Staying True to Type

Sandy Saghbini asks Rana Abou Rjeily, creator of Mirsaal typeface, how type designers adapt to changing demands

In 1514, about 73 years after Gutenburg’s printing press, a Venetian man named Gregorio de Gregorii wrote what is often credited as the first Arabic book published using movable type. The book was a Christian prayer book called Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i (The Book of Hours). Initially written for export to eastern Christian communities, the book proved extremely crude and difficult to read, primarily because of difficulties creating separate metal blocks that would print Arabic letters so that they could connect fluidly. Such contrasts in horizontal and vertical aspects, as well as the contrast in fluidity, caused this conflict. But Gregorii’s book proved that it could be done, sparking the movement for Arabic-speaking countries to begin designing fonts that would be more compatible with movable type. It wasn’t until 1586 that Arabic typeface began to improve in movable type, when famous French type designer Robert Granjon got involved. Initially known for his Latin and Greek calligraphy designs, Granjon created a more legible, oriental-styled Arabic font that would be used by the Medici Press (an Arabic printing press created by western Papacy to communicate with Eastern Christians).

Though Granjon’s Arabic designs revolutionized the Arabic printing press and made it easier for designers to create more compatible fonts, it wasn’t enough to place Arabic type development on the same page as Latin fonts. Arabic typography was still behind, and though its initial difficulties in construction and form had been modified to create more compatible fonts, Arabic still proved to be difficult to deal with in movable type and technology.

As designer Halim Choueiry states, “For the majority of the time, Arabic typeface development has been playing catch-up with Latin-based languages.”

Case in point, the first Arabic typewriter didn’t emerge until 1914, approximately 40 years after the first American typewriter. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first IBM-compatible PC keyboard was developed to accommodate right-to-left languages such as Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew.

This resulted in an increased movement for Arab designers to create fonts that would appeal to the Latin-based structural system of computers. Designers hoped to create font designs that would make the language easier for non-speakers to learn. The trend to match Arabic typography with Latin typography emerged so that the two could exist in harmony. This need came to light in the 1970’s and 1980s in the form of branding, when western companies began settling businesses in Arabic-speaking countries. These companies wanted to convert their logos into Arabic, so Latin alphabets converted into Arabic became necessary.
The production of creative Arabic typefaces boomed.

The creation of an Arabic typeface has always been extremely creative, but there are typically two ways to work on an Arabic typeface. According to Choueiry, the first and most common way involves the conversion of a Latin typeface into Arabic that it is in reach of every designer. The second and more complicated way is to create an original typeface from scratch by using an object, item, or similar inspiration.

The first method of converting a Latin typeface into Arabic aims in preserving the look and feel of a Latin typeface, thereby creating a visual match or cohesion between the two. Choueiry describes some common ways to do this by rotating, twisting, or tweaking Latin letters so that they resemble Arabic ones.

With the second method, any source can be used to create an Arabic typeface from scratch. As Choueiry explains, designers could analyze the imprint of a tire that has been scanned, looking for any sort of shapes that can be taken and warped to resemble an Arabic letter. Other examples could be scanned surfaces of carpets, skin, objects, and so forth. It’s up to the designer’s imagination.
To get a better idea of this creative process of developing an Arabic typeface, the author of Cultural Connectives, graphic designer and typographer Rana Abou Rjeily has agreed to interview with Language Magazine.

About Rana Abou Rjeily
Rana Abou Rjeily received her BA in graphic design from Lebanon’s Notre Dame University and went on to obtain a Masters degree in visual communication from Central Saint Martins, London. She has worked in Lebanon and the UK for international clients, including type designer Mourad Boutros. She is currently an independent designer and has been teaching typographic and design courses at Notre Dame University (NDU) since 2007.

LM: You’ve mentioned that creating a detached, non-cursive Arabic font doesn’t need to be seen as disrespectful to the language itself, its people, and the Arab culture. Could you possibly tell us more about the conflict a non-cursive font might cause amongst Arab speakers and readers, and why they should accept it rather than reject it?

RAR: Some Arabs are strongly attached to their roots and culture, whereas others are very open to the western culture and accept new approaches to handling the script. To understand this you must look into history. The French colonized some countries like Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria. In these countries, the young generation use their second language more often than not, which compromises writing Arabic in Arabic letters, and instead use something we now call Arabizi. This new writing style uses Latin letters and numbers to write Arabic because it’s easier and quicker to communicate and type. I do believe that this threatens the Arabic script but I can’t deny its efficiency and that it has become part of our culture. In my book Cultural Connectives, instead of totally substituting Arabic with Latin, or using calligraphic Arabic, which has a very complicated shape, I use a detached font to introduce Arabic to non-Arabic speakers. This font maintains the integrity of the Arabic script and letters by only simplifying their representation. Each letter has one shape wherever it stands in a word instead of three or four shapes. This way it’s less difficult to recognize the letters and memorize them. Mirsaal is a message, a medium that helps simplify a very complicated script. It is not a substitute.

LM: Arabic typographers and designers focus primarily on revolutionizing Arabic typography so that it may better interact with the ever-advancing technology of the future. Yet, there is still a very important focus on the language’s history and culture. Do you think this handicaps Arabic’s advancement; that perhaps Arabs are maybe too attached to their history and artistic past to readily change and adapt to future advances?

RAR: There are two movements in design and typography: the first, as you have mentioned, revolutionizes Arabic type and tends to modernize it, and the other constantly looks to preserve its calligraphic nature and history. I believe there is room for both movements. Arabic has a great tradition and it’ll be preserved thanks to many people. As for modernizing Arabic, I strongly believe that understanding the past and history is a necessity before breaking the rules and creating new ones. There is so much room for advancements and I constantly encourage my students to experiment with type, for instance. We need to find a new image for our modern culture and not just use what has been developed through history. Both movements can grow and live in parallel and be inspired by each other.

