ArabAd Magazine Interview

ON A PERSONAL LEVEL

– When did you first decide to become a designer? Was there a pivotal moment?

Being a designer allows you to develop your artistic and creative skills and support yourself at the same time. Choosing to study graphic design was quite easy for me since I like drawing/painting and wanted to work in a field that I liked. The pivotal moment that intrigued me to study Typography in the graduate year of my BA is worth mentioning. I was fortunate to have MR. Saïd Akl, renowned Arabic Lebanese poet and philosopher, as a teacher in the Arabic Literature class. Listening to MR. Saïd Akl lecture about type in a philosophical and historical manner amazed me. He lectured with pride about the role of Lebanon and the Lebanese people in the development of the alphabet and type in the region. I got interested in the Arabic letters and started to research about revolutionary Arabic Type projects like the work of Mr. Nasri Khatar (Unified type) and Mr. Saïd Akl (Lebanese Type) and to read about historical typographical events that involved Lebanese individuals. After graduation I always experimented with Arabic letters and tried to work on jobs that involved Arabic typography. Four years later, I decided to do my Master studies in Type Design and went to The Royal Academy of Arts in The Netherlands and undertook the Type & Media course.

– What physical triggers (such as pens, paper, computer hardware or software), rituals or routines do you use to get yourself in the right state of mind?
– When you’re working on a creative project – either corporate or personal, what are your favorite techniques for developing ideas or unlocking your brain?
– When is your most creative time? Do you have a special place for creative work, to deviate from distractions?
– How do you define creativity?

Sketching is a kind of dialogue between the mind, hand and eyes. My pen and sketchbook are always my starting point in any design project besides researching and reading. It is always the question of getting your hand to create what your mind wants to see through your eyes, but sometimes your thoughts are so ideal and perfect that your hand cannot catch up with. Creativity is a balance between the mind, hand and eye. It is the ability to create new ideas and to be able to execute them in a functional and attractive manner.
I work in several places nowadays due to my design projects and teaching. I can be in my studio, in my office at the university or simply in a coffee shop and be able to work on my projects as long as I have my drawing tools, my sketchbook, my laptop, an internet connection and my music. It is part of the global village that we are living in. I adopted this life style during my stay in The Netherlands in the course of my Master studies. This work style helps me a lot especially that I am now living in Lebanon with all the political, economical and social problems. Confined in Lebanon, yet I am still able to work on international and regional projects. This makes me an independent professional ready to travel and work on projects all over the world, of which my work on the EL HEMA project in Amsterdam in August 2007 is an example.

– What are the achievements you are most proud of, and that have added most value to your life and work? And why?
– What is your favorite creation?
– How do you feel at the end of a day where you have made even a little progress towards a cherished goal?

Since becoming an Arabic type designer in 2006, I am always in the process of developing new Arabic fonts for the market to fill the gap of what is missing or to improve what is out there already. I am proud of all the Arabic type projects I have worked on and that have made an impact on the Arabic type market. Recently, I created two corporate Arabic headlines typefaces for a newspaper in Dubai “Emarat Al Youm” and another newspaper in Kuwait “Al Rouiah”, a corporate Arabic display type for “Ibn Battuta Mall” in Dubai, a corporate Drop Caps font for “Alef Magazine” in collaboration with Huda Abifares and lately I have been an Arabic type consultant for an Arabic typeface that is being created for ”FedEx” in collaboration with “AscendersCorp” in Chicago and “Landor” in California. Prior to these projects, I have created “Sada” typeface as an Arabic companion for “Seria” Latin typefaces in the “Typographic Matchmaking” project and the font is going to be released by FontFont as “FF Seria Arabic” in late 2008. You can read in details about all of these projects on my website http://www.29letters.com.
There is an immense need for new Arabic fonts from Arabic graphic designers. Designing modern layouts requires the use of modern Arabic typefaces, and there aren’t a considerable variety of proper Arabic fonts in the market at the moment. That is why Arabic graphic designers always complain about the lack of new Arabic fonts or that there are not enough Arabic type options that they can choose from and work with. Since I am a young Arabic type designer, I am always trying to create new Arabic fonts that fulfill the needs of the modern Arabic graphic designer. Unlike the Latin typefaces, the Arabic type libraries are not properly developed nor are they as large in quantity as their Latin counterpart. The creation of modern corporate Arabic fonts that will be available in the market (after the exclusivity of the fonts is over) is extremely important to expand the variety of properly designed Arabic fonts in the market.
My Arabic type work serves the bigger goal of enriching the Arabic type market and producing modern Arabic fonts for the modern life that we are living in.

