Etape magazine Interview

Like many others of his generation, Pascal Zoghbi began his studies in his native country but had to go abroad to learn in depth about typography. He obtained a Master’s in typeface design at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in Amsterdam.

The process of learning typography doesn’t focus on a specific type of script, but some teachers encouraged me to talk to Arabic specialists. In a nutshell, it was primarily up to me to learn about Arabic typography. When I and other designers, such as Nadine Chahine, graduated in 2005, there was suddenly a heavy demand for Arabic typefaces – a happy coincidence.

Zoghbi returned to Beirut to set up his own agency. Seeking an appealing name that alluded to Arabic typography, he opted for 29 Letters. It is generally agreed that the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, but Zoghbi also included the hamza, the diacritic sign that represents the glottal stop. I also liked the idea of having a number in the title, which made it slightly different.

Zoghbi soon specialised in designing logotypes in both alphabets, often for multinational companies moving into Middle Eastern markets, and mostly in the Gulf region. There had been a demand for contemporary Arabic typefaces based on Latin counterparts, and they were often very mediocre. So, as well as designing bilingual logotypes, Zoghbi devoted time to improving poor-quality typefaces, and to training the up-and-coming generation of Beirut students at the Lebanese American University (LAU) and American University of Beirut (AUB). One of his unfinished projects, a remnant of his university years, was an Arabic interpretation of Gill Sans. The important thing is not to copy and paste, he stresses. To draw the Arabic, you must start again from scratch. After this initial influx of business, things quietened down, Zoghbi states. But with the global financial crisis now receding, enthusiasm is growing again: international companies are still just as eager to have a bilingual typographic presence. The market is more mature now, and clients know who to work with.

Technical problems have been reduced to the minimum, at least from a printing perspective. Arabic typefaces are no longer forced to adapt to the rules of Latin script. It’s more of a creative issue: how not to get trapped in the early forms, which were essentially based on the Ottoman and calligraphic traditions.

It’s all about learning ancient, traditional script while drawing it in a modern way, so that it looks new while also remaining legible. It’s all about creating typefaces that are more idiomatic and less dependent on the simplified Arabic typefaces that were previously the only ones available.

When laying out newspapers, Arab graphic designers used to have limited options, but things are changing. Zoghbi has designed modern, bold, strong display faces for three Middle Eastern newspapers (Al Rouiah, Al Watan and Imarat). The main challenge was to ensure each had its own visual identity. The only area where technical problems persist is Arabic typefaces for the Internet, where display optimisation (hinting) and problem-solving have resulted in mediocre ergonomics for Arabic speakers and designers and the selection of inappropriate typefaces. They are often too small, illegible or cut off. That’s the area where the biggest changes will occur in the next five years, says Zoghbi, as a new generation of designers rise to the challenge.

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