LM: In your book, you place a great emphasis on creating an Arabic font that will appeal to non-Arab speakers who want to learn the language. You say that making a separated font with one form for almost every letter (instead of the traditional four) would be less complicated. Could you maybe explain why Arab speakers should be concerned about creating a font that will attract a non-Arabic audience to the language?

RAR: Arabic speakers are not the main audience of the book. My main aim is to make Arabic understandable devoid of any addition or complication, targeted to those who wish to get acquainted with Arabic and understand its main features compared to the Latin. Arab speakers are buying the book mostly because it’s a new approach they’d like to read about, and because the book presents interesting information about both Arabic and Latin scripts. It also is a useful reference for Arabic type and graphic designers.

LM: In Mourad Boutros’ Talking About Arabic, two ways of creating Arabic fonts are explained. As you already know, the first and most common way consists of tweaking or twisting Arabic and Latin letters to create harmonizing shapes, while the second is more complicated and deals with creating an Arabic font from scratch. Although I know you mentioned that you paid close attention to Nasri Khattar’s Unified Arabic and Mourad and Arlette Boutros’ Basic Arabic to create your font, I was unsure as to whether that meant you used the more common method or whether you created the font from scratch. Could you possibly tell us a bit more about your method of making Mirsaal?

RAR: Mirsaal consists of Arabic and Latin fonts. The Arabic was conceived before the Latin, which means it was drawn and studied separately. Once the Arabic Font was completed I started designing the Latin Mirsaal. And this was done through the second method that Boutros talks about which is designing from scratch and only maintaining the stroke width with slight variations of thicknesses that the Arabic had.

LM: What were your main sources of inspiration for creating Mirsaal? In Boutros’ book, they showed examples like tire imprints or tree bark scans that typographers used to find shapes that might work with Arabic letters. Did you do something similar to create Mirsaal?

RAR: When I started Mirsaal, I looked into books for teaching Arabic and into people’s handwriting to see how they simplify the Arabic letters and I’ve used their drawings as inspiration. The letters drawn were somehow deprived of their complications and calligraphic details, hence the simplicity of it. Each letter in Mirsaal is also a hybrid outcome or combination of all the shapes this same letter can have in cursive Arabic.

LM: I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about the role of Islam in the development of the Arabic language and typeface. Do you find it a necessary component for all non-Arab speakers to take into account when learning the Arabic language or when dealing with Arabs in business?

RAR: First, Islam has an important role in the development of Arabic Calligraphy since it has forbidden any figurative representations. The Quran is written in Arabic, that’s why through history calligraphers have worked and created so many beautiful scripts to be worthy of writing the holy Quran with. Archaic Arabic started as a very basic script and without vocalization marks or dots and developed with time into what we know today. Second, I think it’s very important to understand the relationship between Islam and the Arabic language, but it’s not a must to know the script’s history to be able to communicate to an Arabic speaker.

LM: Do you think that the recent “revolutions” in the Middle East will affect the development of Arabic typography and design? Is it the next step toward globalization in the Middle East?

RAR: It is known through history that design has played an important role in socio-political revolutions or manifestations. Graphic arts and typography were heavily used in wartime propaganda during the 60’s. Design can change the world we live in as it highly influences the viewer. It is a way of expression since design can call for action, present a problem or suggest a solution. I can’t deny that the visuals created for the recent revolutions in the Arab world are very creative and witty and can be inspiring for us. Maybe this will push designers to experiment some more and use their design skills for things other than branding and advertising.

LM: Personally, I know many Middle Easterners who believe that globalization is stripping their cultural identities and making them conform to Western traditions. Do you think this is true? What are your general thoughts on globalization, and do you think people might view Mirsaal as trying to conform to a Western standard?

RAR: In Middle Eastern countries, taking Lebanon as an example, I can clearly see how the west left its imprints on our visual culture. My country is known to be more open to the western trends than other countries in the region. This is reflected in our visual culture as well. Typo­graphically speaking, few books are done around Arabic design and type, so we tend to study western graphic design history and trends rather than focus on our own cultural heritage. Globalization highly influences us but I can see now the young generation of designers is trying to establish a new identity for our visual culture by trying to be inspired by history and the vernacular.

LM: I read that the phenomenon known as ‘language schizophrenia’ occurs often when readers compare Latin and Arabic alphabets because of Latin’s more vertical form and Arabic’s more horizontal form. Could you possibly give us some more details about ‘language schizophrenia’ and describe why and how it occurs?

RAR: Typography derives directly from handwriting and calligraphy. Calligraphy is written using different nibs, pens or brushes depending on the style and language. The nib in Arabic was cut diagonally in a way that when horizontal strokes are drawn they will look thicker then the vertical ones (somewhat like a marker). Plus, Arabic is cursive and connects at the baseline level which makes it look more horizontal. These details mentioned were reproduced in typography. Latin letters have strong vertical strokes like the “I,” “i,” “h,” “t,” and “f.” This explains the different aspects of Arabic and Latin scripts. My book Cultural Connectives explains more of how the differences between both scripts are addressed using Mirsaal.

LM: Lastly, could you possibly tell us about what you are currently working on or any of your planned projects for the future? Thank you for all your cooperation.

RAR: I have been planning on doing a PhD but I am taking some time off now. I’m rather concentrating on designing my own Arabic fonts and teaching typography. I love the message that Cultural Connectives is sending out. And I hope to develop further projects with the same message of bridging cultures but this time with a group of people from other disciplines. Any future project will be announced on my website (