Interview with Khatt – Love your letters, they are your babies!

Interview with Pascal Zoghbi by Huda AbiFares from the Khatt Foundation.
Part of the Multiple Baselines series.

Pascal Zoghbi is one of the young generation of Arab type designers. He has participated in two of the design research projects of the Khatt Foundation: ‘Typographic Matchmaking’ and ‘Typographic Matchmaking in the City’ respectively. This interview will focus on his Arabic type design—mainly work that was inspired by hand-made lettering, calligraphy and street art.

  1. What is your educational background and when did you start being interested in Arabic Type Design? Was it a person or incidence that inspired you? I pursued my Masters of Design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, The Netherlands in the year 2005. The Type & Media program taught me all I need to know about type design while concentrating on my emphasis – modern Arabic type. Prior to that, I received my Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design – emphasis typography from Notre Dame University in Lebanon in 2002. There were several incidences during my graduation year at the BA studies that made me interested in the development of the Arabic type and script. Field trips to the first printing presses in Lebanon and lectures about iconic revolutionary designers (Nasri Khattar’s Unified Type) and their attempts to change or simplify the Arabic script triggered some interest in me. But the strong influence came from the renowned Lebanese philosopher and poet Saïd Akl. I was lucky to be able to attend the Arabic language course at NDU that Saïd Akl was giving for the last time. During the lecture he spoke about this attempt of creating the “Lebanese Type” which will replace the current Arabic script and will be easier for the Lebanese people to learn and use the type more efficiently. Beside learning about the “Lebanese Type”, Saïd Akl’s lectures and talk about the Arabic script and language made me love the script and triggered in me the curiosity to


  1. You have started your career in type design with your Massira font, during your postgraduate studies at the Type & Media program of the Royal College of Art in The Hague (The Netherlands). This typeface was inspired by informal handwritten protest banners and graffiti. Can you tell more about this project, the design process and what you learned from it? I left Beirut in 2005 to start my post-graduate studies at KABK amidst the large demonstrations that were happening there after the assignation of the Prime Minister Hariri and the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. I was one of the thousands of Lebanese people demonstrating and documenting the manifestations. I left to the Netherlands with a positive revolutionary spirit within me. During the first phase of the program I was learning the type design skills before creating my own Lebanese Arabic type family in the second phase of the program. The strong visuals of the demonstrations flashed before my eyes and I wanted to create an Arabic type family inspired from the writings of the Lebanese people and the different writing tools that were used. Instead of creating one font with different weights, I decided to create several fonts based on different writing tools like spray can, ball, point, lipstick, brush, chalk, etc… Of course I did not have the time to create all the different fonts for my graduation so I selected the most powerful writing tools: the Spray and the Ballpoint were the most common. I studied all the different kinds of written letters from the petition that was written during the demonstration, and I asked for extra hand written samples from my family, friends and colleagues in Lebanon. After analyzing the different kinds of writings and different shapes for certain Arabic letters, I started drawing my own type. I started with drawing skeleton shapes for each Arabic letters in all its positions, and then started experimenting with the spray and ballpoint tools on the skeletons to create the final outlines of the letters. Each letter had to be sprayed on an A3 paper and then scanned and traced and placed into the font. The flowing connectivity of the letters was the other challenge in the design process. Beside creating the display Spray and Ballpoint fonts, I created a body text font with sharp cuts and strong pen strokes to convey the idea of the revolution.


  1. You have recently published a book on Arabic Graffiti and have been involved in graffiti workshop in Beirut. Is this a continuation of the Massira project (no pun intended) and has anyone in the Arab Spring uprising used your typeface? I return to Beirut from The Netherlands after the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. The demonstrations had stopped however a strong street art scene was present and socio-political graffiti were drawn in the walls of the city (the city walls). During my stay in The Netherlands I noticed the huge amount of graffiti there, and I was constantly taking photos of it around me. Coming back to Beirut I continued and started taking photos of the graffiti in Beirut especially the ones that had interesting Arabic lettering. Taking a distance from the hectic living in Beirut, i realized many special assets that I was taking for granted. I was amazed by the amount and variety of the Arabic street art scene in Beirut, such as the calligraphy on the trucks and the typography of old shop signs. The small hobby turned into a documentation and investigation of the street art in Beirut and Lebanon and the artists who were behind it. I had the chance to meet the Lebanese graffiti artists is the “Booming Beirut” workshop that was held by the German graffiti artist Don Karl. Since then Don and I were talking about creating a book about the Arabic graffiti in the Middle East and the world. Besides being a graffiti artist, Don is the founder of “From Here to Fame” publishing house in Berlin that publishes street art and graffiti books. Two years of research and documentation led to the creation of the Arabic Graffiti Book, which is a compilation of articles about the artists and the socio-political Arabic street art in Arab world and the west. I would not say that the Arabic Graffiti book is a continuation of the Massira project as much as a showcase of my interest in revolutionary typography that stems from the soul of the artist or designer behind it. I love letters with a message and a voice, letters that can start a revolution or stem from it, letters that speak out the suffering and struggle of a nation.


