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!