Arabesque Surveys Middle Eastern Design

Q+A with Ben Wittner and Sascha Thoma of German graphic design studio eps51, editors of Arabesque (Die Gestalten Verlag, March 2008), which surveys the burgeoning Middle Eastern graphic and type design scene.

One of the most striking things about the book is the use of letters/words to create imagery. Why is this so prevalent in the Arab world’s graphic design?

Calligraphy is considered the highest form of visual expression within the Arab world. Due to the prohibition of images in Islam, artists and calligraphers tried to create beautiful sceneries by turning type into pictures. Arabic script has been developed, redeveloped, invented, and reinvented over time and offers great potential to experiment due to its flexibility. This openness to experimentation with script is exactly what makes Arabic and also Persian design so special—it’s also what made us fall in love with it.

It sounds as if certain technological obstacles impeded the development of typography in the Arab world. What were the obstacles, and have they finally been overcome?

Due to technical limitations, Arabic font designers have faced constant problems when programming computer fonts, like the connections of letters, the limited character sets, and also the right-to-left direction of writing. It was almost impossible to create fonts which could be used in more than one program or platform. With the inception of Unicode and OpenType, almost all of these technical problems have been solved. But this is only one reason for the current boom of Arabic typography. All the graphic designers we spoke with were of the same opinion: That typographers from the start made a huge mistake by trying to take calligraphy onto a straight line, which doesn’t work. The young generation of Arabic type designers clearly differentiates between calligraphy and typography. Supported by the technical solutions of Unicode, they’re at the start of a new phase of Arabic typography.

On what did you base the design of your three TalibType fonts, which are used throughout the book? Does this hybridization of Latin and Arabic scripts say anything about this moment in graphic design internationally?

More and more designers find themselves working for clients of diverse nations and cultural backgrounds and are being challenged to bring different visual precepts and habits together in a harmonious way. Bilingualism plays an eminent role in many countries worldwide. Almost all signs, posters, billboards, and advertisements in cities like Beirut, Cairo, or Dubai are written in Arabic as well as English. So there’s a rising demand for matching Arabic and Latin typefaces, for example, which are definitely not hybridizations, but a consequence of a constantly coalescing world.