– Do you realize the difference between producing graphically appealing (pretty) solutions and creating strategic communication designs that produce results? If so, what’s your stance?

I believe in functional design. A design (whether a typeface or a layout) can be graphically appealing and functional at the same time. A beautiful typeface that is not legible is useless; likewise, a legible typeface that is not appealing is not going to be chosen by a graphic designer and used in a design project. Aesthetics and functionality should be constantly considered in the design outcome of any project. I do not favor one over the other.
Design as a visual communication tool that tackle social, humanitarian, economical, environmental and political issue is also vital. Graphic designers should be aware that their designs could be visual messages for different causes. The message can be direct or hidden in the design, imagery or slogan.

– As one of the Lebanese contributor in El Hema design project and exhibition, can you tell us what that experience was like?

I was the Art Director of the Arabic team alongside Mr. Willem Velthoven from “Mediamatic”. The project was a collaboration between Dutch and Arabic designers. The Arabic team consisted of five students; two from Notre Dame University (NDU), two from American University of Beirut (AUB), one from American University of Dubai (AUD) and myself. Managing a project of this size and gain experience from the collaboration of the Arabic team with the Mediamatic Dutch team greatly enriched my skills. In addition to our team we had a fashion designer, a photographer, an interior designer, an exhibition organizer and a journalist. All of us collaborated to make the EL HEMA exhibition come true.
The 24th of August was the “Khatt Kufi Kaffiya” symposium on Arabic Visual Culture, the official launching of the Khatt Foundation website and the signing of the Typographic Matchmaking book. Alongside these events, Mediamatic initiated an exhibition to introduce the Dutch audience to the Arabic design and culture through our typography. The exhibition evolved creating an Arabic version of the famous HEMA Dutch stores.
The exhibition integrated the five new Arabic typefaces of the “Typographic Matchmaking” project (Fedra Arabic, Sada, Fresco Arabic, BigVesta Arabic and TheMix Arabic) into applications (items and products) that are going to be sold in the EL HEMA exhibition. Some of the products included Chocolate letters, Chocolate bars, Chocolate sprinkles, Wine bottles, Coffee bags, T-shirts, Socks, Underwear, Scarves, Djalabas and other stuff.
The Dutch people, tourists and the press in Holland took a big interest in the project and it was a great success on the opening day and throughout the two months of exhibition. In October 2007, “EL HEMA” exhibition won the “Visual Identity Prize” in “The Netherlands Design Prize 2007” and the exhibition was extended until the end of the year.

ON ARABIC TYPOGRAPHY

– How long did it take you to develop your style of typography?
– What was the hardest typographic design/illustration you ever had to create?

In the course of my Master studies at Type & Media (KABK) I did a lot of research about Arabic fonts in the market and had a clear idea about what is working and what is not, what is present and what is missing in the Arabic type field. I focused on the creation of modern Arabic fonts that appeal to young Arabic graphic designer and enable them to create modern layouts. My style in Arabic type began while I created my graduation Arabic type family “Massira” in spring 2006. I was also fortunate to be contacted by Huda AbiFares, at the same period, to participate in “The Typographic Matchmaking” project and to collaborate with Dutch type designer Martin Majoor on the creation of an Arabic companion for his font “Seria”. All the clients who wanted me to create Arabic fonts for them are looking for modern and new Arabic fonts that are not present in the market.
I think the hardest type design project was the creation of “Sada” typeface since it was my first-ever professional Arabic Naskh typeface after graduation and I had to finish it rapidly with a tight deadline. By then I needed to develop a professional Arabic font and needed to know all the technical issues besides the aesthetical drawing of the type. Since there is no book out there about Arabic type creation, and the people who know it are very keen not to give out their knowledge, I struggled a bit in the beginning to get to know all the aspects of creating and developing Arabic fonts. I found it so selfish and unprofessional from the individuals who are working in the Arabic type field and are not willing to share the knowledge with me. I decided then to break all the technical issues and tackled them by myself and with the help of some colleagues. When I lastly comprehended all the technical issues and was able to develop professionally my Arabic fonts, I decided to write an article on my website about all the Arabic technical topics and make it available for all young and professional Arabic type designer once and for all.

– Did you do a lot of type design and were you commissioned by ad agencies or directly by the client? How can you describe the relation with the agency or the client?

