabic typography (in typeface design) is driving Arabic typography in the wrong or right direction? Do you think Arabic typefaces designed to match Latin ones can produce positive results, for Arabic typography in general?

MS: The need to match Arabic and Latin scripts does not drive Arabic typography in the right or wrong direction. It is designers of Arabic typefaces who move in the right or wrong direction and can produce good or bad typography. This is the same argument I made about the need to match Arabic calligraphy where the result in not dictated by the need, rather it is dictated by the ability and talent of those who are fulfilling this need.

Having said that, I think this need for compatibility between Latin and Arabic has a positive impact on Arabic typography as long as we do not make our goal merely to imitate the aesthetics of Latin typography. That is, we should keep a balance between the authentic personality of Arabic and the need to modify it in some ways to make it more compatible with Latin. While trying to achieve this balance, type designers have a great latitude in what they can do. For example, while designing my type Shilia I wanted to create an Arabic font that can be used with existing Latin fonts, so I based it on Kufi calligraphy which lends itself to creating simple, uniforms shapes that are easily compatible with Latin. In two recent type projects, we had the Latin type modified to better harmonize with the Arabic. This is done with Arabic Typesetting, and in a new font family I am designing at present where we commissioned another type designer to create a Latin version to match my Arabic which will be used as the Arabic User Interface font for the next version of Windows.

ST: Through your work do you feel that you have a cultural responsibility?

MS: Yes I do and believe that all producers of artifacts have this responsibility. In type design this responsibility is perhaps more necessary because the artifact that we produce is easily used by thousand or millions, and will no doubt have some impact on these users. Today Arabic script is used to write a dozen major languages and a few minor ones. It is the official script in about thirty countries. Close to 300 million people use it to write Arabic, and close to 500 million people use it to write other languages. In addition to the above populations that use the script in their daily lives, many millions Muslims use Arabic as part of their religious rituals regardless of their native languages.

As I become more aware of the widespread use of the Arabic script and how important it is to a significant portion of the world's population, I put more effort into making my own typefaces more responsive to the perceived needs and aspiration of these populations. While my work is a very personal affair of self fulfillment, it is at the same time imbued with significance beyond my own and continues to reflect a tradition of which I am only one link in a long, and significant chain. For example, my latest fonts cover all the languages included in the Unicode standard so many people will be able to use them. Another aspect of this awareness is my design of typefaces that meet the need of specific users of the Arabic script as I did with Microsoft Uighur typeface where I used the calligraphic and typographic traditions of this group of Chinese Muslims rather than my own taste grounded in Middle Eastern traditions.

The launch of my web site dedicated to Arabic calligraphy and typography in 1997 was due to this feeling of responsibility. Not only to provide high quality design but also to provide educational material that would benefit both practitioners of calligraphy and typography and the general public. The busy traffic the site receives from around the world and from numerous educational institutions is a good indicator that there is a great need for this type of material to become more available and accessible. This year the site received more than 10 million hits. The address is

ST: Are people offended when Arabic type becomes modernized or westernized?

MS: I can not answer this question.

ST: Is legibility sacrificed at all for making the scripts more compatible? If so, do you expect people to become accustomed to the forms in time?

MS: Legibility does not have to be sacrificed when trying to achieve compatibility with Latin if the designer is familiar with tradition. But when type designers are not familiar with our traditions, they will sacrifice legibility even when they are not trying to achieve compatibility with Latin. I think the question has always been what is the intended use of the typeface and what balance between legibility and innovation is appropriate. This is true when compatibility is an issue or not.

People become accustomed to novel forms in time, and the majority of the accepted forms are those that continue the development of our visual heritage in the written word in meaningful and authentic ways. Just look at my paper A Brief Survey of Proposals to Simplify Arabic Script and you will see that many attempts to make Arabic more similar to Latin script have failed, and only those changes that make sense and are well thought out survive. Some people who read this survey conclude that if there are so many attempts to change the script, then there must really be a problem with it, but I conclude that the failure of most of these attempts over a long period of time is a testament to the vitality and logic of the script. It is certainly still a much better medium for communication than these proposals to change it.

ST: Do you work with a calligrapher in you work?

MS: No, I do all my design work by myself. However, occasionally I do consult with more experienced calligraphers when I face certain problems while designing a typeface. For example, when designing Arabic Typesetting, I developed certain rules for using short or long "teeth" when several of these follow each other in the same word. This is necessary to provide the reader with some variation to aid in easy recognition and reading. In order to see if my solution was valid, I asked a master calligrapher to write words with multiple teeth and compared his work to the same words typeset in my font to see if we end up with similar results. Some of this information is shown in my presentation "OpenType for Fine Arabic Typography."

Lately, I started a new typeface design project that is based on the calligraphy of another calligrapher, and asked him to write the letter shapes that I will use to do the typeface glyphs. This is the first time I tried this and I think it will result in a nice product. This is a modern Naskh typeface, but I also intend to expand it into a family where some additional variations are introduced.

Updated 1/6/2005. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form without written permission.

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