The Arab world is made up of 19 countries spread over two continents. The main thing that joins us together is the Arabic language and hence the importance of design play, Arabic typography, and calligraphy…

“The Arab world is made up of 19 coun- tries spread over two continents.The main thing that joins us is the Arabic language and hence the importance of design play, typography, and calligraphy,” says Hala A. Malak, editor of and founder of KAFLAB, a foundation to explore Arab identity through design.

Whether it’s watching a movie, looking at the lat- est edition of a magazine, or checking Twitter, text-based information is a part of every facet of life. New ways of sharing information have also propelled the role of typography into prominence across the various fields of visual communication. Texts and fonts play a fundamental role in mass communication.

While some scripts and typographic characters have translated seamlessly into the digital world, Arabic typography has its own unique mechani- cal difficulties. “The hardest aspect of designing an Arabic typeface is to maintain the illusion that the letters have been drawn in one continuous pen movement. As the script is partially attached, we need to simulate this effect while in reality drawing each character separately,” says Nadine Chahine, Arabic and Legibility Specialist at Monotype GmbH.


While the Arabic alphabet is comprised of 29 con- sonants and 11 vocalization marks, letters change shape according to their position in a word – ini- tial, medial, final, or isolated – creating 106 different characters.Taking into account special conditions such as the lam-alef combination and the use of Arabic letters in some non-Arab languages, the number of potential characters is even higher.

“In designing, I first think of the intended function, headline versus text, formal versus informal, etc. Kufi is usually more suited for headlines, Naskh for text. I go through many rounds of testing the fonts and correcting the design until the typeface feels like it needs no further changes, then it’s ready to take a new life on its own,” explains Chahine, who is currently working on her 59th Arabic typeface. Creating an aesthetically pleasing typeface that is also functional and legible is an obvious goal of all fonts, but Arabic in particular faces unique challenges due to the nature of the characters themselves.

The development of Arabic typography epitomiz- es the recent movement in the region dedicated to restructuring Arab identity through contemporary design.The notion of slowly eradicating the reliance of Latin derived script also overlaps with the desire to create and support local business comprised of people with intimate knowledge of the region and its culture yet with a globalized perspective.


Improving and innovating typographic design is a constant goal of all designers, but of special significance in the Middle East and North Africa where it plays a role in developing identities. “Design is finally starting to be taken seriously and many are choosing to study it,” says Malak “Branding, typography, and graphic design have evolved as an industry in the MENA region.”

A decade ago there were numerous pressing chal- lenges for designers studying Arabic typeface. Not only were there few Arabic fonts available, but also the resources available to develop Arabic typography and branding were scarce. “A lot of design schools in the region were inspired by education in the West, so there was a lot of focus on Latin typography,” says Tarek Atrissi, founder of

“Visual identity that’s the most difficult bit. One of the biggest difficulties I face in designing Arabic products is actually trying to define what Arabic is; what Arabic identity is; what makes something ‘Arabic’,” explained Atrissi, who also runs his own Netherlands based design firm.

“Everyone defines ‘Arabic’ in a different way. The West uses images, for example, the colors green and gold to identify the Arab world, but this is not true- we can see the Islamic heritage is very colorful, orange, yellow pink- a lot of ideas we have of what looks Arabic, Islamic, our culture looks like is a cliché at the end of the day.”


The design scene in the region is quickly maturing, and has seen much change over the last five years. Many firms are now more likely to source local experts who’ve spent their lives surrounded by an endless variety of printed Arabic fonts.

“Most of my inspiration comes from the streets, that’s where you see most of the real value of Arabic culture in hand written messages. It is the urban typography scene that inspires my work the most,” says Atrissi. The inventiveness of Arab public visual space provides a myriad of inspiration opportunities for companies emerging in helping create the region’s new identities.

Advertising companies and brand design firms are increasingly being established, and developing in the region. Where once only Latin-based or cli- ché Arabic types were available, many local firms now offer a range of services, from Arabic typography design to social media brand development, expanding the local design offerings.

In embracing fresh, localized identities, banks, non- profits, newspapers, and other organizations are dropping stereotypical Arabic types for new, con- temporary corporate ones.“What is ‘Arabic’ is becoming more cool by being more authentic,” says Atrissi. “In the past brands wanted to be Western to give off a professional and international look. Now they are realizing they can be ‘Arabic.’”