Till now I have created around nine typefaces. Most of the time I am being commissioned by ad or design agencies to create a font for their client. That is because the font creation comes as part of a whole design package for the project. It is rare for a client to ask for a corporate font by itself without asking for a whole design project.
When an agency contacts me for a type design project, they already know my skills and they are asking for my professional type design work. Till now all the collaborations went well. The agency gives me a detailed brief about the aim and purpose of the font, I do some sketches and drawings of test words at first and send them to the agency for discussion and approval. Once the agency has contacted their client and approved the feel and look of the font, I start developing the font and finalizing it according to the specs needed.

– Can you remember a job that was particularly fun or enjoyable, in relation to Arabic typography?

“Alef Caps” was a fun and experimental type that I worked on for “Alef Magazine” in collaboration with Huda AbiFares. The magazine asked for a Roman Drop Caps typeface inspired from the Arabic culture. A Mono-spaced (all the letters have the same width) pixel font was created with seven pixels in width and eight pixels in height. The Pixels were no simple square but are eight-star shaped that are inspired from the arabesque “Msharabiyé”. It was fun to experiment the ability to create Latin fonts that represent Arabic culture.
The Pixel Type concept was proposed to the client alongside two other concepts. The first concept was a “Latin type inspired from Floral Kufi” with ornaments around the letters, and the second concept was a “Latin type inspired from the Square Kufi” patterns and Arabesques.

“Bukra” Arabic display typeface for “Ibn Battuta Mall” in Dubai was another fun project to work on. “Ibn Battuta Mall” uses the Latin font “Futura Extra Bold” for their signage and ads on the mall and they asked for an Arabic font that has the same feel and sturdiness as “Futura Extra bold”. Since Futura is a simplified geometric Sans Serif, I decided the base the Arabic companion on the Kufi script and try to simplify the letterforms as much as I can and make it young and fresh as Futura. The Arabic font had to work with the capitals of Futura Extra Bold, so I had to experiment with how much I can make the decsenders of the Arabic type short, the loop and tooth heights big and the pen stroke thick enough without clotting the counter spaces of the letterforms.

– Could you tell us a bit about the recent work you’ve done for two newspapers, one in Kuwait and the other in Dubai?

The two newspapers needed a new, young and crispy type that will appeal to young readers. The “Imarat Headlines” font was my first “Naskh Mastari “ font to develop as headlines font for a newspaper. It was tricky at first to find the proper feel and look of the font and to make it distinguished from all the headlines fonts of Arabic newspapers that are already out in the market. I analyzed all the existing newspaper fonts and studied what is working or not in them, then I started to put the points of what to include in my headlines font and how to improve on the existing newspaper fonts. I can say that “Imarat Headlines” is the result of a study of newspaper headlines typefaces, and the outcome of how to create a new Arabic headlines typeface that keeps the traditional feel of Arabic fonts and have a contemporary look to it at the same time. The trick was to balance between old and new techniques of drawing the Arabic letters. I was commissioned by “InnovAtions” agency in London to work on the font. They were working on uplifting and redesigning the newspaper “Emarat Al Youm” and make it more appealing for young readers in Dubai. Accordingly, they asked me to create a young and modern Arabic headlines font to go with the design. Besides creating “Imarat”, I also developed and finalized “TheMix Arabic” font in collaboration with Lucas De Groot for the newspaper. “TheMix Arabic” is used for the section titles while “Imarat Headlines” is used for the main headlines.
After I finalized “Imarat Headlines” and before the new design of “Emarat Al Youm” newspaper was launched in January 2008, I was contacted by the” Arab News Agency “ in Egypt to develop a headlines font for a newspaper in Kuwait called “Al Rouiah”. It was a bit challenging to create another headlines font in such a short time from creating “Imarat Headlines”, but then I noticed that since I have already done all my research and study on Arabic newspaper fonts, I can go further in the development of an even better headlines font after “Imarat Headlines”. “Al Rouiya” headlines typeface is a mature font compared to “Imarat Headlines”. “Al Rouiya” is an elegant and sturdy Arabic typeface based on the Naskh style with a medium contrast, condensed letterforms, strong baseline, large Loop/Tooth heights and short Ascender/Descender heights. Traditional pen stroke are preserved but drawn in a modern feel. This characteristic can be clearly seen in the “heh”, “waw”, “lam” and other glyphs. The letterforms are balanced with the heavy baseline unlike old styled headlines fonts where the baseline is too thick and the letterforms are so weak and light. I am currently working also on another Arabic headlines type for a newspaper in Egypt.

