Reviving Arabic Fonts in the Digital Era

Otba Mushaweh, Contributor, May 09 2016

Behind all the flashy advances in graphics, animation, and layout, fonts and typography remain one of the most important building blocks of web design. Even in this era of digitization, the intelligent and artistic use of fonts is still the main way we spread and receive knowledge. Fonts and the written word connect us as human beings.

Today’s rapid advances in technology have done little to weaken humanity’s relationship with fonts and written content. We still have a deep connection with written characters. From the app- and email-driven world of smartphones, to the content- and news-driven world of the web, that connection may have transformed, but it hasn’t diminished.

Arabic script, which sprouted from the wildly popular Kufic style, enjoyed 80 calligraphic styles in its heyday. The Kufic style alone is father to over 50 sub-styles from Quranic Kufic to Maghribi Kufic and more. The popularity of this ancient language and its basic alphabet system was evidenced in its own lightning spread to many early cultures and countries around the world.

Unfortunately, there has been serious neglect in the development of Arabic fonts that are compatible with cutting-edge devices. The history of this language, which has deep roots in calligraphy and font design, has not been successfully carried over to this third millennium and its brave new technology. Whereas the Latin font library has more than 150,000 different styles that suit a plethora of needs and desires, the Arabic font library is still lagging behind.

Here are 8 reasons why developing Arabic webfonts technology is crucial:

1. Rapid Reading

Professional fonts designed with maximum legibility in mind make reading faster and easier. Whereas many of the default fonts installed on your computer may be clunky and cumbersome, a beautiful and professional font can breathe life into your digital documents, make texts easier on the eyes and more enjoyable, and even save time.

2. Technology Tag, You’re It

As web font technology becomes a standard part of professional web design and development, it’s about time that Arabic fonts catch up. Without the right fonts, websites become top-heavy with a glut of icons, logos, pictures, banners, buttons, animations, and other slow-loading clutter. The right fonts allow websites to load faster across a greater variety of devices and screen sizes.

3. Rejuvenate Rich Arabic and Islamic History

The Arabic language is widely considered to be one of humanity’s oldest languages as well as one of its most beautiful and flexible ones. Although its position in our collective lexicon has been weakened in the digital era, there is still a chance to revive its rich history and rebuild the culture of reading and writing in Arabic. Spreading the idea of a diverse Arabic digital font library is key to this.

4. Medical Musings

A recent article by Dr. Walid Fitaihi published in the Saudi newspaper Alwatan, dealt with the importance of practicing calligraphy.  The article mentioned a John Hopkins study on the health benefits of practicing calligraphy; people who practice calligraphy enjoy a major positive boost to their mental, physiological, and even physical health, as well as increased emotional stability, reduced tension, and a greater ability to focus. These results were backed by a previous MIT study, which found that professional typography encourages greater reading comprehension and even better moods than web fonts that are poorly designed.

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5. The Advantages of Reading and Writing in Arabic

A study conducted by MIT involving fonts and typography showed that fonts have an emotional effect on people. In addition, fonts that are aesthetically pleasing, in the sense of harmony with the page and attractiveness of the font, make readers more comfortable and encourage them to read longer. The study also showed that people who read text with beautiful fonts are more capable of performing cognitive tasks.

6. The Story in Each Font

A single font cannot be designed for everything, because each font design is specific in its purpose. Fonts that are designed for children cannot be used for newspapers, and newspaper heading fonts cannot be used for reading texts. A children's story would lose its innocence if it was written in solid Kufic. Fonts for computer screens also differ from those intended for printing purposes. Each font conveys a different emotion and has its own story to tell.

7. Not Just a Font

Web-font technology is moving beyond written text and is providing a variety of icons that can be used instead of pictures on websites and applications. This kind of technology can also be applied to 3D font design and used in the publishing of eBooks.

8. Responsiveness

When using a web-font, the flexibility of the size of the font is controllable on any device. Factors such as type of screen, screen resolution, and operating system will not inhibit your ability to view content quickly, regardless of the system’s level of support for the Arabic language.

See related: Arabic Typography Makes a Comeback in Digital - ArabNet Beirut 2016

*Otba Mushaweh is a Syrian type and graphic designer with over 10 years of experience. He is the founder of the Type Stage platform for Arabic webfonts that aims to improve online Arabic content and typography.

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