Mediamatic Interview

1. You recently taught a workshop on Kufic design. What does Kufi script mean to you? What place do you think it has for the Arab world, Arab youth, the Arab diasporas … and the non-Arab world in the 21st century?

The Kufi Arabic Style is one of the oldest Arabic calligraphic styles and at the same time the easiest to learn and draw. Since the Kufi style is based on geometric constructions and not on the flow of the pen stroke, this enables it to be easily drawn and to make beautiful patterns out of it. For young Arabic typographers and non-Arab typographers, the Kufi will be the first choice to start understanding the Arabic script.

There are several Arabic Kufi styles but the most common ones are: 1. Old Archaic Kufi, 2. Floral Geometric Kufi and 3. Square Kufi. The Archaic Kufi originates from “Kufa” in Iraq during the 7th Century; hence the Kufi Calligraphic style name. The old kufi (Archaic Kufi) consisted of 17 Arabic lettersforms without diacritic dots or accents. Afterwards the diacritic dots and accents were added in order to help pronunciation and the set of Arabic letters rose to 29 (including the Hamza). With the birth of Islam, the Quran became the reason to reform all the Arabic scripts found in Arabia. One unified coherent Arabic script with 29 letters was developed for the writing of the holy scripts of the Quran in the 7th century AD. Primarily the Quran was written with the kufi script and later it was written with the Naskh style. The geometric Floral Kufi style is the descended of the Archaic Kufi style. Floral Kufi is purely geometric in construction and the endings of the letters grow into floral patterns. Finally the square Kufi is a geometric pattern style where the positive and negative spaces have the same width/proportions and the Kufi letters are drawn in simplified basic structures.

In the 21st century and Kufi script is making a big come back. Even though Kufi is one of the oldest Arabic calligraphic styles, the geometric construction of its letterforms and the low-contrast (or mono-linear) pen stoke makes it ideal for creating modern Arabic typefaces. There are several contemporary Arabic fonts in the market nowadays based on the kufi style. In brief, most of the Arabic calligraphic styles are high contrast unless the Kufi style. If compared to the Latin typefaces again, high contrast Arabic typefaces will be compared to classical serif Latin typefaces, while low contrast Arabic typefaces will be compared to Sans serif Latin typefaces.

For a non- Arabic viewer, square Kufi will be seen as geometric pattern and not as written Arabic words. But once a person understands the logic behind the structure he/she can easily start dissecting the pattern into Arabic words and sentences. Any non-Arab individual willing to learn about the Arabic script will start with the kufi Arabic style. During my workshop I was bit worried that the participants (since they were all non-Arab) will not be able to create beautiful square kufi patterns because they do no know the Arabic script. But after I finished my lecture and gave them the basic info about the Arabic letters and the concept behind the construction of the Kufi style, the participant excelled with their patterns and by the end of the workshop we had very interesting kufi square patterns.

2. You were one of the designers who participated in the Typographic Matchmaking Project. One of the goals of the project was to come up with new Arabic fonts. Why was there a need to develop these fonts, and how did the project go beyond the technical side of that goal?

The market of Arabic typography is bit poor at the present moment but the need for new design culture and new Arabic typefaces is expanding more and more and the awareness of the importance of Arabic typefaces will surely enrich the Arabic typography market in the coming years.

Professional graphic designers and students are always asking for new Arabic fonts. Before the launch of Adobe InDesign ME versions and the development of the OpenType Arabic fonts, most of the Arabic typographer used Quark AXt and were limited to AXt Arabic fonts. Until now the AXt fonts are the most used even-though the users of Quark AXt is diminishing. The reason for that is there are not so may new OpenType Arabic fonts for them to use instead of the AXt fonts. Over the last few years, the awareness about Arabic type and the need for new fonts was translated in the rise of Arabic Type Foundries and young contemporary independent Arabic Type Designers. From the past three years there was Nadine Chahine, Titus Nemith and myself Pascal Zoghbi who have graduated with Masters in Type Design and are specialized in Arabic type. All three of us now are working and developing new Arabic fonts that are starting to appear in the market.

