Finding the way

Finding the way through bilingual wayfinding.

Arabic and Latin bilingual type design is a critical field of study for many. Driven by the digital revolution, design and technological advancements have enabled invention, whilst simultaneously creating demand for better solutions with evolving application requirements. For Start in the Middle East, this subject occupies much of our working day and leads to lively studio discussions and debates.

To take a step back, the general principle of writing systems to communicate spoken language originates from this region. Ancient Egypt’s 24 uniliterals (representing syllables) gave rise to Phoenician, the first recognised alphabet (the parent of all Western alphabets) as well as abjad Arabic letterforms and todays abugida Arabic alphabet. Here, vowels and consonants are identified by diacritics.

Arabic, like Western alphabets underwent significant development with the invention of moveable type in the 15th Century, although the cursive origins of Arabic script remain.


History of the Arab script.


Arabic was the language of science and the one in which scholars preserved Greek philosophy. At the height of the renaissance, the first Arabic book using moveable type was printed in Italy. Despite the challenges that stemmed from the cursive nature of Arabic, Gregorio de Gregorii overcame by cutting the hundreds of characters needed to duplicate all the ligature connections between characters. Not long after, in 1580, the Medici Press was established in Rome to facilitate the printing of Arabic and other oriental languages.

In 1584 Medici Press persuaded the French type designer of Garamond and Plantin, Robert Granjon, to create a set of Arabic punches. He completed The Small Arabic typeface in 1586, which established new levels of legibility and elegance, remaining in use for the next 200 years. Under the Ottomans in 18th century printing expanded rapidly. Famously, Napoleon brought his own printing presses and Arabic type with him when he invaded Egypt in 1798.

With the introduction of lithography in 1820s, exact duplication of handwriting brought a resolution to the challenges of Arabic moveable type. The Latin alphabet has 26 letters, compared to 29 in Arabic. However, Arabic letters have 4 different forms depending on their position in the word and forms change depending on the letter preceding or following. All said and done, Arabic moveable type has at least 450 forms, opposed to a Latin standard punctuated typeface of just 60.

In most cultures, handwriting has evolved alongside the printed form. However, in Arabic cursive has been consistent from the beginning, with only a few exceptions letter forms must be joined.

Speaking at Transform MENA conference in 2014, Bruno Maag observed that “Arabic has largely remained a calligraphic writing system, whereas Western alphabets evolved significantly with the invention of moveable type, leading to depth and variety of typeface design for specific purposes.”

The invention of linotype machines in the early 20th century, and rapid mid-century adoption across the Middle East was a key technical innovation supporting developments of enhanced Arabic letterforms and bi-lingual considerations. The larger typesetting keyboard was designed to carry two fonts, giving rise 122 letterforms. Noticing this, Salloum Mkarzel a Lebanese American journalist began setting an Arabic Daily using this keyboard. By 1950, Kamel Rrowa had simplified the character set to 88.


Simplifying a complex typewriter and bringing it closer to Latin.


Today’s foundational underpin of Latin/Arabic bilingual typefaces can be aligned to the work of Nasri Khattar, another Lebanese American. Graduating with an MA in architecture from Yale in 1940, he soon after became a consultant to IBM and, in the 1950s, designed many new Arabic typefaces. Of note is his theoretical investigation into developing a disconnected Arabic typeface: Unified Arabic.

Khattar was frustrated with the complexity of Arabic typewriters and took inspiration from the simplification of letter forms in Latin. Khattar’s work has inspired many and remains influential today particularly with those concerned with display fonts and identity design.

Today, shared knowledge, increased cultural understanding and the rapid expansion of economies has required typeface design to keep pace with population needs. Road signs across the UAE and much of the Middle East adopted Jock Kinnear and Margret Calvert’s Transport typeface created between 1957 and 1963 for the UK Department of Transport.

This was perhaps originally a result of the strong ties between UK and its overseas territories, yet it remains the typeface used by the Road Transport Authority in UAE today. The Arabic typeface which leads wayfinding is a classic Arabic cursive font which works for the audience whilst not necessarily carrying uniform visual characteristics. (see attached image 0002)

The rise of grotesque and humanist sans improved legibility and led commercial foundries such as Monotype and Linotype to create Arabic versions where increased visual similarities exist. Frutiger, designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975 and based on his 1970 design ‘Roissy’ for the newly built Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, was interpreted by Dr. Nadine Chahine in consultation with Frutiger in 2007. The Result? Frutiger Arabic. Nadine is the Arabic Specialist at Monotype and comments online that, “Arabic Frutiger is in the Kufic style, incorporating aspects of Ruq’ah script and Naskh in the letter forms”. It is designed to achieve the same objective that Frutiger achieved through a different cultural lens. (see attached image 0003)


Most common Arab typefaces.


Frutiger and Frutiger Arabic are the wayfinding and navigational fonts of Dubai Airports and formed an important input into Start Design’s project workstreams contributing to our rebranding programme of 2012. We engaged Nadine to develop custom fonts for the identity and communications to retain a sense of coherency, whilst seeking to differentiate brand and corporate communications from passenger wayfinding and directional signage.

AXTManal has remained a popular Arabic typeface choice. It is used by UAE Government across all Federal Entities and partners with Cronos Pro for Latin applications as the typefaces share similar characteristics.

Univers Next Arabic and Neue Helvetica Arabic are used extensively in design and advertising and as a source font for wordmarks and logotypes. Same goes for GE SS and Tanseek, both designed by Mourad Boutros. Tanseek was created specifically for bilingual purposes. Arabic designers continue to create a rich resource of Arabic-first typefaces. Bukra, a display font by Pascal Zoghbi of 29Letters, was originally designed for the Ibn Battuta Mall and compliments Futura. Pascal designed Baseet specifically to work with mono-spaced fonts.

Last year saw Monotype launch Nadine Chahine’s Dubai Font in collaboration with Microsoft. The font is available in 23 languages and was commissioned by His Highness, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum with the purpose of creating greater harmony between Arabic and Latin.


Bilingual wayfinding.


Start’s 2014 work for X Dubai sought to combine Latin and Arabic, simplifying the elements and creating greater harmony within bilingual identity design. Where possible we sought to apply reductive design and combine Arabic and Latin together into a singular element. This approach was successful with Arabic audiences for Yas, the Island of Entertainment in Abu Dhabi. Reading right to left and left to right simultaneously registers the name as just one brand identity device for visitors to recall. (see attached image 0005)

Global digital transformation and mass adoption of smartphones, has led the leading technology players, concerned about user-experience and human-centric design, to develop multi-language typefaces.

With wayfinding increasingly orientated around the individual and their handset device, legibility and performance through interfaces and screen applications are critical to efficacy. This is leading all the technology companies to introduce whole new unifying font families like Google’s Noto with a desire to create a new global standard.

Will it work? The history has yet to be written.


View our full Yas Island case study here

Mike Curtis Group CEO, Start