Arabic Typography

Arabic Typography

Many people know the name of  Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type press that touched off a printing revolution in fifteenth-century Europe.

What comes after Gutenberg, especially in the Arabic-speaking world, is perhaps a little less familiar.

Enter the research of typographer, student and teacher Titus Nemeth, who was at NYU Abu Dhabi on September 23 to give a lecture entitled “Arabic Typography: Complexities and Simplifications.”

Nemeth, who holds an MA with Distinction in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, UK, currently teaches at ESAV Marrakesh and ESAD Amiens while working independently as a designer and consultant. Since 2010, Nemeth has researched Arabic typography as a PhD candidate at the University of Reading.

In his lecture, Nemeth provided an abridged history of Arabic printing beginning with the first book printed in Arabic more than a century after the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible.

Nemeth compared the error-ridden, slipshod technique of this early printed Arabic with a handwritten sample from around the same time, concluding that Arabic printing lagged behind its western European counterparts mainly for technological reasons.

“The typographic image doesn’t come close to the intricacy of the handwritten script,” said Nemeth, gesturing to the ornate and delicate curls of the Arabic script projected behind him.

It was not until the nineteenth century that Arabic found the first “at least partially successful” typeface. However, the complexities of the Arabic language, in which a single letter can look dramatically different depending on its position within the word, made Arabic printing a laborious task, to say the least.

For the quantitative at heart, Nemeth included some comparative figures between Roman-based and Arabic-based fonts. In the late nineteenth century, Arabic printing still required more than 1500 separate letter blocks, compared with roughly 100 blocks for a Roman font.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Arab newspapers like Al-Hayat had embraced the principle of character reduction in order to fit the Arabic alphabet to the space constraints of the typewriter.

Throughout these early slides, I sensed a common strain: the story of Arabic type design as Nemeth presented it is essentially one of man versus machine. Over time aspiring Arab publishers needed to adapt to western machinery devised for Roman type. Conforming to the mechanical limitations of the printing press, and later the linotype and typewriter, meant sacrificing the sophistication of the language.

By this point in the lecture, feeling sufficiently caught up with Arabic typography, I began to consider what implications a digitized Arabic type design holds for the world today, and what role the NYU Abu Dhabi community mightplay plays in that digitization.

Nemeth didn’t leave me wondering for long.

Like so many disciplines, typography – Arabic or otherwise – has felt the dawn of the new digital world keenly. If the space constraint of print and printing presses was the only hindrance to a better Arabic typeface, what possibilities exist for Arabic typeface in a world without physical constraints?

Nemeth demonstrated one Arabic font type that uses computer programming to simulate the practice of Arabic handwriting. The digital font is comprised of only a few hundred modules based on strokes, rather than individual letters, whichcan be adapted and reused depending on the position within the word. To my eyes, the end result evoked the elegant, meticulous script I’ve seen in much older Arabic handwritten texts.

Clearly, the advent of computers provides unparalleled opportunities to find new Arabic typeface. New, however, isn’t the same as “good.” The challenge typographers face now is defining what makes a typeface “good.”

For Nemeth, a good Arabic typeface would be one that is less cumbersome for the reader even if the design is more difficult for the typographer. Such an analysis hinges on a socio-historical understanding of Arab language use.

“We need an understanding of what a good type is,” he said. “The starting point is to know history, what has been done and what can be done.”

I smugly nodded my head in agreement, satisfied that NYU Abu Dhabi – with all its talk of cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural understanding – would somehow contribute to this process. That made the next slide in Nemeth’s presentation all the more surprising.

I saw on the screen a close-up shot of one of the familiar purple and white signs that dot Sama residence halls and the Downtown campus.  Until that moment, I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t noticed that the signs are in both Arabic and English.

It took a typographer to point out that the spaces between the characters, called kerning, made the Arabic hard to read, and that the Arabic type was centered on a base-line higher up than the English one.

Passing these signs in the hallway now, I see the excessive kerning and the off-center baseline where I never did before. I’m aware of the room for improvement.

With the advent of technology and the rise of the Arab world, there is no question that the story of printing and type design now extends far beyond Gutenberg. In fact, one small chapter of that story is written on the walls in Sama and DTC. The question that remains now is how that story will be written in later chapters, and of course in what typeface.


photo courtesy of author