  1. Right after your graduation, you have participated in the first Typographic Matchmaking project of the Khatt Foundation (2005-2007) and worked in collaboration with Martin Majoor on the Sada font? What were the challenges in developing a match for the Seria font? And what were the adjustments made to the font before it was later released as Seria Arabic by Font Shop international? Working with Martin Majoor was so pleasant and encouraging since it was my first professional Arabic type work after my graduation. We discussed how to make the characteristic of the Arabic letters match as closely as possible to the existing Latin Seria letters but at the same time follow the rules and dimensions of the Arabic Naskh style. What facilitated the design process of Sada was that I have tackled similar design approaches and problems with Massira that existed in Seria like the sharp edge cuts in the letters. Prior to publishing Sada as Seria Arabic with Font Shop International, I analyzed the beta version of Sada, tweaked and fixed the problems from the overall shape of some letters to the spacing and connectivity of some others. The loop shape of the Arabic letters were modified to correspond more with the Naskh letter structures and proportions, the endings of some letters like the “reh” where tweaked to solve the problem of spacing and the overlapping of the glyphs. Additional Light and Black weights were added to the existing regular and Bold, and finally the Arabic opentype features were added to the fonts and published. FF Seria Arabic was the first Arabic type-family to be published from Font Font.


  1. You have often been commissioned to design matching Arabic fonts for existing font families. Can you tell about this process and what you have discovered doing it? Comprehending the writing, drawing and proportions of the Arabic letters based on the traditional calligraphic styles is the most essential aspect a type designer needs to understand and master before starting the design any Arabic type either for an existing Latin font or not. Creating an Arabic type for an existing Latin typeface require a complete comprehension of the Latin letters and design also. The type designer needs to analyze the design and flow of the Latin of the type before starting to design the Arabic part. The construction of the letters, and behavior of the connections, edges, ending, etc… of the Latin letters should be deciphered and then implemented into in the Arabic letters as close as possible will keeping the correct writing proportions of the Arabic and structure of the letters. The Arabic should be drawn based a certain Arabic calligraphic style (like Naskh, Kufi, Diwani, Thuluth,etc…) and not just constructed from cut out pieces of the Latin letters. A proper Arabic font that is created to be a companion for an existing Latin font should also be standing alone as an Arabic font as if it is design as an Arabic font without having any Latinazation in it. What makes the two fonts work together at the end is the over color of the fonts when set together, the weight, proportions, and design details like the endings shape and tension in the pen stroke.


