Engaging Arabic Typography

This piece was originally published on silkroad-studio.com in February, 2012. 

This past week I’ve been working with a client to typeset a business card in Arabic, and the project has reminded me of the difficulties inherent in combining a Latin and an Arabic typeface.

The Challenge of Scale

First, the scale (what we commonly call “x‑height” with a Latin typeface) of type set in an Arabic versus Latin typeface is often vastly different. For example, if you set a sentence in Arabic at 10 points, and placed a sentence in English right next to it at the same point size, the Arabic text will look much smaller. This is true even when using the same typeface (see the image below.)

scale in arabic typography
The “x‑height” is inconsistent. This example uses Geeza Pro, one of the pre-installed Arabic typefaces on the Mac.

The Challenge of Match

Second, the Arabic and Latin letters in a particular typeface can be quite dissimilar in style. In the example above, both the English and Arabic text are part of the same typeface (Geeza Pro), yet they are visually unconnected. The typeface below, DIN Next Arabic, does a much better job at harmonizing the two scripts. You’ll notice that the x‑height is also much closer.

challenge of match in arabic typography
The Arabic and Latin letters of the Din Next Arabic typeface are much more visually consistent than in Geeza Pro.

The Challenge of Quality

Third, it is challenging to find Arabic typefaces that are well-crafted and do justice to the beauty of the Arabic script. Most of the Arabic typefaces which a designer in the West has access to by default are only decent at best.

Arabic typefaces can very generally be classified into two categories—those whose proportions are based on Arabic’s calligraphic origins, and those that reinterpret the Arabic script for modern applications (such as DIN Next Arabic, above) The most widely-available typefaces for Arabic are part of the former category. While there are many excellent choices in this category (for example, Palatino Arabic, designed by Nadine Chahine), it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff without an experienced eye.

Both of these typefaces reflect the Arabic script’s calligraphic origins, but Palatino Arabic is much more elegant.

The Solution? Choose Your Typeface Carefully!

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, the Type Directors Club in New York is hosting an event on March 15th called “Engaging with the Middle East & Arabic Typography and Cultural Identity,” featuring Arab designers Tarek Atrissi and Nadine Chahine. If you can’t make it to New York City, join me in watching the live webcast of the event!