Arabic Typography Makes a Comeback in Digital - ArabNet Beirut 2016

Alexis Baghdadi, Mar 01 2016

Until now, startups and even larger companies were hesitant when it came to using Arabic script on their platforms, due to both technical reasons and design issues. First, they claimed there were insufficient visually attractive fonts, and second, few web browsers supported custom-made fonts created by typeface foundries.

But the tide is turning, according to the MENA digital community. During the Design and Code Day at ArabNet Beirut 2016, designers and developers made the case for Arabic and drove this point home.

Fonts Matter

First, it is wrong to assume that there are insufficient or insufficiently attractive Arabic fonts, said Pascal Zoghbi, founder of 29Letters, one of the few Arabic typeface foundries in the region with an outlook on digital.

Samer Saleh, Senior Designer at Raw Design Studio, echoed this point. He explained that the Arabic-speaking world not only has rich typographies, but also calligraphies and lettering (a trend that is gaining more popularity recently).

New web and mobile formats have shifted the focus back to fonts. On one hand, the new so-called “respect for white space” has undermined the importance of photos and visuals. On the other hand, the advent of Google Web Fonts has contributed to the democratization and mainstreaming of fonts.

“Font and typography are the new identity and brands, especially for the web,” said Zoghbi.

No More Technical Barriers?

Mackram Raydan, founder and developer at Imagimate LLP, broke down the technical considerations to the workshop attendees. Basically, most complex Arabic fonts are open typeface files (OTF), which are designed for printing but aren’t supported by many web browsers.

Because few browsers supported complex (read: attractive) fonts, web developers would resort to JavaScript to convert these fonts into images for use in web platforms. Of course, this wasn’t the ideal solution, since image files are heavier than fonts. Nor did it make life simpler for designers.

“First, images didn’t render fonts’ aesthetic qualities dynamically enough,” said Zoghbi. “Also, any time there was a change, I needed to create a new file and send it to the designer to convert it and upload it online,” he added.

“It is only recently that more browsers have begun supporting Arabic web open font (WOF) files, which enables uploading fonts as type, not images,” said Raydan. Having a backend that supports Arabic type definitely was a step in the right direction, but the issue is much more complex, he warned.

“Mobile is the new arena. Forget what developers usually tell you; mobile is like working with a totally new material, you have to actually build systems for it if you want to integrate complex Arabic fonts and render them as perfectly as possible,” he said.

Neither is mobile the only challenge. Arabic fonts are rendered and formatted differently on different web browsers, so there is constant testing required.

Art Is Difficult

Designers will recognize terms like “ligatures” (connected letters), “ascenders, descenders and x-height” – if you’re not a designer, you don’t have to worry about those… unless you are a developer!

Arabic is a calligraphic language in handwriting, print, and web, therefore its letters are linked. This means that they have many more representations than, say, English letters which are more readily typographic. Arabic letters also have accents (fat7a, damme, kasra, skoun).

This makes Arabic a rich and versatile language with multiple aesthetic possibilities, but it is a nightmare for developers. Accommodating the different line heights for each letter variation (ligature or accent) requires infinitely more customization and adaptation for the web in order to maintain uniform font sizes, spaces, and line heights.

“Bold font styles could even be a completely different typography!” said Raydan.

This makes it clear that design and development of Arabic typography need to go together. “It actually helps designers to work with developers early on, and even UX specialists to understand platform limitations and requirements,” said Zoghbi.

Creating a Design Culture

Of course, not every company needs to devote so much attention to Arabic fonts – it depends on its purpose and business line. It would probably make sense for marketing or design agencies to make this investment, for instance.

First things first, said Zoghbi, designers need to be more aware of typography terms. Brand identity developers and marketers need to let go of their “fear” of Arabic typography and fonts.

“Technology is making it easier to embrace Arabic typography, not shy away from it,” said Raydan.

A font culture also requires understanding the business of fonts. For instance, Zoghbi cited a common misconception that companies and customers can “buy” fonts, when in fact they are only buying licenses (i.e. different font files for usage in print, web, or mobile, for a specific number of users, or a specific period).

This system is not yet popularized in the MENA, and doesn’t exist in Lebanon, said Zoghbi. 29Letters currently proposes only one form of licensing (open) but aims at contributing to develop the concept and promote Arabic typography.

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