To create a new Arab visual identity, Bahia Shebab, associate professor of practice in the Department of the Arts at the American University in Cairo (AUC), is compiling examples of Arabic calligraphy from the past, in preparation for an encyclopedia of the Arabic Script. In spite of a rich artistic history, Arabic script has had difficulty transitioning into a digital format for use in graphic design. From pottery to Quranic manuscripts and architecture, Shehab, who is also the founder of AUC’s graphic design program, aims to produce an encyclopedia that comprises 1,000 examples of each Arabic letter from the past 1,400 years. “For any designer to design a good font, they need a visual reference to work from. This encyclopedia will give modern designers a peek into their history so they can plan their path accordingly.” In her book, A Thousand Nos, she has already compiled 1,000 examples of the lam and alif letters by different designers and calligraphers, who were trying to solve the same problem, which is how to draw a letter, throughout history.
Currently, there are around 500 Arabic fonts, compared to more than 72,000 fonts and counting in Latin script. “For Arabic, as well as other Eastern languages like Japanese, there have been problems digitizing a very rich calligraphic history,” said Bahia Shehab,. “When you look at calligraphy historically, you find really gorgeous examples of the manuscripts and writings on buildings and other mediums, but when you look at any computer-generated artwork in Arabic, it’s usually below average, to say the least.”
Shehab explained that the fonts we have are badly adapted copies of a 1,000-year-old script. “The last calligraphers who tried to innovate, codify or redesign the Arabic script, were Ibn Bawwab and Ibn Muqlah, both of whom died more than 1,000 years ago.”
In spite of the importance of fonts, most designers have only become aware of this problem in the last 10 or 15 years. “Ninety percent of what we design needs typography because if you’re designing a package, it needs to have a label with the name of the product and the ingredients. If you’re designing a poster, the poster needs a headline, sub-headline and body text. The problem is not that Arabic is more difficult to capture. Arabic script consists of three to four shapes per letter, which change depending on where the letter is in the word. That means to design an Arabic font, the work is triple or quadruple that required to design a Latin font.”
This workload is daunting to many designers, Shehab said. “There’s nobody investing the time because it takes around a year for any designer to design a good font, and there aren’t many people interested,” she said. “Most of the Arabic fonts were developed by people who do not necessarily speak Arabic, or by big Western companies who employ Arab designers and see this as a business opportunity.”
It is reasonable for Western companies to jump on this opportunity, Shehab argued, because, “when you don’t develop yourself, someone else is going to come along and do it for you. Arabic is the third script in use in the world after Latin and Chinese. It is used by nearly 380 million people. That’s very good business.”
However, Shehab pointed out, the tide is beginning to turn as more Arabic designers become interested in font development. “Some calligraphers and designers from the Arab world have collaborated with big companies, which is wonderful,” she said. “These collaborations have helped move us forward and have created awareness of the problem.
Technological advances are also producing new possibilities for streamlined font creation. “An intelligent software is being developed to create a font if you feed it shapes,” Shehab said. “I am hoping to find a formula to generate fonts from the thousands of images I am collecting. We could get to a point where we don’t need designers to create fonts.”
Coming face to face with the richness and variety of the Arabic calligraphic tradition would serve to empower designers and inspire further innovation, Shehab argued. “A Thousand Nos was a turning point in my life because being able to hang these letters on one wall and look at them was quite empowering,” she recalled. “This is just one letter, and it is so rich and varied and creative and magnificent. As Arab designers, we need to reconnect with our heritage. You can’t go anywhere if you don’t know where you came from.”