Interview - Parachute® on Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

An interview with designer Hasan Abu Afash
(Hiba Studio)

Arabic is an extraordinary script not much understood by the majority of us in the western world. Strange as may sound, the world’s second most widespread writing system relied till about recently on an unsatisfactory small number of quality fonts, compared to the abundance of Latin typefaces in existence today. But as the markets tend to merge, this process is slowly reversed. Definitely there are still not many designers working exclusively on Arab alphabets but the progress is tremendous. Last week we had the chance to chat with designer Hasan Abu Afash about his work and the current state of Arabic typography. Hasan, who runs Hiba Studio specializes in Arabic type design and programming. He has been involved, as a specialist, in the development stage of several international projects.

How many languages use the Arabic script?
The Arabic script is used for writing several languages in Asia and Africa, such as Arabic, Persian and Urdu. The alphabet was initially used to write texts in Arabic, mainly the Quran. With the spread of Islam, it came to be used in writing many languages including, at various times, Persian, Urdu, Pashto, Baloch, Malay, Panjabi, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Uyghur, Kazakh, Uzbek, Kurdish, Belarusian, etc. The Arabic alphabet has 28 basic letters. To accommodate the needs of these different languages, new letters and other symbols were added to the original alphabet. For examples: The Persian script consists of 32 letters the Urdu alphabet has 35 letters, the Pashto alphabet has 44 letters.

Are there different calligraphic styles for Arabic and how are they used respectively?
The Arabic script is written in horizontal lines from right to left (numerals are written from left to right) in a cursive style. Because the script is cursive, the shapes of the letters change and depend on their positions: Isolated, initial (joined on the left), medial (joined on both sides) and final (joined on the right).

The Arabic script has a number of different styles of calligraphy including: Naskh, Thuluth, Ruq’ah, Kufi, Nastaliq, Diwany and Tughra. The Naskh style was used in writing the Quran or Hadith and was adapted as the preferred style for typesetting and printing. Thuluth style was used in writing subject headings, as well as address books. Ruq’ah style for daily correspondence and Kufi for calligraphic writing on buildings. Nastaliq style was used extensively in writing poems and cards. Diwany for writing the orders and Tughra was used as the calligraphic seal of the Sultan and affixed to all official documents and correspondence.

What is the current state of publishing and advertising industry in the Arab world. Is there an increased demand for Arabic typefaces that can accommodate the design needs of contemporary arabic design?
Newspapers in the Arab world are considering now more than ever a redesign of their publications which incorporates new contemporary typefaces and some of them leave the traditional Naskh font style to modern Kufi style. In the Arabian Gulf, when branding agencies create new identities for their customers, they rely primarily on new and modern fonts. The style of these fonts or lettering is influenced in many cases by the style of contemporary Latin fonts. This may have to do with the fact that the market relies heavily on western products. Likewise, advertising agencies base their campaigns on type which carries the style and visual identity of the fonts used for the western products they are called to advertise. Along this line, a recent project by the Khatt Foundation, is indicative of the trends as they develop, when they brought together Arab designers with Dutch designers to produce matching typefaces.

Which rules you have to observe when matchmaking Arabic to Latin?
First of all I make a thorough study and analysis of the Latin type and understand its characteristics. Then I decide which Arabic calligraphic style will be best suited to the specific Latin type. For example: sans serif types work best with Kufi scripts, where more geometric and uniform shapes can be found and can relate easily to Latin letters and their simple forms. Serif types work best with cursive Thuluth, Naskh, and Diwani.

One general rule that should be observed is that we should not distort the construction of the Arabic letters in favor of matching the Latin type. Another important consideration is that the angle of the contrast must be inverted. What was the thickest horizontal in Latin becomes the thickest vertical in Arabic. Of course the same is true of the thinnest strokes. In Latin characters the vertical strokes are heavier than horizontal ones, even in monoline fonts where all strokes appear to have the same weight. In Arabic the opposite is true and fonts based on heavier vertical strokes will appear strange to Arabs. Don’t try to match the vertical proportions of the Latin unless the individual Arabic style makes this possible. Typographic guidelines are also very important. A decision has to be made on the ideal loop and tooth heights for the letters. I can then establish the “meem-height” as an equivalent to the x-height and use that as a guide to streamline the proportions of other characters. But then we should have the Arabic meem’s height slightly smaller than the equivalent x-height of a Latin one. And on the other hand, we often need to make Arabic ascenders and descenders slightly taller than Latin ones. Finally, in order to achieve compatibility it is necessary to apply certain modifications by transferring the stroke weight, contrast and ending shapes from the Latin type to the Arabic type. This should be carried out in a most cautious manner as to maintain adequate connections with established cultural norms. (On many of these issues relating to compatibility between Arabic and Latin scripts, I agree with Mamoun Sakkal’s ideas expressed in a paper delivered to the second Conference on Bilingual Computing in Arabic and English, University of Cambridge, England in 1990).

When you design a typeface do you use certain words or a pangram in Arabic to test its balance and harmony?
I spend a lot of time testing several different words to achieve the right balance. As a pangram I use one which John Hudson sent me one day, containing all basic letters. In English it translates to ‘a wise text which has an absolute secret and great importance, written on a green tissue and covered with blue leather’.

Which software is best for designing Arabic type?
There are many programs that can serve the designers of Arabic types and choosing which works best is best left to the designer himself. For drawing vectors I prefer Illustrator for ease of exporting outlines to FontLab directly. As font editor I use FontLab which is easy to work with and powerful in drawing outlines, adjusting side bearings, metrics, points, etc. It is worth mentioning that designers sometimes prefer to design directly on FontLab without going through any vector programs.

