An Arabic Typography Community

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Tarek Atrissi is well-recognized throughout the Arab world. His Netherlands-based design studio Tarek Atrissi Design takes a typographic and cross-cultural design approach to all projects. One of those is, a venue for custom Arabic and multilingual typefaces for major organizations and companies across the Arab world, and an Arabic Typography portal for preserving its history and culture. I asked him to comment on the rising tide of Arabic type and the role he plays in this burgeoning culture.


Why is there such a swell of interest in Arabic typography?Graphic design education has developed tremendously over the last two decades across the Arab world. As a result, a new generation of local designers have emerged and is requiring a wider library of Arabic fonts to use in their design work: the digital Arabic typefaces available are still relatively very limited in variety, so there is a big demand then from the design community itself as a start for more Arabic fonts.

The other reason for the big interest in Arabic typography is the fact that it is catering to a very big market, which gives any good work done in this field a potential big commercial viability. The Arab world consists of 22 countries and has an estimated population of 350 million. Part of this geographic area is the economically booming Gulf area, which is witnessing a rapid urban development. In addition you have many other countries using the Arabic script for different languages (Farsi, Urdu …).

Finally, there is always this ongoing challenge among Arab designers to reinterpret Arabic typography with a contemporary spirit, yet in a way that lives up to the high standards of traditional Arabic calligraphy and the great Islamic art heritage we look to for inspiration. This challenge reinforces the general interest in Arabic typography.


What is different about your revision of website is now focused fully on being a type foundry specializing in Arabic and bilingual typefaces, and providing retail fonts to designers available for immediate licensing. Through the branding work we do in my studio, Tarek Atrissi Design, I know very well the style of Arabic or bilingual fonts missing from the market when developing corporate identity systems: We build on this practical experience to define the style of fonts designers need and hence design typefaces for a specific niche. One of our most popular fonts this year for example was the Arabic Handwritten font, which was simply designed to provide a digital typeface that imitates a casual Arabic hand scribble, something a graphic designer would definitely need in different project scenarios.

In addition, a major focus of the website is in designing custom typefaces for companies and organizations that want to have their own unique font to be used as part of their branding and corporate communication. Because of the lack of variety of Arabic typefaces available, companies find it difficult to stand out typographically: thus we help them create a custom typeface designed specifically to reflect the spirit of their own brand and to give them a unique typographic voice in any written communication. A good example of this is our design for the custom typeface for the new Metro in the capital of Saudi Arabia, which quickly became a key visual element of the visual identity of the public transport system.

Education remains as well a key part of our new strategy. When the website went online first in 2001, the online Arabic type community was almost nonexistent and our aim was to grow interest in Arabic typography individually and collectively. Today the scene has changed and there is much more awareness and interest and different initiatives by various parties. We shifted our educational effort on providing Arabic typography and type design workshops across the Middle East and North Africa to young designers interested in developing their design skills and knowledge. We have conducted so far workshops in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon.


How have you extended this concept to embrace the Arabic and Western type communities?Most of the custom fonts we are producing are bilingual and have an additional Latin character set to support English communication, since most Arab countries are bilingual. On the other hand, international brands that are expanding in the Middle East are coming to us as well to support them in creating an extension of their Latin typefaces into Arabic: We design then an Arabic counterpart font to the existing Latin corporate typeface so that it works well and in harmony with it while remaining culturally and aesthetically appropriate for the local Arab market. It is a cross-cultural/multilingual typographic process that original internationally yet is targeted to the Arab world; and sometimes it is exactly the other way around.


What is your goal for the future?The goal for the future is to keep expanding our library of retail Arabic fonts so that we offer more variety to the graphic design community, and we are working on collaborating with young upcoming Arab designers to help them develop and distribute their own typeface designs. We are also looking forward to work on more multilingual typefaces with other non-Latin scripts. We have already completed a Burmese typeface as a custom project and we are aiming at working with other Asian languages.


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