Meet the Man Bringing Arabic Calligraphy to the West

Published July 26th, 2017 - 12:09 GMT
The BBC Arabic logo. (BBC)
The BBC Arabic logo. (BBC)

You see them everywhere: on billboards, in magazine articles, at airports welcoming you, but you probably didn’t spare much thought about them.

Arabic fonts featuring modern or traditional elements have become ubiquitous in peoples’ daily lives within the region that it’s hard to believe that they hardly existed over 40 years ago.

The pioneering effort to offer a font that complements common Latin typefaces was spearheaded by Mourad Boutros, who changed the game when, along with his wife Arlette, he created the Boutros Advertisers Naskh font in 1977 to work alongside the Helvetica font. Since then, it has been acknowledged as the most-used typeface in the Middle East.

Above: An example. (Supplied to Gulf News)

“It was originally created for Letraset, the British dry transfer company. Letraset wanted a special range of typefaces to enter the booming Middle East market in 1977. Letraset’s own research at that time showed that there was a need for Arabic typefaces for all types of media,” Boutros says.

“It was [first commissioned by] the Bechtel Corporation in the USA, 3M, for their Airport signs in Saudi Arabia around 1980. Then the whole Arabic speaking world followed and now you can see it on road signs, at airports all over the Middle East — [including] Dubai Airport[s], [and] Beirut International Airport,” he adds.

Boutros Advertisers Naskh, which was updated in 2011, is also one of the most pirated fonts in the region, a fact that continues to frustrate Boutros.

“I can write books about this subject. There is no hope. Addressing this issue will require changing the culture of commercial organisations, universities, advertising and creative agencies, all the groups and individuals involved. Such change can only come from within,” he said.

Despite that, the internationally-renowned Lebanese designer and calligrapher has gone from strength to strength. Boutros oversees the highly-successful Boutros design company, established with his wife, which has released more than 150 fonts since its founding in 1966. These include Tanseek, one of the first harmonious ranges of Arabic-Latin serif and sans serif typefaces, in collaboration with Monotype Imaging and Latin typography experts Dave Farey and Richard Dawson of Panache Typography, as well as Boutros-URW Franklin Gothic Arabic, Boutros-URW Futura Arabic, and most recently, Boutros-URW Futura Con Arabic. Moreover, the company is committed to supporting emerging designers through a series of educational initiatives.

“We are one of only very few foundries who are releasing Arabic fonts on a monthly basis without looking into the commercial benefit as a primary objective. Thankfully, we are very busy with very interesting projects because there still customers around who appreciate and value our work,” Boutros says. “We are working continuously and producing new fonts based on our extensive research into what we believe the markets need. In addition, we regularly get approached by existing or new customers with new demands.”

Above: The BBC logo as designed by Boutros. (BBC)

The company has created fonts for prestigious clients including BBC Arabic, Al Arabiya, newspaper Al Hayat and and publishers Harper Collins. When asked whether they had worked on any particularly challenging projects, Boutros says: “I think that I can say that after all these years, we have reached the point where, through having enough knowledge and experience and working with a very good team of experts in all design and technical aspects, we are able to solve every issue that faces us.”

He adds: “Today, with the ease of communication on a global level, customers like to have their own unique custom fonts. However, this era is fading due to the piracy issue and due to the lack of support for designers from the big players whose only interest is how to line their shareholders’ pockets.”

Boutros further notes that the growing demand for Arabic fonts can be attributed to globalisation: “The technology that allows for the mixture of many languages in the same font was not available until recently. Forty years ago, you could only have 256 characters in a typeface which meant simplifying the number of characters in a font to the absolute minimum. That was hard for good designers. Today, you can have over 64,000 characters in one font.”

Boutros explores this topic in the second edition of his book, Arabic for Designers, published by Thames & Hudson Ltd. When it was first published in 2005, it was hailed as an authoritative guide for English-speaking designers working with the cultural and design complexities of Arabic. Extensively illustrated, it addressed the rise in global awareness of Arab cultures and provided a framework for understanding and respect.

