Arabic Lettering and Typography in Public Space

Design and the visual arts can only flourish when a civilization is at the peak of its cultural activities and prosperity. How does contemporary Arabic lettering and typography reflect the cultural change and the realities of the Arab World today. The stereotypical image of the Orient has been changing: the traditional Arabic lettering has moved off the page, out of its beautifying function, and onto the streets.

Arabic calligraphy flourished at the peak of the Arab cultural activity and prosperity, and is still considered the highest achievement of the Islamic applied arts. This rich tradition has had a long and influential history in shaping and regulating the visual aspect of the Arabic script and ultimately the visual culture. Originally widely used to represent the holy scriptures of the Quran, reproduction of the script became a matter of religious piety. With the collective contribution of many talented individuals and the influences of various cultures, calligraphy developed into a clear form of communication that balanced beauty with disciplined freedom.

Arabic calligraphy is in the Islamic tradition one of the most venerated art form, but its poor cousin ‘Arabic typography’ has been neglected for the longest time. It is perceived as the work of poorly skilled craftsmen, and of negligible aesthetic value or importance. For example Arabic books are judged only by their content while their visual design is shamelessly disregarded. The importance and role of typography and visual communication is still not fully understood in the Middle East. Arabic typography is often confused with Arabic calligraphy, when there is a clear difference between the two: calligraphy’s beauty lies in the irregular mark made by a human hand and the emotions implied in the lines traced on the page, whereas typography is a mechanical process that focuses on creating exact repetition and order on a page or a screen.

When the printed Arabic typographic book was first introduced in the Middle East, the type was made to look as close as possible to the calligraphic styles popular at the time. The later versions of Arabic printing types, whether of European or Middle Eastern provenance, hardly deviated from those early type styles, creating a rigid book typography tradition. Though there have been some movements in the 1930s for ‘modernizing’ the Arabic script and adapting it to the means of type production of that time, these ideas were never implemented into the mainstream visual culture. Formal experiments in Arabic type design came to their highest point with Letraset’s invention of the dry-transfer type. The low-cost and flexibility of this type production medium brought type design close to Arab designers, as opposed to the high cost typesetting machines of that period which were exclusively in the hands of western manufacturers. Digital technology took a while to catch on in the Middle East and influence Arabic type design. The affluent Arab nations have of course embraced both digital networks and developments in the communications field, but type designers have been slow to develop innovative contemporary fonts. What is striking is the lack of refinement and diversity in the available Arabic fonts, especially in comparison with Latin ones. Fortunately, this situation is changing with the growing awareness of the potential market benefits and cultural needs of a global world culture.

The Middle Eastern graphic design field has been fast developing. The nascent international design community has recognized the need for fonts that can support multi-scripts, and endorsement is growing for the further development of large, international font families. There are a number of young design pioneers working in the field. This emerging generation is striving to establish a modern type design trend that addresses on one hand current global design aesthetics and, on the other, provides design solutions appropriate for the needs of Middle Eastern modern communication media. These designers are questioning conventional calligraphic styles, reinterpreting them to fit within the available technological and communication needs, and often moving beyond the rules of pen-drawn letterforms.

The current trends in Arabic type design can show three diverging directions. The first addressing the pragmatic design needs of new media and modern communication channels, the second recreating the old calligraphic scripts by developing complex computer software and systems, and the third responding to the global youth culture and its specific aesthetics.

The process of globalization may be irreversible, but the role of individual nations needs to be redefined. Historically, the fusion and interaction between civilizations have often brought about considerable cultural wealth, democracy is the latest form of this interaction. However, the fear of homogeneity or western dominance is quite real when one looks at an average metropolis in developing countries, where large-scale demolitions of unique architectural heritage is motivated by unrestrained financial gain. Designers and visual artists are constantly battling with defining their identity and responsibilities within the murky water of hybrid ‘global’ visual culture. They strive to balance being an individual with staying connected to the latest urban design trends.

This particular interest in urban and monumental lettering for public space has been growing. Graffiti art has gained new levels of popularity; slogans have been spray-painted, stenciled, hand-drawn directly onto walls, but also made out of found objects. Later these same ‘physical’ letters have been reproduced in printed form on posters (to be pasted again onto walls in public spaces) or in publications, and distributed in real-time over social media, broadcast channels or clandestine publishing. These typographic public interventions—whether in real/physical or online/virtual space—have created an informal public platform for debates and active political engagement. Arabic text, lettering and typography have recently managed to break the barriers between high and low art, championing the immediacy of the message and reclaiming a more democratic public arena. Arabic typography and lettering has given the word again its well-deserved front-row seat on the stage of public life.

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Director of the Khatt Foundation

Text adapted from the exhibition catalogue Right-To-Left, curated by EPS51 and Uqbar e.v, Berlin 9 November - 9 December 2012. Right-To-Left
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