– How long did it take before you started getting commissioned by well-established companies and organizations?
– How much does having your website/blog aid you in getting you hired for jobs?
– How long did it take you to refine your type design style to a point where you were comfortable?

It took me around one year after graduation from Type and Media to be fully comfortable with my type design skills and style, and to start get projects from well-established companies and organizations. Type Design is a huge field by itself beside graphic design as a whole and there is so many typographic, calligraphic and technical skills that you need to acquire before becoming an Arabic type design specialist.
My website and blog help to get attention for my work and thoughts about Arabic type. I constantly write articles about Arabic type topics in general, my current type design projects, projects I am doing with my students and lectures/ workshops that I am giving. I am trying to make my website as a source of knowledge and inspiration for all the people who are interested in Arabic type. The “Typographic Matchmaking” project and book, The Khatt Foundation website and several other articles that I have written in design magazines like “idpure”, “BrownBook” and online Arabic type websites all contribute to making professionals know more about my work.

– How do you balance the artist in you with that of a teacher and the professional designer who has, at the end of the day, to put a price on a commissioned work?

I have always seen myself lucky to be able to make a living out of a profession that I love and that is artistic at some level. I love to teach as much as I love to create new Arabic typefaces. Most important, I see that there is a big difference between a designer and an Artist. A designer creates projects for the audience and he/she needs to be functional as well as aesthetically appealing, while an artist creates his/her work for his/her own taste on a subjective point of view aiming to create something beautiful regardless if it is functional or not. I am an Arabic graphic and type designer working in the design field and I quote for projects as any other professional. Generally I quote for projects according to the time needed to accomplish them and the type of work involved in the creation of the project.

– Conversely, can you share with us any of the things that you have done, or do now, that you think make you stand out from other type designers?

I think two main points make me stand out of other Arabic type designers. First, the designs of my Arabic typefaces by themselves, and second, my sharing spirit of knowledge about Arabic type topics and information and trying to contribute to the development of the Arabic type design field.

– What is your measure of success? Is it simply getting work and making a living? Is it being an artist of some kind or is it leaving a mark and influencing the course of design, being a reference, maybe in your case within Arabic typography?

I feel successful when I know that my graphic or type design work is functioning properly for the medium it is intended for. My work will be noticed and referred to if it is up to the standards and has something new to offer to the design world. I am always keen on making my best in a design project, whereas success and money consequently follow. A balance between creating good design projects and making a living out of them is the right approach for me.

– Where do you see yourself in five years?

Five years from now I see myself opening my own Arabic Type Foundry since by then I would have created more Arabic fonts and the exclusivity of the current corporate fonts that I am creating now will be over. I will be able to sell the fonts in the market after the exclusivity is over and to develop the whole type-families out of each font. For sure I will still be teaching typography and type design in universities, and I hope by then I would be writing a book about Arabic type design and maybe pursuing my PHD studies.

ON TEACHING

– What do you enjoy the most about being a teacher? How much is human interaction a stimulus for your inspiration?

Teaching is an interesting interaction between instructor and students. I see myself as part of the class and not a teacher who is giving out theories and asking the student to do projects that I will not be involved in. I love hands-on projects which give the students the ability of learning by doing and experimenting. Due to my young age and closeness in generation to my students, I always try to integrate my knowledge and experience through the work of my students and not to lecture them about design theories and distance myself from their design process. Mostly, I try to make them think for themselves and try to tackle design problems efficiently. Class discussions and positive criticism in class are extremely important between instructor and students and between students by themselves. I encourage students to work together and share ideas and concepts. The design process from sketching to finalizing a design brief is always crucial to be taught properly to students in class. Students should not become computer graphic artists, but designers who are able to analyze briefs, make the right research, brainstorm and sketch ideas, choose the right medium and application for the project, and lastly be able to develop the project graphically using the right design tools.
Human interaction and exchange of ideas are an important process in the first phase of any design project. Discussing ideas with other colleagues will enable the designer to see the solution from different perspectives and to develop it into a concrete concept. It is important to brainstorm and sketch alone and/or with other colleagues. It is a process that works in both directions. A designer can find an idea or several ideas alone and then discuss them with colleagues to finalize them, or he/she can start getting several ideas while brainstorming with colleagues and then finalize one idea alone. Personally, I have a set of colleagues with whom I like to discuss my ideas before starting and while finalizing a graphic or type design project.
I mentioned in a previous question that sketching is like a dialogue between your mind and hand through your eyes. This helps your mind to stimulate ideas and try to execute them. An added dialogue with colleagues while sketching will sure increase the stimulation process and may develop an idea faster. What is also interesting is that sometimes a colleague turns your attention to a certain topic or idea that you were not seeing or considering.

