Nadine Chahine: "The most important thing in an Arabic typeface is to maintain the illusion that one brushstroke wrote the whole word"

Nadine Chahine has just finished her most difficult typeface so far. The Lebanon-born, Germany-based type designer is best known for creating Arabic versions of popular Western faces such as Frutiger, Neue Helvetica and Palatino – and but her version of the elegant Zapfino for Monotype turned out to be the most challenging. These fonts not only have to bring the visual essence of the original design to a very different, script-based writing system – but also have to be able to sit next to the Latin versions on the page when the text contains a mixture of Arabic languages and Western references and loan-words.

Any such project is tricky. Arabic scripts not only run right-to-left but also each word has to look like it was created with a single brushstroke. You might think that a script font like Zapfino – which is based on the handwriting of its designer, Hermann Zapf – would be easier than a Latin serif face like Palatino, but it’s actually harder. The two main styles of Arabic typography – Naskh and Nastaaliq – have conventions that are quite unlike the penmanship of a German type designer, so Nadine had to create her own style.

To make things even more complex, Nadine decided to work in public – posting work-in-progress examples of her type as she progressed. While she then had to take time to listen and respond to those who commented to her work, it helped make the typeface better as she essentially had a pool of hundreds of beta testers for her type, each looking for ways to improve based on their individual needs.

Hermann – who is now 96 – oversaw the project, and acted as what Nadine describes as a mentor for it. While not reading Arabic, Hermann wanted to ensure that the Arabic version of Zapfino was in keeping with original vision for the typeface, so was also providing feedback to Nadine.

I caught up with Nadine (below) over Skype to discuss how what started as a joke became a real project, her approach to such a huge task, what she learned and why working in public as a wise choice for Zapfino Arabic.

Neil Bennett: What initially interested you about creating an Arabic version of Zapfino?

Nadine Chahine: "It wasn't the typeface itself, it's the designer. I've worked with Hermann Zapf now for 10 years. We collaborated first on Palatino Arabic and then Palatino Sans Arabic and there was always the wish to do more together. He's such an amazing designer. It's such a privilege to be able to work with him, to have his trust, and to know that he lets me work with the typefaces that he's spent so much time developing.

“There was always a wish to do more with him – specifically with him – and that's where it came from. There are a lot of script typefaces, but the quality of Hermann Zapf's typeface is unique.

“It started as a joke. After I had done Palatino Sans Arabic, we were sitting in department meetings and we were discussing what other Arabic project I would do - and then a colleague suggested Zapfino Arabic and then we all laughed because [we knew it would be] so hard.

“Later I worked on other projects and learned new skills - and got more comfortable with [creating] calligraphic forms in Arabic, because I'm not a calligrapher. I cannot draw by hand at all [and] my handwriting is not good looking [laughs]. But I had designed a typeface that was very calligraphic and it gave me courage that maybe I could take this on.

“I was at the very end of my PhD and I said, ‘Ok, I can take on another challenge’. I knew it would be difficult, but it turned out to be even more difficult than I thought.”

NB: Was there anything comparable to what you had in mind for Zapfino Arabic or was there a clear gap in the market there?

NC: “Calligraphic typefaces [in Arabic] - what would be comparable in Latin script typefaces - are few in number. You can count them on one hand and they're all in very classical styles. And all of them come with their own set of connotations. One is very traditional. One is very poetic. One is very religious. One is very typical. It gets to be too predictable.

“There wasn't a calligraphic typeface that would be different from these already existing flavours, so that was nice because I had more freedom there to design something that people would like without it necessarily being very classical in design.”

NB: So Zapfino Arabic was free from those connotations then?

NC: “Yeah. Because this design style is so different from everything that already exists, it's almost outside of the political sphere.

“I also didn’t have to worry about whether certain regions would like it more than another – as it was just for the Arab countries. These have different typographic traditions than in Iran and different than in Afghanistan and Pakistan - so designing an Arabic typeface that would fit all of these together is problematic. But Zapfino supports only the Arabic language because of these complexities. I could not take on Persian and Urdu - the level of complexity would have killed me”

NB: So that's not the next challenge then?

NC: “No, no, no, no no. [Laughs] That might take me twenty years. There's one specific character that loops backwards in Persian and in Urdu - and if I needed to include it [in Zapfino Arabic], the headache would be just massive. It would break the font - so I don't want to deal with it.”

NB: Which of Arabic type’s traditions [Naskh and Nataaliq] would you say that Zapfino Arabic draws on more than others?

NC: “The design is taking those two existing traditions and picking up a little bit from here, a little bit from there - but then pushing it in a different direction.”

NB: From watching the animation of Zapf Arabic that you created (top), I assumed you had started with hand-drawn brushstokes – but this isn’t the case. What was your process for creating the typeface?

NC: “My hand cannot draw what my eyes want it to, so I rarely draw on paper - only very rough sketches in order to understand the movement [of the script]. For this project, I looked at calligraphic references. I was already familiar with those two styles - Naskh and Nastaaliq - but I spent more time looking and understanding how words in them are formed together.

“I started drawing the isolated letters. Then I needed to make the connecting characters, because every letter has different forms based on its position in the word - so I needed to make those different forms. And that's when the trouble began.

“The most important thing in an Arabic typeface is to maintain the illusion that one brushstroke wrote the whole word. When they connect, you need to feel that it's one single movement, but in reality these are very different characters that are just put side-by-side. If you don't have the logic of how to combine them and how to draw a curve that is actually cut in half and then put it together so that it looks like it's one curve, it becomes quite complicated.

