Typographic Matchmaking: Arabic type with a Dutch flavor.

The long awaited ‘Typographic Matchmaking’ Book will be launched at a symposium and exhibition at Mediamatic in Amsterdam on the 24th of August 2007.


The following text is written by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès:

The project began with the idea of creating Arabic type with a Dutch flavor in order to bring the high quality of Dutch type design to the rather underdeveloped Arabic design tradition. With the invention of movable type, Latin typography has separated itself from calligraphy in order to better accommodate the needs of mass reproduction. Despite its development into today’s independent design field, type still carries within its forms the calligraphic seeds, the movement of a hand tracing a mark with ink on a page. By contrast, the calligraphic heritage is far more apparent in Arabic type. So how can we possibly conceive of Arabic typefaces with a Dutch flavor? As odd as this statement may seem, there are some fundamental similarities in the design approach taken by Dutch and Arab designers when creating typefaces. The main link is that both rely on their respective calligraphic traditions for structural as well as inspirational guidance. Another less apparent link is the historical background behind the early Arabic printing types produced in Europe since the 16th century. Some of the most prominent scholars, punch cutters (type designers), and printers were of Dutch origin. This last point is the initial idea that spearheaded this ‘Typographic Matchmaking’ project. The idea germinated in the original intention of making an exhibition about the involvement of the Dutch with the production of Arabic type from the 16thC to this day. When the research was undertaken, it became evident that contemporary Dutch type designers did not have the same involvement and enthusiasm of their predecessors. After considering carefully the reasons behind this, reviving the Dutch involvement in the design and production of contemporary Arabic type became a parallel project—namely, the main ‘pre-exhibition’ pilot design experiment that is presented in this book.

Initiating this pilot project.
The Typographic Matchmaking project was first discussed with a number of Dutch designers during the ATypI conference in Prague in September of 2004, and developed accordingly into a project with a defined and practical design brief. The Khatt Foundation initiated the Typographic Matchmaking project, spearheaded and coordinated by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, in April 2005. Five renowned Dutch designers were invited and each was teamed-up with an established or upcoming Arab designer. The aim was to facilitate collaboration between the Dutch and Arab designers in order to design Arabic typefaces that can become members of one of the Dutch designers’ existing font families. The participating designers formed the following teams: Gerard Unger with Nadine Chahine, Fred Smeijers with Lara Assouad Khoury, Martin Majoor with Pascal Zoghbi, Lucas de Groot with Mouneer Al-Shaarani, and Peter Bilak with Tarek Atrissi. In order to create a smooth and productive collaboration, the designers involved were matched according to their aesthetic styles, their personalities, and/or experiences. The initial challenges of this project were slightly humbling. First, asking two type designers who have never worked together to design a typeface was highly unusual— usually type design is an extremely individual and solitary endeavor. Second, matching two designers from different cultural backgrounds (and in most cases) living in different countries posed other small complications; like traveling to meet face to face, or communicating remotely (through telephone and email). Third, the expertise of the selected designers within one team was diverse; ranging from highly advanced technical knowledge, to design experience, to mastery of the Arabic language and script. This latter condition created an interesting balance of expertise within each team and lead to productive inter-dependencies between the partners whereby each had new things to learn from this experimental project. The over-reaching goal of this project was to set an example and to propose working methods, standards, and conventions for creating professionally designed and produced Arabic fonts. The experiments, problems, and developments encountered during the research and design process of each team raised some questions (hopefully to be further investigated in later projects and by other designers), provided some solutions and demystified the design and production process of Arabic type. These issues will be discussed in detail in the later chapters dedicated to each project.


The goals of the project.
The main thrust of the project is to address the modernization of Arabic textfaces and to develop quality Arabic fonts that will on one hand set the benchmark for future developments in this field, and on the other create good matching fonts for existing Latin font families. The project aims to provide design solutions for legible Arabic fonts that answer the dual-script needs of contemporary design in the Arab world. As a first step, we identified the general problems of Arabic fonts available on the market today, and then defined them as follows:

• Lack of published simple and concise guidelines of how to design Arabic fonts.
• Lack of established and widely known design conventions (such as similarities and differences between various letterforms, standard test words and test sentences).
• Lack of information on issues of legibility of Arabic in various reading contexts.
• Lack of unified technical standards that are universally shared by different technology suppliers (software and computer systems).


These problems were discussed and battled with during the three-day workshop we conducted at Mediamatic in Amsterdam in January 2006, and was later carried on through the ongoing work of the designers and their sharing of information and experiences amongst themselves. By sharing with the readers our long and tedious process, we hope that lasting lessons for Arabic type design can be learned from this project. We aim to highlight the problems of Arabic type, set standards and conventions for designing modern Arabic fonts, and provide information as clearly and as in-depth as possible. We strive to provide guidelines and examples of well-crafted Arabic fonts that encourage well-informed and innovative attitudes to designing Arabic type. And finally we hope to initiate the creation of a platform for a young generation of Arab type designers.


