'Why It’s So Hard to Design Arabic Typefaces'

Margaret Rhodes, writing for Wired:

The problem is that Arabic is an incredibly complicated language, and despite its ranking as the fifth most spoken language worldwide, there’s a shortage of typographers with a native understanding of the script. Bil’ak says this is because there are few specialized typography courses available in the Middle East.

To remedy that, Bil’ak just launched a new type foundry called TPTQ Arabic. Along with Kristyan Sarkis, his co-founder and the Lebanese designer behind the custom Arabic typeface that will decorate the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, Bil’ak intends to dedicate the practice to developing expressive and authentic Arabic typefaces. He says hosting lectures and workshops for other designers will play into achieving that goal.

Despite my fondness for Arabic in its written and spoken form, I feel silly having to admit that this isn't a problem I ever truly considered before. My perspective has been clouded, I'm sure, by the fact that I'm a Westerner, and the entire typographical ecosystem surrounding the Latin alphabet is the only thing I've been exposed to. Our letters are a very different beast, so cold and lonesome, somehow finding cohesion when placed next to one another. In that sense, it's easy to design each one in a bubble (note to my designer friends: I say "easy" and I mean it only in relation to designing for non-Latin alphabets. Put down your pitchforks.), since they don't necessarily have to interact with one another. All of the focus can be placed on each individual letter, with little concern over how it will look in various states. Obviously, a good designer isn't going to be so flippant with their approach. You can't create a good typeface by being all slapdash about it. But there isn't a huge technological hurdle inherent in designing for our alphabet.

Considering the incredible influence the Western world has on the development of technology, it isn't very surprising to hear about the immense obstacles inadvertently placed in front of designers whose focus is beyond the realm of Latin typefaces. Not only do you have to have a keen eye for good aesthetic, but you also need to have the knowledge and the tools to ensure that a more complex written language behaves as expected when the letters are placed together. It's fascinating to me, and I love hearing about someone like Bil'ak who is making an effort to introduce more people to a typographical landscape that is far different than what any of us have seen before.