Forbes Middle East Interview: A Font of Creation

Article by Beth Burrows for Forbes Middle East magazine issue 32.
Entrepreneurs section. Published in February 2015.

Pascal Zoghbi, founder of online business 29LT, has his pen poised, ready to launch an assault on the typography industry.

On a flying visit to London, Pascal Zoghbi, founder of multilingual typography business 29Letters (29LT), takes a rare break in his hectic day between a meeting with a corporate client and creative brainstorming. His latest jet-set business trip is indicative of a developing trend, and for the 34-year-old graphic designer, a developing entrepreneurial venture. As the world gets smaller and corporate branding gets bigger, the Beirut-based designer is meeting a growing demand amongst businesses large and small as they seek to spread their carefully crafted message across not just geographical frontiers, but linguistic ones, too.

Through 29LT, Zoghbi designs multilingual typefaces—fonts that fit a range of languages, including English and Arabic—and unites them under seamless design concepts, creating synergies between otherwise distinctly different scripts.  A specific skill it may be, but for the designer-turned-entrepreneur, the appeal of his work extends far beyond a limited niche to some of today’s biggest corporate names. Swatch and FedEx count amongst his client portfolio, with Zoghbi’s Noto Naskh typeface, designed in 2010, used for Google’s Arabic content today.

Indeed, as companies replace classical calligraphers—whose work is as laborious as it is beautiful—with typographers who promise a faster turnaround, Zoghbi has become a go-to guy, earning the financial rewards that go with it.  According to the entrepreneur, 29LT, which draws its name from the number of letters in the Arabic alphabet, has grown 78% in its retail operations since its inception three years ago.

Though shying away from divulging numbers, Zoghbi alludes to “five-figure revenue” generated from his corporate clients alone—a healthy, if vague, sum to fuel expansion. “I’m looking to hire a marketing team this year to help advertise the business,” he reveals. But it seems he hasn’t done a bad job of self-promotion so far. Starting out in 2012 with three corporate clients, the entrepreneur, who graduated from the Lebanon’s Notre Dame University in 2002, worked with 10 last year.

The look of a specific retail font can take a few years to catch on, but when it does, the e-commerce value of it can be huge.

Word of Zoghbi’s work has crossed borders, and even oceans. Unlike him, most of his clients—made up of large corporations, publishing houses and retail companies—“are not Lebanese, but rather from the rest of the Gulf, Europe and the US,” he notes. His work with Google, designing their Noto Naskh typeface, demonstrates the international reach of his talent. Typographer Kamal Mansour, fellow collaborator on the Google project, notes that Zoghbi has a talent for “taking the letters of the Arabic alphabet and reinventing them in a multitude of new garbs.” It seems he is exciting contemporaries and clients alike. But while word of his skill is spreading fast, creativity cannot be rushed.

“Fonts can take several months to develop, especially if I need to collaborate with a special design team,” says Zoghbi. The gestation period may seem excessive but, with some clients demanding fonts in six or more languages and a variety of weightings (thin, regular bold, heavy) it is a time-consuming process. But it’s worth the hours at the easel. Zoghbi’s corporate com- missions can bag anywhere between five and six-figure sums. He only receives two or three requests of this nature a year, but they bring in a big enough return that their infrequency is of little concern.

When not working on a special commis- sion, Zoghbi is focusing on his retail designs, the other arm of his business. Whilst big corporations own the rights to their commissions, his out-of-the-box products represent a business venture with wider appeal and accessibility. Since completing his master’s in Type and Media at the Royal Academy of Art in Holland, the designer has created 11 separate retail typefaces; no mean feat when you are tasked with forever reinventing the same twenty-something letters of the alphabet. But he has yet to miss the mark; Mansour claims Zoghbi never fails to “take the same basic units and blend them into something fresh and original.”

Zoghbi’s retail offerings are available to buy and download from his website and start from $70 for a basic package. He owns all the fonts, so the repeat business potential is attractive. And he knows it. “The look of a specific retail font can take a few years to catch on, but when it does, the e-commerce value of it can be huge,” claims the savvy businessman.

It is an interesting turn of events for someone who, at school, loathed languages and particularly struggled with Arabic. “It didn’t really exist at the time, but looking back I think I had mild dyslexia.” Just as in traditional Arabic calligraphy, the letters seemed to writhe and wriggle about the page; Zoghbi simply could not make sense of them. It was only by taking summer courses and extra lessons that his studies improved, so much so that he came to love language and its render- ing. “I was fascinated by calligraphy but never studied it in school, so I self-taught using calligraphy books from the library.” His studies made a lasting impression; in 2011 he co-authored Arabic Graffiti, a discussion of how ancient calligraphy is combining with modern graffiti to form a new design movement. He has advice for other curious young creatives, too: “Invest in your skills—enrol in calligraphy courses and study the ancient script as much you can.” With more international corporations setting up shops in MENA, the typography industry is developing apace; there is a growing demand for unique multilingual fonts. But Zoghbi warns aspiring designers not to plunge into creating without solid background knowledge”. There is no replacement for rigorous study. 

With hard-earned knowledge and expertise under his belt, Zoghbi’s sights are set on the future. And he has some ambitious business resolutions for 2015: “I want to open up my online platform to other Arabic typographers looking to publish their work.” His vision is to create a “retail channel” where designers can come together to grow and businesses can buy multilingual fonts. The move will further his mission to introduce new design perspectives and possibilities to the market, but it also makes sound business sense. Zoghbi will assist emerging designers with their work and, in return, take up to 50% of profits as commission.

As the entrepreneur speeds off to his next meeting, he appears to be spearheading something quite special. Through 29LT he has turned passion to profit, arguably the most fulfilling kind of business venture there is. And with an increasing number of corporations choosing MENA for their next outpost, it seems Zoghbi’s client list will only grow. He has taken the letters of language and styled them in such a way that it can only spell one thing: success.