The following article is a brief description of systems and guidelines used in Arabic calligraphy and Arabic type design field to achieve proportional and harmonious Arabic letters. This article is intended for typography students and beginners in Arabic type design.
1. Arabic Calligraphy:
Traditional Arabic Calligraphy schools base their teachings on three writing systems created by the Arabic calligrapher “Ibn Muqlah” in the ninth century. The three systems are: 1.Nizam Al-Dairah, 2.Nizam Al-Nuqat and 3.Nizam Al-Tashabuh.
In brief, Nizam Al Dairah (system of the circle) bases all the letterforms on a circle. The diameter of the circle is determent from the height of the letter “Alef”. Nizam Al-Nuqat (system of the dots) bases the proportions of the letters on dot counts. The rhombic dot is determent from the thickness of the calligraphic pen used, whereas the dot count of each letter is dependent on the Arabic calligraphic style chosen. Refer to the picture below.
The Thuluth style has the longest “alef” while the Ruqâa and Persian styles have the shortest “alef”. Both Nizam Al-Dairah and Nizam Al-Nuqat initiate from the height of the “alef” and the Arabic calligraphic style, then all the other letters and drawn accordingly.
The third system, Nizam Al-Tashabuh (system of similarity), is based on similar pen strokes used in several letters. For example, the “seen.final” and “sad.final” share the same ending stroke, the “waw.isol” and “qaf.isol” share the same starting loop or eye, the “ain.isol” and “hah.isol” share the same ending stroke and so forth for all the letters
Usually Nizam Al-Nuqat is the most referred to writing system. Arabic Calligraphy students write several calligraphic exercises based on the Nizam Al-Nuqat for the most common Arabic calligraphic styles (1.Kufi, 2.Naskh, 3.Thuluth, 4.Diwani, 5.Persan, 6.Riqâa, 7.Maghrébi) before they become good Arabic calligraphers. Below is an example of an exercise.
2. Arabic Type Design:
When it comes to type designing the three calligraphic writing systems are transformed into guidelines and components. Upon starting an Arabic typeface design, the first step to do is to choose a calligraphic style to refer to while drawing the letters. The choice of calligraphic style is directly depended on the purpose and use of the typeface. For example, most text Arabic typeface are based on the “Naskh” style, while most display Arabic typefaces are based on “Kufi” or “Diwani”. Whether the drawn typeface is modern or traditional; it must always refer to a certain calligraphic style if it needs to be professionally done. After choosing the calligraphic style, the guidelines fo the typefaces need to be determent. The guidelines are: 1.baseline stroke thickness (which is also linked to the overall stroke thickness), 2. the loop height/s, 3. the tooth height/s, 4. the ascender height/s and the descender height/s. There is no x-height since there is no “x” in the Arabic alphabet. Instead of one x-height in Latin typefaces, there is loop and tooth height/s in Arabic typefaces. The Arabic letters do not all have the same heights as Latin letters. Below is two examples of new Arabic typefaces that are part of the “Typographic Matchmaking 01“ project.
The first is SADA and the second is TheMixArab. Sada is based on the Naskh style while TheMixArab is based on the Kufi Style. Notice the guidelines in each typeface. Since Sada is based on the Naskh style, the letters are more flowing and they do not all have the same heights. In Sada there is two tooth heights, two loop heights, one ascender height and two descender heights. On the contrary, TheMixArab has one guideline used for loop height and tooth height, one descender and one ascender. Since the Kufi style is more geometric, TheMixArab does not need as much guidelines as Sada. The Naskh based typeface is more calligraphic then a Kufi based typeface and hence needs more guidelines to make all the letterforms harmonious. So depending on the Arabic typeface designed and the purpose of its design, the guidelines will be decided on by the type designer. There isn’t one rule that fits all Arabic typefaces as in the Latin typefaces. The guidelines in Arabic type designing replace both “Nizam Al Dairah” and “Nizam Al-Nuqat” in calligraphy. The third writing system “Nizam Al-Tashabuh” is replaced by components. Components in type designing are pen strokes that are used to create several letters. Examples of letters that use components are the same as the ones listed in “Nizam Al-Tashabuh” previously. In the Arabic alphabet there is 17 basic pen strokes that build up the whole alphabet. Take a look of the Fontlab file bellow.
All the pink colored glyphs are drawn and become components for all the other glyphs that are white. All the white glyphs are composed from components.
The balance and harmony of the whole typeface start from the mentioned main three points.
1. Choice of an Arabic calligraphic style, 2. Creating the guidlines and 3. drawing the basic components for the whole typeface.
3. Testing words and sentences to achieve proportionality:
Testing words and sentences are drawn at the beginning of an Arabic type design project. The testing words are used to achieve proportionally in the glyphs drawn before embarking on all the glyphs of the typeface. It is wise to spend some time at the launch of an Arabic type design project on test words then to move fast on drawing the entire letters and then notice that the proportionality between them is not working. Testing words are like the corner stone for a typeface. Once it is well drawn, the creation of the remaining glyphs moves smoothly. Below is two examples of Arabic testing sentences written with Sada and then with TheMixArab.
The first test sentence I made with my typography students at AUB. It is “ houm wa tarabishahunna raqasou al-dabka”. The second is taken from Huda AbiFarès book “Arabic Typography”. It is “hiya qatou’ al mash’aladan”. Unlike Latin, there are no standard testing words or pangrams for the Arabic script. A pangram is a testing sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet. For the Latin we have “handgloves” & “hambourgefontsiv” as testing words. “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog” is the most famous English pangram. Since Latin is detached, it is easy to create pangrams for it, but when it comes to the Arabic script, it is more difficult and actually impossible to have all the Arabic letters and there different shapes according to their position in the words in one sentence. That is why there is no standard testing words or pangrams for Arabic. Each Arabic type designers creates his/her own words and sentences according to the type project. What is important in all the testing words is that they should have letters with ascenders (“alef”, “kaf”,”tah”), descenders (“reh” “noon”, “hah”, “ain”), eyes (“waw”), loops (“feh”) and teeth (“seen”, “teh”) for the Arabic script; ascender (“h”,”d”), descender (“p”,”g”), and several main letters for the x-heigth (“n”, “a”, “e”, “o” and others) for the Latin script.
Pascal Zoghbi 17 August, 2007.