  1. Several of your typeface designs have been designed in collaboration with other designers. Can you describe the most productive collaboration that has resulted in an innovative typeface design?The collaboration with the renown Dutch type designer Erik van Blokland and architect Joumana al Jabri for the creation of the Hamsa type family within the Typographic Matchmaking in the City project was the most interesting in my career so far and different than the normal type design collaborations. The brief of the project forced us to approach the design process in a different method. Instead of starting with sketching and drawing letters on paper, we went out to the beach and started experimenting with water and sand. We wanted to find an idea that linked Amsterdam and Dubai together and we first focused on the dredging and landfills that both cities have. We started up with poring water into sand to melting wax (as a viscous liquid that will harden in sand and not seep into it) and poring it into letterforms dug into the sand. From the wax letters that came out from the sand we moved on to thin papers and sticks and started creating sail like letter structure that are in link to the thin wax letters we got out of the sand. In turn the paper and stick letters led us to draw ultra thin glyphs and we cut them out into pieces to make them constructible. This ended up in creating an ultra light stencil type Arabic/Latin alongside an arrow typeface for educational use and cutout typeface for graffiti use. The letters were created to exist in urban places and cry out messages in a discreet way. The letters can be made into huge structures and stand in plazas or cut out into cardboard and sprayed on the city walls as graffiti. They can be cut out into metallic or wood structures in urban items or come out of the sea as sailing structures. The end result is endless and that is what we love about it. The fonts created are open-ended and are not intended for one typographic purpose. They open the opportunity for future explorations from designers and typographers and that is what we love about them. The end result was never anticipated from the start of the project as it was with the 1st typographic matchmaking project were we created Arabic fonts to be used alongside existing Latin print fonts. As a showcase of the use of the Hamsa fonts, Joumana and I cut out some of the Hamsa stencil letters into cardboards and went out during the Arabic language festival in Hamra, Beirut and sprayed on the walls words and slogans promoting the use and love of the Arabic language and script. Another interesting typographic collaboration was the work with Wolf Olins in New York on creating an Arabic/Latin corporate custom font for “Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art” that opened its doors to contemporary Arab art lovers in December 2010 in Doha, Qatar. The museum host exhibitions, programs and events that explore and celebrate art by Arab artists, and the corporate font had to reflect the contemporary edgy work of the artists in an elegant and unique approach, hence the birth of an ultra thin hybrid modern Kufi-Naskh font with strong tension and cuts in its’ structure. The work flow between Beirut and New York was daily and intense exploring all the aspects of the letters and the drawing of several options for each letter and how its’ effect on the overall color of the font. Unique ligatures were made like “rt”, “of”, “th”, etc. which are not present in the normal ligature set of Latin fonts. The ligatures were created to make the words looks unique in the logotype of the museum or inside a running text and at the same balance the baseline connections of the Arabic with the strong vertical standing Latin letters. We were trying to make the Latin come as much close to the Arabic and merge together as one. From the beginning the brief was to have the corporate font as light and elegant with an edgy feel in contrast to the secondary font that was created by Tarek Attrisi who was a bold hand written font inspired from fast Arabic handwritings. The spirit of the font is materializes when the curvy pen strokes meet up with the sharp cuts and corners of the letters. The Arabic letterforms complement an edgy lowercase Latin letters to present a unique bilingual Arabic–English type. The font created was incorporated in the whole corporate identity of the museum starting with the logotype, signage, publications, advertisements, website, promotional items, etc…


  1. Which of your fonts and projects has had (or may have) a considerable cultural influence on Arab readers and designers today and why? I would say the Arabic headlines fonts that I have designed for the leading newspapers in the MENA region have the most influence on the Arab reader since the newspapers are published and read daily. The Droid Arabic fonts will also have their influence on the web and smart phones in the near future once GoogleTM launches them. The Droid Arabic fonts will be the default Arabic fonts for all Google web products and smart phone products such as Google Chrome™ and Android™. At the moment I am customizing a headline Arabic font for Masri Al Youm newspaper in Cairo, and prior to that I have created headline Arabic font for Al Watan newspaper in Saudi Arabia, Emarat Al Youm newsper in Dubai,UAE and Al Rouiya newspaper in Kuwait. All these newspaper fonts had to be young, strong and bold Arabic typefaces based on the Naskh-mastari style. The first headline font I created was for Emarat Al Youm newspaper in Dubai that targets young readers. They asked for a fresh headline font with crisp and contemporary feel to it in comparison to the traditional headline fonts that were used in mostly all the other newspapers. I started with researching old and present Arabic newspapers in the Arab region and analyze the aspects of the headline fonts present in them. I examined the old handwritten calligraphic headlines of the newspapers that were issuing during the 70s and 80s and then moved on to the present tabloid of the 20th century. I quickly noticed that the move from the handwritten to the digitized Arabic headline fonts had a strong influence on the connectivity of the letters. What was smooth and flowing in the handwritten headlines became rigid and straight in the digitized font, and what was Naskh or Ruqaa in style became rigid Naskh-Mastari type. My first proposal for Emarat Al Youm newspaper was a low contrast simplified Naskh fonts with curvy letters connections at the baseline to keep it as close as possible to the handwritten Naskh, but the option was rejected and they insisted that they want the baseline to be straight and rigid as the readers got used to; however, they kept for me the freedom to simplify the Naskh letterform and make them young and fresh. The result was my first Naskh Mastari headline font with simplified pen strokes, low contrast and open counters that makes it very easy to spot and read amongst other headlines of newspapers on the shelf or within the newspaper itself. After the creation of Imarat Headlines font, I was commissioned by other leading newspapers in the Arab region to create headline font for them and somehow under the same brief as the one I had from Emarat Al Youm. This made me challenge myself and dig deep into the construction of the Naskh letterforms and create different alternatives of outlines for the letters while keeping the young and fresh spirit present. I had to study in-depth the Naskh script and practice its traditional structure that in term enabled me to create new modern outlines for the new headline fonts. Droid Arabic (Naskh and Kufi) fonts are design to accompany Droid Serif and Droid Sans fonts that are design by Steve Metteson from AscenderCorp. Besides meeting the design approach of Droid Serif, Droid Naskh is purely designed according to the guides and proportions of the traditional Naskh calligraphic style. This Naskh style is optimized for reading Arabic script on screen. The large ‘loop height’ and ‘tooth height’ help prevent readers from having to zoom into web pages to read them. The traditional Naskh forms are softened for less formal documents such as periodicals and journals. The letterforms structures are based on the calligraphic grammatical rules of the Naskh writing style while drawn with a contemporary feel. Dawn Shaikh from Google performed several surveys and tests on the fonts during the design and development process it ensure the best legibility of the fonts on screen.