There is a big need for modern Arabic typefaces and for Arabic/Latin Typefaces. Most of the publications in the middle east are bi-script and bi-lingual (Arabic/French, Arabic/English, …). Arabic typographers were always faced with the problem of choosing the proper Arabic typeface from the small Arabic type library they have to match with the Latin type that they are using in a certain publication. Non of the old Arabic typefaces match properly any Latin typeface. That is why there is a big need to bi-script typefaces Arabic/Latin to support bi-lingual publications.

The Typographic Matchmaking project organized by the Khatt foundation is a good example of how to establish a link between Arabic and Roman Typefaces. You can read more about this project on the Khatt Foundation website or in the Typographic Matchmaking book. I worked on Sada, the Arabic counterpart of Seria that is designed by Martin Majoor, and TheMix Arabic. The main concept is not to copy and paste glyph shapes from the Roman and convert them into Arabic glyphs, but to redraw all the Arabic glyphs from scratch while trying to keep the same feel and look of the Arabic type as close as possible to the Roman counterpart. The type designer must understand the characteristics of both Arabic and Roman scripts and respects them during the design process.

The “Typographic Matchmaking” project was initiated by the “Khatt Foundation” (Amsterdam) in April 2005. The Khatt Foundation selected and invited five renowned Dutch designers and matched each one of them with an established and upcoming Arab designer. The aim was to facilitate collaboration between the Dutch and Arab designers in order to design Arabic typefaces that match and can become part of the font family of one of the Dutch designers’ existing font families. The main thrust of the project is to address the modernization of Arabic text faces that can provide design solutions for legible Arabic fonts that answer the contemporary design needs in the Arab world (namely for publications and new digital media applications).

3. What do you think the importance/impact of this project are, and what kinds of follow-up work are you involved in?

Beside providing 5 new Arabic typefaces that can be used by themselves in Arabic publications or typeset alongside with their Latin counterpart typefaces, the project and the 5 new Arabic type families are the milestone for developing contemporary Arabic typefaces. The Project is an example and all the 10 type designers involved are pioneers of modern Arabic typefaces. The “Typographic Matchmaking” book documents the design process of each team and sets a starting point for each contemporary Arabic type designer to undertake his/her own step in creating new Arabic fonts.

As for the follow-up, first I am in the process of finalizing the whole type family of “Sada” from Ultra Light to Extra Black and developing the fonts in OpenType formats. Second, I am involved with the khatt foundation website and activities. I am always writing new articles on the khatt website and trying to make new activities with the collaboration of Huda AbiFares (like the kufi workshop I made in Amsterdam during the El-Hema exhibition and now I am trying to organize something in Lebanon at Notre Dame University where I teach).

4. And finally, on a lighter note, were you involved in the development of the chocolate fonts? If so, what was the inspiration and what is/was the aim (eg – will these ever be put on the market?)?

I was the Art Director and manager of the Arabic team that created the El-Hema exhibition in collaboration with the Mediamatic team. The Chocolate letters is one of the items and package that were designed for the exhibition. We did not create a special Chocolate font for the chocolate letters. We chose “Fedra Arabic” to make the chocolate letters. The aim of the El-Hema exhibition is to promote the 5 new Arabic typefaces. So for each item in the exhibition we needed to use one on the 5 fonts. For the chocolate letters we decided on “Fedra Arabic”. The design of the Chocolate packages were designed by the Arabic Graphic designers “Wael Morcos” and “Raya Tuaine” from the Arabic design team. As for the Chocolate letters by themselves, the molds where done by ……
If the Chocolate letters are going to be produced for the market or not it depends on Mediamatic foundation. Mainly the chocolate letters packages are one of the items found in the El-Hema exhibition and once the exhibition is over all items will not be produced anymore. But if a chocolate company is interested in developing the chocolate letters then this will become a different project by itself. Actually each font of the 5 Arabic fonts can be made into chocolate letters. So if one of the teams can make a contract with a chocolate company for production, then that will great. I did not hear of any proposals yet. Maybe I should go around the chocolate factories in the Middle East and ask if they are interested. It would be nice to have Arabic chocolate letters for Christmas.

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