In 2021, the London-based, Beirut-born Samar Maakaroun founded Right to Left, a design agency that straddles cultures and typographic traditions. Specializing in designing for hybrid brands, the multidisciplinary team speaks seven languages and crosses three generations, working to fluidly integrate worlds and cultures across naming, brand strategy, brand systems and identities. An example of their language-hopping, culture-crossing approach brilliantly manifests in the typographic project “29 Words for 29 Letters,” which explores translation and the fluidity of meaning through design.
Maakaroun recently joined Pentagram as a partner. “In an increasingly globalized world, Samar embraces the fluidity and nuances of identity, taking these complexities as a source of creative inspiration. Her work explores the spaces in between, where cultures and languages intersect, integrate, align or diverge,” a press release notes. I recently spoke with Maakaroun about the increasing roles that non-Latin alphabets are playing in design.
The number of non-Latin languages has grown in the past 20 years. These languages, which were once hidden, are now more visible online.
Technological developments definitely help, as the ease and accessibility of software facilitate the build of typefaces, like glyphs, as well as exponentially increased visual exposure to new work. And crucially, a proliferation of archival documentation, like, for example, the Arabic Design Archive that launched this year. Access is so much easier today, and so it’s a really exciting time to be working with multiple scripts and languages.
And how did you become involved?
I suppose my involvement began instinctively, as throughout my life, I was crossing linguistic borders looking for connections: I grew up in an Arabic speaking country, studied in a French school, which was followed by an American university, until settling down in the U.K. for my postgraduate studies. To register at AUB (the American University of Beirut), I just about passed my English exam, with only two extra points out of a score of 1,000. And so I started learning about design in a language I was not yet fluent in. I clearly remember referring to the roads of Beirut being full of debossings, as opposed to potholes, simply because I learned the word “debossing” prior to learning “pothole.” This journey meant that I was seeing the world through design terminology. Later on in London, fluent in English, I still found myself deciphering the nuance in communication, expressions, humor, as well as silences.
This is probably a common experience to anyone learning a new language, and it naturally makes us question accuracy and precision within our native languages, the learnt ones, and how some concepts travel or not.
All that is to say, terminology, cultural nuance, language and its form—typography—have always been richly generative and personal to me.
“Right to Left” is a great title for a studio working with Arabic linguistics. What has been the response to your work?
The response was humbling—for that I will forever be grateful. Before founding Right to Left, I operated as a solo designer and consultant, so people knew my name first before the studio. It took a little time to gather the courage and set up my own studio, and it was after taking the plunge that I discovered the statistics on how many design studios were founded by women in the U.K.—it’s quite shocking. Perhaps this lack of knowledge worked in my favor. And about a year in, Pentagram knocked on our door; we must have been doing something right.
In all honesty, I didn’t have a business plan or a strategy when starting off. It was 2021, just after the first lockdown. I hired two recent graduates who were fresh out of design school—both of whom will be joining me at Pentagram—and we collaborated with people all over the world, as well as pursuing side projects and hosting talks at the studio. A lot of happy moments, lots of hard work, a strong community of fellow designers, and of course some inevitable mistakes that taught me valuable lessons. I am so glad I made the plunge, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Making words express feeling and intention is a challenge. What has been your most satisfying result, and what has been the most challenging? Especially with Arabic types.
It’s so difficult to choose one! Perhaps the most satisfying was 29 words for 29 letters. There was no client brief, just an idea that slowly took shape, which I still update every now and then. The idea is simple in a way: a selection of words for every letter, related to food, culture, design, politics.
The first word, Zankha, describes a smell that is not familiar to Europeans, which I found myself explaining over and over again to people in London who couldn’t identify it, as they didn’t have a term for it. I then tackled the alphabet, drew the words, and worked with Miguel Desport, who animated some of the words. I explained the meanings by equating it to something similar in English, shared schematics (some words were similar to concepts he knew from Portuguese, like, for example, “Tarab” and “Saudade” are not too far off), and through a process that felt somewhere between design and play, I ended up with a full set that sits on my website.
Most challenging project: well, it’s good to have challenges sometimes, it keeps us on our toes, but often projects with many stakeholders across languages can be challenging to navigate. I remember working on a project for a heritage site, and we came up with a design that integrated two languages, one in the silhouette of the site, and the other sitting confidently underneath, eliminating the need for multiple assets and creating one unified efficient solution. The letters were recognizable in the silhouette, and the silhouette recognizable in the word. In a presentation to the client, the question of legibility came up, and with a room full of mostly English-speaking consultants advising the client, the work unfortunately got lost in translation. I will one day hopefully make something out of all the work that gets lost in translation …
Now that you are a new Pentagram partner, will your specialty be more of Right to Left, or will you expand to other typographies?
Good question. My team and I are designers first and foremost. I’m really proud of the multilingual expertise we bring to our work, but the driving ethos of everything we do is definitely about creation and co-creation, with the ability to travel between different worlds, in a variety of scripts, making the best of both, and identifying fresh perspectives by embracing discoveries and connections. Our projects will involve scripts and cultures of many kinds, sometimes multilingual and sometimes not.
What is certain is that we will grow at Pentagram by collaborating, participating, and exchanging ideas with the group and their teams.
What interesting/exciting project is on your plate at the moment?
We’re just finishing a book for the charity Skatepal, which I’m really excited to see in the world. It is heading to the printer shortly, and follows on from a previous project about food, called Sahtein. The new book is all about learning Arabic, and features a survey that asked Arabic speakers around the world to contribute their favorite sentence, as well as their personal stories about their relationship to the language. (You could [call it] a collaborative version of 29 Words. There are sayings, proverbs and words that do not travel accurately into English, all designed with a certain playfulness of shapes and forms. I led the design with my team, creating 21 typographic illustrations for a corresponding selection of contributions from the surveys. Some were answered in Arabic, some were English peppered with Arabic. The result speaks to three types of users—those who speak Arabic only, English only, and bilingual speakers. For this, we divided the book horizontally using the pagination placing English at the top and the Arabic at the bottom, always keeping the questions in the same place on the page. This means readers do not have to read in a linear way, from left to right, or vice versa. They can navigate their own familiarity with either language, and choose what to read sporadically. This hopefully allows for different experiences catered to the abilities of the users.