How the Arabic version of Helvetica was created

Redesigning and updating classic fonts is always a challenge -- but how do you reimagine much-loved fonts for a completely different script? Typographer Nadine Chahine is familiar with the challenges -- she’s worked on Arabic versions of faces including Frutiger and Palatino. Her latest release for Linotype is an Arabic version of Neue Helvetica.

Chahine was recently in London to talk us through her new design.

DA: It must be difficult to design a typeface to match such a classic?

NC: “Helvetica is an iconic typeface, it was tough at times. It’s important to understand they are different: you have to maintain the Arabic as Arabic, but they need to have a decent conversation, [so that] when you put them on the same page you don’t get conflict in the overall visual environment.

"The most important part is this harmony, this co-existence -- but you are not trying to morph one into the other. We cannot look at the Latin [version] take some curves, scale them, twist them copy and paste and say this is Arabic.”

DA: What are the hurdles?

NC: “Latin is left-to-right, Arabic is right-to-left. Latin characters are uniform in rhythm -- the X-height is
stable all the way through. You cansee a band going through broken with ascenders, descenders and capital letters. Arabic doesn’t have that -- Arabic is very horizontal and quite organic in form, we don’t have this rhythm we have in Latin.

“What we do get is the repetition of the horizontal stroke, which is the connecting form: in Latin the emphasis is on the vertical, in Arabic it’s on the horizontal.

“Neue Helvetica has minor modulations for the thick and thin, but the structure is welded, stable and solid, and we needed that. The design [process] was like ironing out pen movement.”

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