  1. How does it feel to see your work used by other designers and can you describe such an event that surprised or pleased you? Besides Seria Arabic (Sada) that was commercially published by FontFont in 2009, all of my other fonts are custom and only used for what they were intended for. Hence there were no big surprises of the use of the custom fonts. As for Seria Arabic, I was surprise to notice that a large amount of recent Arabic children books were typeset with it. The font was not design for children publications, but I guess the young and fresh spirit in the typeface lends it to be favored for children’s books. For sure Seria Arabic is also used to typeset standard publications. I guess the big surprises will be when I start publishing my Arabic custom fonts as retail fonts once the exclusivity periods are over. I am launching my own Arabic type foundry in the near future and most of my custom fonts I created will be publish one after the other. The type-families Bukra and Baseet will be the first two and the others will follow consequently.


  1. You have been teaching typography and type design at several universities, can you tell more about the places you have taught, the most inspiring experiences and what you think is important for type design education in the Arab world and Middle East in general? I started teaching typography courses at Notre Dame University (NDU) after my return from The Netherlands in 2006. I taught fundamental and advanced typography courses there until 2010. Since 2008 until present I am teaching introduction and advanced typography courses at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in the Beirut and Byblos campuses. Alongside, I started giving typography courses at the American University of Beirut (AUB) since 2010 together with the renowned Iranian typographer Reza Abedini. It is always inspiring to work with the students and explore new approaches in typography based on the collaborative input between the students and I. Beside the experience that I get from working with the students, it is also inspiring and an honor to teach alongside professional typographers like Reza Abedini at AUB; Randa Abed Al Baki, Alya Karami at LAU; Yara Khoury and John Kortbayi at NDU; etc… I love typography courses since they are hands one courses and not only lectures and presentation about typography. Besides teaching typography courses, I have given several workshop and introductory courses in Arabic type designing but not any advanced classes yet. We do not have yet an Arabic Type Design program in the Middle East universities that gives advanced professional type design courses like it is in Type & Media at KABK or the type design course at Reading. Graphic Design programs in the Middle East Lack advanced course in Arabic Type design or Arabic calligraphy. Both of these topics are only introduced during the programs and are not available as postgraduate studies. I wish that Arabic calligraphy classes would be introduced back into school programs and continued within Graphic Design programs. And hopefully we will have soon proper postgraduate studies in design with different disciplinary including Arabic type design.


  1. It is only recently that we have been experiencing a true professionally-trained and dedicated Arab type designers. There is also a growing interest from western type designers in creating Arabic ‘extensions’ to their existing type families. How do you see the profession of type design developing in the future, an in particular in the Middle East and North African regions? The growth that is happening the Arab region bought in many investors and with it the need for new Arabic typefaces and visual identities. Type foundries and individual type designers noticed the huge new market with such small amount of professional Arabic typefaces. Additionally, the Arabic type design field is not much invested yet and there is still a lot to be experimented and explored in. The global village that we are living in also enforced the creation of new modern fonts that cover several scripts within and not just Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hindi, etc. as it was before. Moreover, having Unicode covering all the languages and Opentype and other new technologies offering the possibility of developing advanced typefaces with multiple scripts facilitated the encouragement for Arab and non-Arab type designers to tackle the Arabic script and design new Arabic typefaces. I still see the development of Arabic fonts is still in its primary stages and the future will bring more advanced tools alongside more professional Arabic type designer to feed the needs of the growing market. Traditional, modern and experimental Arabic typefaces are needed and there is a demand for each category.


  1. What is your advice for the younger generation of type designers from the region? I still consider myself part of the young generation of Arabic type designers, but I guess your question would be what would be my advice for the individuals who are starting the path of becoming Arabic type designers. I would say first and for most: learn, practice and understand Arabic calligraphy. That is the most important aspect and the start for becoming a professional Arabic type designer. Learn how to draw letters professional and using type design applications to do that rather than Adobe Illustrator. Comprehend the technology for the mastering of the fonts like Opentype features and encoding. The technical aspect of creating a professional font can be greater then creative drawing part. And lastly, love the letters that you are drawing, they are your babies ;)

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