Renaissance? What Renaissance?

Mourad Boutros shares his passion for creativity with Arabic design

Some would say that we are on the cusp of a renaissance in Arabic design, technology and communication. I am not entirely sure.

Today, the Middle East is a sophisticated marketplace and it has reached its current level in a relatively short time. Following the oil boom of the 1970s, there was a rapid expansion of the Middle East as a business and commercial center and with it a parallel growth in the demand for printed and display material of every kind. The associated areas of graphic design and typography all developed rapidly as designers sought new ways to supplement rather than replace the work of the traditional calligrapher. Traditional and modern Arabic typefaces were designed to meet technological demands across all media, all with the aim of giving the designer flexibility and speed. Major international companies concerned in promoting their products into the fast growing Arab consumer markets commissioned Arabic designers to produce Arabic conversions of their logotypes. Arab companies too, sought to produce their own distinctive logotypes and trademarks, many of which were splendid examples of creative calligraphy. All this has become ever more sophisticated as a result of the IT revolution.

For me, being at the heart of the revolution in Arabic design and type technology has been extremely exciting, but that doesn’t mean that it has always been easy. The Middle East now has many educational institutions specializing in Arabic creativity and typography. The new designers graduating from these institutions face a multitude of challenges in addition to the obvious creative ones:

Undervaluing Creativity
Today, most clients in the Middle East invite agencies to pitch for their business. They tend to invite more agencies than they really need and for the agencies involved, pitches are time consuming and increasingly expensive. Clients should place a higher value on the creative talents deployed on pitches and should be willing to pay for them.

Clients today employ a wide range of strategies in order to obtain what they think of as maximum “value.” In reality, they are demonstrating a fundamental lack of understanding of the creative process and encouraging mediocrity rather than excellence. “I want it yesterday” is a common cliché and shows no appreciation for the time that it takes to execute a task properly. “I got a cheaper quote” can often actually mean that excellence is undervalued.

Some larger clients now have Procurement Departments who have rigid rules and procedures designed primarily for purchasing components for the manufacturing process and unable to cope fairly with creative projects. As a result they often ask for a minimum of three quotations for every job, unaware that they will not be comparing like with like. The new fashion is to ask for discounts at each stage in the process.

Are You a Terrorist?
That is what you get asked these days if you supply a design job to a USA-based company. I know a designer who was recently asked to supply an Arabic logo for an international design group for whom he had done a lot of work in the past and with whom he had always enjoyed an excellent professional and personal relationship. The company has a U.S. head office and shortly after completing the work he was asked to sign an agreement stating that he was not part of any international terrorist group. This is an extreme example of the possible challenges to doing design work in other countries—hopefully, this troublesome new rule will not spread to other companies.

OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) spend enormous amounts of time and money fighting piracy of their products. This is because they have spent a lot of time and money in the development of their products. When it comes to Arabic fonts however, our experience shows that they are prepared to bend the rules.

Today, a new trend is emerging called “tweaking.” Basically, this means taking an existing Arabic typeface that took time and cost to develop, and slightly altering or “tweaking” it. The culprits copy the font into some sort of typographical software, alter it a little and change its name. Some OEMs seem to think that this is acceptable and they say it is legal. No comments.

These are just a few examples of the problems that Arabic designers face today. There are many others. The current pre-occupation with how much everything costs leads to a situation where creativity is frequently undervalued. The current disconnection between those who produce the work and those who pay for it could be seen as indicating that we are moving towards the Dark Ages rather than on the cusp of a renaissance.

I am aware that all this may seem a trifle gloomy, but I feel it is important that today’s new designers are aware of some of the difficulties that they will have to overcome. Personally, I am confident that they will succeed and I remain optimistic that there will always be room for excellence.

Mourad Boutros is a world-renowned type designer and author of Arabic for Designers, which is now going into its second edition.