Furthermore, we would like to repeat this experiment in the near future and use what we have learned from this pilot project to go further in our research and investigations. We are looking to invite a fresh round of designers and commission them to design an original dual-script (Latin and Arabic) typeface that will require designing both scripts at the same time—possibly also according to a slightly modified design brief. In addition to the practical concerns, the project aimed at creating possibilities for cultural exchange, for building bridges between the European and Arab cultures, and for stimulating an exchange of design expertise between designers from different backgrounds, and practicing in different cultures.

The design brief.
The main project brief is to create legible Arabic fonts that can accommodate the design needs of contemporary design in the Arab world. The brief was limited to creating book typefaces that can compliment the chosen Latin typefaces. Innovation and diversity in Arabic textfaces was a primary concern because book and publication design in the Arab world are far behind in terms of quality (partly because of lack of appropriate fonts). The design of an ever-growing number of modern bilingual magazines and publications is being set back aesthetically because of inadequate and poorly crafted Arabic fonts (modeled after antiquated and impractical calligraphic scripts).


Infusing fresh blood into this area was not only a good starting point, but also the best way to address the problem of balancing legibility with reading conventions in modern Arabic printed media. Each Dutch designer was asked to select one appropriate font from his existing typefaces, and then in collaboration with his Arab partner to design a matching Arabic version. The selection of the starting Latin fonts addressed diverse design applications and type design approaches, consequently creating a much-needed variety of contemporary Arabic typefaces. A list of design requirements was set as follows:
• The Arabic font and its Latin counterpart were to have the same visual size at the same point size.
• The Arabic fonts are to be designed in two weights; a regular or book weight for running text, and a bold weight for headings (excluding Italics which are not a common convention in Arabic typesetting).
• The Arabic fonts would have the same ‘look and feel’ as the Latin font, with similar design details like stem weight, color, letter contrast and stroke endings.
• The results should be truly bilingual fonts.
• The fonts should accommodate the Farsi as well as the Arabic languages in their character set.
• The fonts are to be professionally produced to work on commonly used Arabic DTP software.

The Typographic Matchmaking book.
This book is a documentation of the first Typographic Matchmaking project. It is conceived to address the specific educational (informational) goal of presenting the process behind researching and designing an Arabic typeface within the strict limitations of the design brief.


The idea is to study and explore what collaboration between two designers (from different design and cultural backgrounds) can lead to and what are the issues that surface from such a unique design experiment. The discussions and results from this project should provide some concrete observations about the differences and shared principles between these two seemingly opposite scripts (and cultures). The results will be discussed in light of what discoveries have been made, how successful was the end result in coming close to the original intention of the designers, and what has this experiment contributed to enriching each designer’s personal maturity and development. The learning experience of the designers involved in this project can also provide insight to other designers interested or involved in similar design projects. Judging from the way design is heading, the problems that design has to resolve in our multi-cultural societies will most likely increase and cross-cultural communication will become an essential part of everyday design practice for most. This documentation intends to go beyond the mere visual presentation of the final refined product (the matching Arabic fonts) in order to outline what will hopefully become lasting lessons in multi-cultural design collaborations. Nonetheless, we consider having a final product as important because it serves the purpose of setting a good model for the future of Arabic typeface design. Having well-crafted and well-designed Arabic fonts (which are much needed for improving the quality of design in the Arab world) is part and parcel of this publication, and a clear reflection of the noble goals of the Khatt Foundation.

This project has been made possible by the major and generous support of the Fonds BKVB.

26 thoughts on “Typographic Matchmaking: Arabic type with a Dutch flavor.

Add yours

  1. thanks for the mail concerning the khatt kufi & Kaffiya symposium. unfortunately its unlikely for me to go because of finances, since i’ve been saving up money to fund my senior project for my BA degree in the fall semester…
    quite bugged out to know that i’d be missing out on such an event :(

    anyway, i want to congratulate you for the book. and please let me know how i can get a copy of Typographic Matchmaking in addition to the bonus CD mentioned.

    i hope you’d cover the symposium in your website after you return.

    sincerely wishing you all the best Pascal :)


  2. hello and have good time.I am mehran hamze nezhad from Iran.Im a graphic designer and working in typography and typeface course.
    i want to have contact with you. i couldnt regiester in your site.
    I was wondering to send me an e-mail to show a way to represent my graphic works to you.
    I was wondering to introduce experts to help me improve in typeface course.

    with regards mehran hamzeh nezhad

  3. Thanks for another informative site. Where else could I get that type of information written in such an ideal way? I’ve a project that I am just now working on, and I have been on the look out for such information.

  4. Hi, wonderful project
    Dear Pascal, I’m student in master of art in Malaysia and working on Persian typeface design.
    I read your summery about your experience and project you did with other designers. I want to let me if it’s possible, use your report for case study about matchmaking Persian and English font. Also if it’s possible give me some sketch of your project?
    Thanks in advanced

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