– What would you recommend for new designers: taking as many jobs as you can get and actually work on, no matter the quality of the job or project you’re asked to do, in order to build up a large resume, or focusing on projects that are more prestigious?

– How do you regard advertising fresh grads today? Is the market over saturated with graphic designers? What’s your tip for them as they prepare to enter into the advertising arena?

Fresh design graduates should try to work on different design projects and get as much experience as they can in the first years of professional work. It is not about taking a normal job or a prestigious job; it is about being able to take jobs that need a designer’s skill and to be able to learn out of them. Working with experienced designers is always helpful. Young designers should try to learn as much as possible from experienced older designers and to keep an open-minded spirit in order to learn the professional skills. It doesn’t mean that the young designer is always learning from the experienced designer, it should be a give and take learning process for both, but most of the time, the young designer will be learning until a certain level of professionalism is achieved. Discussions with experienced design colleagues and with the client are important for developing their design skills. They should also keep in mind that at some points they could educate the client about design solutions or graphical techniques. Most of all, always take comments or suggestions in a forward thinking and not in a competitive thinking. Forward thinking makes young designers grow into professional experienced designers, while a competitive spirit and an ego character keep young designers stuck in their own closed and primitive design knowledge and experience.

– What advice do you have for aspiring creative professionals who want to specialize in Arabic typography?

The Arabic design market is in need of new Arabic modern typefaces and whoever is interested in Arabic type and likes to work in it, I encourage him/her to pursue a higher education in type designing and then to tackle the creation of new Arabic fonts. There is a big need for commercial and corporate Arabic typefaces in the world and especially in the Middle East.

– Graphic Design ideas are grounded in the real-life experiences. In a context of rapidly changing rules and habits, where and how do you get to learn about your audience, its lifestyle, and the new design trends?

Design Books, Magazines, e-zines, and online design websites/ blogs keep you up to date with what is happening in the design medium in any specialized field. Attending design conferences and exhibitions is also vital to stay on track with the rapid evolution and changes in the design world.

– Can you recommend any useful resources such as websites, blogs or books that are a “must have”?

Arabic Typography Books

Arabesque,
Ben Wittner, Sascha Thoma & Nicolas Bourquin, Die Gestalten Verlag Publisher

Typographic Matchmaking,
Huda AbiFares, Khatt / BIS Publishers

Arabic Typography,
Huda AbiFares, Saqi Books

The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy,
Abdelkedir Khatibi / Mohammed Sijelmassi, Thames & Hudson

La calligraphie arabe vivante,
Massoudy/Nitzer, Flammarion

Calligraphy Arabe,
Ghani Alani, Editions Fleurus

New Visual Culture of Modern Iran,
Reza Abedini / Hans Wolbers, Batty Publishers

Arabic for Designers,
Mourad Boutros, Batty Publishers

Arabic Type Specimen Book,
Edo Smitshuijzen, going to be published in 2008

Latin Typography Books

Stop Stealing Sheep & Know How Type Works,
Erik Spiekermann / E.M Ginger, Adobe Press

Thinking with Type,
Ellen Lupton, Princeton Architectural Press

Fundamentals of Typography,
Ambrose / Harris, Watson-Guptill Publications

Type & Typography,
Phil Baines / Andrew Haslam, ava

Typographic Systems,
Kimberly Elam, Princeton Architectural Press

Typography – An Encyclopedic Survey of Type Design
& Techniques Throughout History
Friedl / Ott / Stein, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

The Elements of Typographic
Style, Robert Bringhurst,
Hartley & Marks Publishers

Arabic typography websites

http://www.khtt.net/
http://29letters.com/
http://www.arabictypography.com/
http://www.arabictype.com/
http://www.rezaabedini.com/
http://pagesperso-orange.fr/hassan.massoudy/index.htm

Latin typography websites

http://typophile.com/
http://ilovetypography.com/
http://typographica.org/
http://www.icograda.org/
http://www.aiga.org/
http://www.pingmag.jp/
http://www.atypi.org/

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