“For example, the letter 'b' - which in Arabic is called ‘baa’. You have four forms for it: when it's isolated, when it's in the initial, in the middle, or the final position. But in this typeface, I had many, many different shapes. I had the initial ‘baa’, the normal, and then another one if it comes before a ‘miim’, another one if it comes before a ‘jiim’, another one it comes before a ‘raa’.

“It had to change and to take into consideration what comes after and what comes before. You start [creating] words, and then the words look funny, and then you redraw and you redraw until the word shapes start to look good. And finally you have that illusion that there is a continuous line connecting all of these different shapes.”

NB: To help with this mammoth project, you showed your progress to anyone who was interested on Facebook and Twitter. Was that primarily to let others give feedback on how the typeface was progressing, or also to give others insight into your practice?

NC: “Both. [Previously] people only got to see the final product - even though I write as much as possible, and I give interviews and presentations. I felt that opening up the design process and showing people the steps that you have to go through to make a finished typeface would be interesting. One, it would interesting if you're a casual observer, but also if you are a student of type design or if you are interested in designing Arabic typefaces, then this gives you a deeper view of how things work out and the level of work that goes into it.

“We also have a problem in the Middle East with font piracy. There's not a lot of appreciation for the value of a font. If we show all the work that goes into a font, then people can understand that this is not something that you just share, that there's a value in it.”

“Also, because I knew that the design result was going to be a hybrid between different styles, I wanted to make sure that people are comfortable reading it – that this would not be something that looks too foreign or too different or is uncomfortable to read.”

NB: What kind of feedback did you receive from those following your progress?

NC: “There were two kinds. The majority were ‘This is great. We love it’. Then the other one would be ‘Oh, this is good, but this character looks a little bit strange,’ or ‘I prefer this one rather than that one’. It wasn't so much ‘Oh, I couldn’t use this in a headline,’ it was more about the specifics of the typeface.

“Because I had committed to sharing this process, it put pressure on me – because [otherwise] I could have decided to quit and nobody would have found out. It's a commitment that meant I needed to finish this because people were saying ‘Oh, we can't wait. We want to see this. We want to use this’. It pushes you on - it's almost like you have your own cheerleading squad by your side.

“There were many times during the process when it was really hard and so it was nice to know that people are reacting positively and that there is that level of support.”

NB: Do you think you wouldn't have finished it if it hadn't been for the support of everybody else then?

NC: “It's possible. I don't know, but I definitely appreciated [the support] and it gave me a lot of comfort. Maybe I wouldn't have finished it ,but I’ve never started the typeface that I haven’t finished.”

NB: You call your design of Zapfino Arabic a “collaboration” with Hermann Zapf. How did it work?

NC: “I see my collaboration with him as one continuous process. It's not just Zapfino, it started with Palatino Arabic exactly ten years ago.

“When we first started on that project, he would come to the office and spend the whole day and we would sit together and we'd draw the letters together. We'd print them out. We figured out even where to place the anchor points and how they should look like.

“During that process, I learned how to draw curves as he would draw them. [After that] it was less important for him to be sitting next to me, because I learned how to draw them on my own.

“For this project, the first meeting was in the summer two and a half years ago. I told him, ‘I would love for us to do Zapfino Arabic’. I took calligraphy books with me and I showed him the different calligraphic styles and I told him, ‘We need to combine this one and that one. I don't know what it will look like [overall, but] these are three characters I have drawn." And he said, ‘Yes’.

“He was not as much as a co-designer. He was more like a mentor. He would look, he would give his approval, but he wasn't sitting and actively drawing or anything like that. Because we had gone through the many years of working together, it wasn't necessary anymore.

NB: How did you adapt Hermann’s font to create an Arabic version that could sit next to the Latin version – both metaphorically and literally on pages that combine Arabic copy with English references?

NC: “The most important [thing to get right] was the slant direction. That was the biggest concession [to the Latin version of Zapf], because to have a backward slant like that in Arabic is a bit extreme.

“It needed to lean backwards because we write in Arabic from right to left. If it were to follow the logic of Latin, it would lean towards the left - but then if you put Latin and Arabic on the same page, they look terrible together because they are opposing.

“Looking at the Arabic and the Latin together, there are many differences. The Arabic has a slightly slanted baseline; the Latin obviously not, because that doesn't exist in Latin. The Arabic doesn't have the overhanging ascenders like at the top of the 'h' for example. It doesn't exist in Arabic because we don't have a stroke that looks like that in Arabic. These distinctive shapes that you get in Zapfino, you don't get in the Arabic. If you look at it from a superficial point of view, there are many differences that make you question if these two fit together or not.

“I was working from the logic that was, if [Hermann] was to write in Arabic, what would it be like?

“I always say in my presentations, ‘When we try to do a companion between Arabic and Latin, it's easiest when they both have a design that’s very mechanical or very geometric, because you lose the pen movement’. It's the pen movement and structure that makes Arabic so different from Latin. When you go to calligraphic designs, it's all about the pen movement, so you will need to accept that they are very different."

NB: I thought the animation you created was fascinating and wondered if that's something that you want to do more of in the future?

NC: “I hope so. I wanted to do the animation because I wanted to highlight the movement to people – because the typeface has a lot of movement. I wanted to write 'i's' so that they would see it how I was seeing it, and then I chose the music and then I was trying to match the movement to the music as how you would do it in dance in Arabic.

“It's a nice way to celebrate the typeface. I hope to do more of this in the future. We should all be doing more of this, if possible.”

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