Are there major difficulties programming an Arabic opentype font?
There are many OpenType features that are still not supported by FontLab for the Arabic language, such as Mark Positioning and Cursive Positioning, so we resort to Microsoft VOLT to resolve such problems. Volt allows to see what you are doing because it depends on a Visual Environment. Programming in Volt does not come easy as there are several missing operations which slow down the process considerably. A major time consuming operation is also the process of putting marks in the right place above and below the letter.

Of all the typefaces you designed which one is your favorite and why?
All my fonts are dear to my heart, but most of all I like Hasan Alquds. It has been my first fully successful experience, when I started it from scratch back in 2002 and when it emerged into the light I showed it to Mamoun Sakkal. He asked me to apply several modifications which I revised and sent back to him. He continued to send me his comments and amendments, until the design reached its final and refined state. In every modification I gained additional information which I desperately needed to develop my typographic skills early on in my career. Also, let’s not forget Hasan Hiba which was established on the basis of a careful study of the Fatimid Kufi calligraphy. In 2005, it was submitted to Linotype’s first Arabic Type Design Competition in Germany and won the 5th place award. I like this type because I had the chance to realize one of my dreams, that of making a genuine Fatimid Kufi font.

You have collaborated with several designers and companies around the world. Tell us a little bit about these projects.
In 2008, two of my fonts Hasan Hiba and Hasan Noor were upgraded to the DecoType font format for use in WinSoft Tasmeem which is now bundled with InDesign CS4, by working with Mirjam Somers an award-winning Arabic type designer. Tasmeem is a user interface based on the Arabic Calligraphic Engine (ACE) technology which has won the prestigious Dr Peter Karow Award. I have also upgraded the Basim Marah font for Tasmeem with Mirjam Somers’ assistance. Basim Marah was drawn by Basim Salem Al Mahdi from Iraq and then digitized by myself. The same year, I developed the OpenType project for Alinma TheSans fonts which is based on TheMix Arabic, designed by Luc(as) de Groot and Mouneer ElShaarani for Al Inma Bank, Saudi Arabia. Later I developed the OpenType features for Jumeirah Arabic which was designed by Pascal Zoghbi (29letters) and Huda AbiFares (Khatt) for Jumeirah International, UAE.
Other projects I participated include the development of the OpenType layout features needed for the Arabic script system in Seria Arabic fonts family which was designed by Pascal Zoghbi for FontShop International, as well as the Chams fonts family which was designed by Al Mohtaraf Assaudi for the redesign of the Shams Newspaper in Saudi Arabia and the Arajhi fonts for Alrajhi Bank.
Finally, ever since 2002 I have worked and collaborated with Mamoun Sakkal in several projects more notably the Burj Dubai Shilia project, Sakkal Baseet and the Microsoft project which included the updating of the OpenType instructions for fonts such as Tahoma, Microsoft Sans Serif, Arial, Times New Roman, Segoe, Courier, Time New Roman, Ms Uighur and Majalla UI.

The apparent association of the Arabic script to religion, has been considered by many as a hindrance for the flourishing of Arabic typography. But as the world comes together products and services transcend religious and cultural barriers. Different alphabets are more closely mixed and a trend has emerged towards modernizing Arabic typography and harmonizing the Arabic script with Latin. Is the market ready for this, what is your view in such an undertaking?
There is no such association of the Arabic script to religion. The Arabic script existed and was heavily used centuries before Islam. Although it is the official script of Quran, there is no provision in Islam which restricts the form of writing and calligraphy. Script development was subject to the discretion of the creators and calligraphers throughout history. Muslim leaders did not interfere in the affairs or developments of the calligraphy types. They worked on the advancement of Arabic calligraphy. They added dots above or below the letters to help readers of the Arabic language in all countries of the Islamic states. Islam did not oppose the development of typography either. If we look at what is preserved in museums, we find that the first calligraphy of the Quran has evolved continuously and is different with time.
The Kufic script of the Quran lasted for about four centuries with constantly renewed forms, but had an architectural heavy body. In the tenth century in Baghdad there was a need for calligraphy to commensurate with the civilization of cities and gardens, so thin calligraphy was born, such as Thulth calligraphy. Finally the Ottomans excelled in calligraphy which is evident in the elegant Qurans they produced in Naskh style. During all these centuries in the Muslim cities, there were innovative calligraphy for architecture and objects which were used in daily life such as utensils, glass and others.

It is true that the introduction of printing in the Islamic world was delayed, not so much of certain beliefs that the Arabic character was sacred as due to economic obstacles imposed on islamic countries which were under the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, for years the typographic mechanical technology lacked the proper tools to fully portray the dynamics of Arabic calligraphy.
Now, faster that ever, the world comes together in a way that makes it absolutely imperative that Arabic and all other scripts adapt to this trend in order to survive, but only in a way that respects and safeguards their cultural integrity. There is a trend lately towards modernizing Arabic typography. However, I do not agree that there is a need to totally harmonize Arabic with Latin or any other script. Arabic must retain its main visual characteristics. Harmonization can only serve the demands of specific applications and should not be seen as a general rule to bring scripts together.

Which books or other sources would you recommend to someone who wants to become familiar with arabic typeface design?
The Arab library lacks such references. There are no books that I know on how to design Arabic fonts. Internet may be the best alternative as you may be able to find a few significant articles by several designers but don’t expect a complete solution. Personally, I relied in many instances on advice and information I received from prominent designers such as Mamoun Sakkal who has been a real mentor for me. I’m also grateful to John Hudson who tirelessly advised and answered all my posted queries.

Hiba Studio

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