A graphic of two Arabic letters measured by rhombic propotion system

Reinventing Arabic Typography: Old Meets New

A graphic of two Arabic letters measured by rhombic propotion system
Source: https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world/unit-two/proportional-scripts


What you’ll read about in this article:

  • Why calligraphy became the most celebrated form of art in the Middle East,
  • How much influence does calligraphy have on modern Arabic typography,
  • How well designed were Arabic fonts in the early days of digitalization,
  • Why some Arabic speakers use Latin script to write online,
  • What are the challenges ahead of Arabic typography in the years to come.


If someone were to ask you out of the blue about Arabic design, what would come to mind first? If meticulous calligraphy engraved on oriental ornaments or medieval Arabic manuscripts is what you initially picture, then it’s safe to say you’re not alone. As a matter of fact, there’d be nothing wrong with the association, because historically the word has always been a highly-celebrated form of art in Arabic-script countries. Still, how has its influence prevailed in the Middle East in the digital era?

The rich heritage of Arabic typography

If you’ve ever heard of the concept of iconoclasm, then you know that certain religions, including Islam, forbid the depiction of God. Hence, while European artists were not only allowed, but also often praised for creating imagery of God and the divine by church authority, artists in the world of Islam found an outlet for their creativity in mastering the art of calligraphy to an awe-inspiring degree.

As the world evolved and entered the era of industrialization, alternatives to handwriting stole the spotlight. Yet, it was not until the popularization of the World Wide Web and digitalization that Arabic type was truly marginalized.

Latinization of Arabic font

The Internet, text editors, and computer keyboards were all initially designed with the left-to-right script user in mind, only to be later adjusted to those who read and wrote differently (for a while, Arabic fonts were lacking altogether, i.e. in IRC and instant messaging). As a result, today’s most popular text editor fonts in Arabic were brought to the world as younger siblings of their famous Latin counterparts. Unfortunately, the family resemblance is clearly visible, and not a good thing for an alphabet so distinct.

Reading Arabic in Arial or Times New Roman, while definitely possible and practiced for years, is not necessarily effortless to the eye, with font appearing small or, in some cases, “cluttered”, especially when short vowels are marked (a process called vowelization, or tashkeel in Arabic).

*** If you’d like to read more about the difference in sizes of Arabic vs Latin fonts, take a look at my article on Arabic UX ***.

Source: https://design.google/library/modernizing-arabic-typography-type-design/

If this doesn’t convince you yet, then let me tell you this — Arab users often abandoned arabized fonts in favor of a rather cardinal alternative.

Even though Latin script does not reflect the different sounds and glyphs of the Arabic language, many of its speakers decided to use Latin alphabet and its numerals(!) to write in their native tongue. All this has taken a toll on typographical competence and readers’ aesthetic expectations, despite the rich heritage of calligraphy they were brought up aware of.

Example of “Arabish” (Arabic written in Latin Font):

“Do you speak Arabic?”:
Arabish: bt7ki 3rabi?
Same expression in Arabic font: بتحكي عربي؟

Luckily, a new generation of creatives are taking on the task of awakening Arabic typography from the dormant state it has been in for many years, and giving the Arabic-script reader well-deserved diversification (and some fresh eye-candy, for those who love type).

Something new, something old

At her TedX talk at University of the Arts in London, Nadine Chahine, Lebanese-born typographer who brought the world some of the most beautiful modern Arabic typography, admits that not everyone understands her profession, with some asking whether there’s actual need for new type. For her, the question is as surprising, as having someone ask whether the world needs new music, with all that had already been played in the past. Just like the music we listen to, our exposure to type as the most dispersed form of visual art is part of a bigger cultural mission.

Lebanon is also where two other designers, Lara Captan and Kristyan Sarkis, decided to formally put a name to the efforts needed for Arabic typography revival. Published on TPTQ Arabic“Arabic script to Type: A Manifesto (v.1)” indicates the areas that need to be paid special attention to by fellow Arab typographers.

Here, calligraphic tradition can be either the driving force, or potential risk, if approached too conservatively. How exactly can it be helpful for modern type?

A definite source of reference is its centuries-old proportional system, which can prove especially helpful on complex modern projects, such as designing high-quality Arabic counterparts for famous Latin scripts. On the one hand, the designer wants to catch the aesthetic essence of a given script, but still make sure that it is legible for the reader and past mistakes of text editor Arabic fonts are not repeated.

Chanine, who is the author of the Palatino typeface in Arabic, helped validate her take on the legendary Hermann Zapf design with the traditional, centuries-old rhombic proportional system, and made sure the effects were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also easy on the eye.

Source: http://islamic-arts.org/2011/styles-of-calligraphy/

Yet, while seeking inspiration in the past is, in general terms, the right approach, its is just the top of the iceberg of what needs to be done. Namely, Arabic typography has not yet been formalized, thus hindering design-adepts from learning validated practices. What exactly needs to be set in stone?

Among others, Captan and Sarkis mention rules on contrast, visual compensation, above-mentioned proportions, and font weight. Tradition could greatly help in building formal frameworks, but through the prism of modern-day user needs and the sociopolitical reality of the Middle East.

Typography on a mission

Keeping all of the above in mind, what does the future hold? If we take an educated guess, it’s safe to assume that it’s just a matter of time before Arabic type gains its well-deserved recognition. The rising number of active, highly-qualified typography practitioners, whose work is penetrating various areas of day-to-day life, are all formative players of a new, digitalized Arab World. Hence, communicating messages in inventive, user-centered forms will continue to distance the Middle East from the era of painfully latinized fonts and the marginalization of Arabic-literate recipients of the written word.


If you found this text interesting, you might also enjoy my article on Arabic UX.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me!

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