“Most of the materials in the book are new and all previous information has also been updated. Frankly, to me it is a new book,” he says.

The completely revised edition is an illustrated guide to how to work with Arabic and understand and respect its cultural nuances. Along with exploring the main types of Arabic script, it outlines the growth of Arabic typography and Arabic typesetting from slow beginnings in the era of moveable type to the high technology digital environment of today. Furthermore, the book highlights that the designing of a workable bilingual Latin-Arabic typeface relies not upon compromise but rather a harmonious interaction between two distinct elements, each with an underlying cultural history.

It remains an up-to-date and invaluable reference for design students, design and marketing professionals and anyone interested in good design, Arabic culture and language, regardless of their background, ability or level of experience.

“Designers need a good knowledge of Arabic calligraphy and typography as well as the latest technology and software. The most important thing though is still the designer. A good designer can create the best design with the help of the available tools but a poor designer will give the opposite result,” Boutros tell the Weekend Review.

When asked whether he senses any shift towards greater cultural understanding and appreciation for Arabic typography over the course of his 40-year career, Boutros says: “Yes and no. People make mistakes which can be good news if they learn from them. The problem is when they do not learn and keep misleading the public by using clichéd words such as ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’, ‘inspiration’, [and] ‘tweaking’ which even they themselves do not know the meaning of.”

Boutros also speaks about his passion for calligraphy, of which he is considered to be one of the masters by calligraphic and art experts and aficionados around the world. Apart from his own pieces, many of Boutros’s artworks have been developed in cooperation with leading artists, including the renowned Emmanuel Guiragossian, Robin Hazlewood, Christine Schubel and others. In most of these exclusive pieces, Boutros has come up with exquisite Arabic calligraphy which blends perfectly with the visual background developed by the painter. The calligraphy, being the main focus of the painting, brings out the beauty of the artwork.

Executed in a variety of media such as oil, acrylic, watercolour and gouache, these paintings have been exhibited widely and appeal to a broad range of art connoisseurs, private collectors and institutions throughout the Arab world. Several pieces have even found their way into royal collections.

“[…] Arabic calligraphy will never fade. It is the basis of all Arabic culture and it is an art form in itself. It does not need to be preserved because it is flourishing at all times. Good calligraphers still exist and will remain for years to come. Calligraphers today (and I am one of them) use technology to their benefit and they produce amazing pieces of art. As we say the sky is the limit,” he says.

“I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and visited an Arabic calligraphy exhibition. For me, looking at the beautiful Arabic calligraphy or creating a piece is my passion. I can look at a beautiful piece of art that includes Arabic calligraphy for hours or more. A few years ago, in 2010, when I started working on paintings including Arabic calligraphy with specific proverbs, [such as for the] Gibran Khalil Gibran project, I did not expect to get where we are today. Our main work now is private commissions… last year I was commissioned to produce three paintings with Arabic calligraphy by the HH Shaikh Mansoor Festival which were presented at the group’s yearly conference in Rome — one piece was presented to the Vatican,” Boutros says.

Given his unique position as both a leading typographer and calligrapher, Boutros observes that both worlds are somewhat intertwined when it comes to the business of designing Arabic fonts. He regrets that not enough emphasis is being placed on calligraphy as a foundation technique for designers, stating that as a result: “that is why now there is a big mess in the market.”

His thoughts took a lighter turn when asked about any dream projects he would like to work on in the future.

“Like everybody else, I have dreams and not one dream. The problem is not the dream, it is the reality [of achieving them]…[for example,] we have already started writing our third book, [and are] working on more ideas for bilingual Arabic-Latin Typefaces to fill a big gap in the market,” he said.

Boutros adds: “[I want to] make sure that our new signage typeface [Boutros Sign] replaces our existing one (Boutros Advertisers Naskh) all over the world for bilingual signage. You now find other typefaces with grammar mistakes alongside our typeface, especially at UAE airports. This is confusing.”

He also reveals one final dream for the near future: “Getting away from day to day pressures and work on painting projects somewhere very far, especially on my big project for the end of this year.”

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