Zapfino Arabic: A Typeface in the Making

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This is the first in a series of posts by Nadine Chahine about the process of designing an Arabic companion to Hermann Zapf’s Zapfino typeface. Chahine is an award-winning Lebanese type designer and the Arabic specialist for Linotype and Monotype Imaging. Read more about her work at

Professor Hermann Zapf and I have three things in common: a love for type design, a fascination with Arabic letterforms, and birthdays (today) that are exactly 60 years apart. I have had the honor and privilege to work alongside Professor Zapf—first in 2005, when we started the design of Palatino Arabic, and then a few years later, when we worked on Palatino Sans Arabic. It was a work experience that would forever change the way I look at outlines, and how I draw curves. I have often been asked what it is like to work with a living legend, and I have to confess that one goes into it feeling the weight of responsibility, and being simply in awe of such talent.

On the heels of these projects came the idea to design the Arabic companion to Zapfino, which I immediately resisted. It is a very complex project for which I was not yet ready. It took me years to gather up the courage and give it try. Last August, I visited Professor Zapf at home with two of my colleagues from Linotype, Otmar Hoefer and Akira Kobayashi. There I presented the concept and initial sketches and, to my utter relief and joy, he liked them!

The project, as you will see from the sketches below, is still in the early phases of conception. My goal here is to document and explore the design process of Zapfino Arabic. In a series of blog posts on Imprint, I will look at the design challenges and the reasoning behind the major decisions. The posts will provide an in-depth view of multi-script type design and an honest exposé of imperfect shapes being sculpted and molded into their final, and hopefully more perfect, design.

Zapfino is an iconic typeface released by Linotype in 1998, and bundled with Mac OS to become a design fixture that so many are familiar with. Like Zapf’s Optima, it is immediately recognizable, and has carved a place for itself in our collective memory. Of its many design characteristics, the following are the most relevant when looking at an Arabic adaptation:

  1. The strong tilted angle of the verticals

  2. The proportion of ascenders and descenders to the x-height

  3. The elegant swashes and the rhythm they produce

  4. The fluidity of movement and the many alternates that the typeface includes

  5. The effect of the tool on the thicks and thins, thus giving the typeface its unique character

Starting the design of the Arabic companion is tricky, and one is immediately faced with a dilemma: In which direction should the Arabic slant? Zapfino has a forward slant, and because of the right direction it is tilted to the right. If the Arabic is to have a forward slant, it should tilt to the left, which would create very funny directional clashes if the two scripts were mixed. If it is to have a backward slant, then the two scripts would slant in the same direction—but this might create a different energy level. One is energetically moving forward, the other is quite literally laid back.

Naskh calligraphic specimen from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection: CAL7

Looking to Arabic calligraphic references, the Naskh tilts forward but cannot support a strong angular slant as found in Zapfino. Nataaliq, by contrast, has a backward slant that might be able to support a steep slant—but its word formation is very angular, with letters stacking diagonally and thus creating a texture that is not fitting to the Latin.

Nastaaliq calligraphic specimen from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection: CAL405

So, the verdict? Start with Nastaaliq as a point of reference, but experiment with the ways letters stack together so as to avoid the cascading effect. At the same time, try to infuse enough energy into the design so that it is at the same energy level as the Latin. In other words: Zapfino Arabic will have a backward slant that is comparable to the Latin, though not as steep, and its calligraphic reference is Nastaaliq for the character shaping but not for the stacking. And this is why this project is so complex. There is not one individual calligraphic style that would suit as a model for the Arabic companion. So this is more than an exercise in type design; it is an experiment in creating a new calligraphic style.

The problem of word formation and structure—i.e., how letters will stack together—will be the chief struggle in this design exercise, and we do not yet have the solution. That is what this blog series will document, and the hope is that we can get to a solution that will still be readily acceptable to the public once it is finished. As my friends and colleagues know, I have always loved playing across the boundaries of different styles, so this is OK. The enormity of the challenge is what sets it apart.

For the first meeting with Professor Zapf, I had a few characters designed, and I brought along my copy of The Art of the Pen so that we could look at Naskh and Nastaaliq manuscripts. The first sketches show the back slant and a flourish that is reminiscent of the kind of movement seen in the Latin swashes. These isolated forms are the simpler aspect of the design—the warm-up exercises, if you will. Once we start with the connected forms, that’s when the real challenge will begin.



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