Face to Face

An Interview With Nadine Chahine

Nadine Chahine is an incredibly talented Lebanese type designer with a very special interest in Arabic typography. She taught Arabic type design as a visiting lecturer at the American University in Dubai and then joined Linotype, Germany, where she is now in charge of Sales Marketing and Arabic-related projects. As of September 2007 she is also a PhD candidate and her topic is legibility studies for the Arabic script.

nadine chahine

How long have you been designing type?
And how did you get started?

I started designing when I was 19. We had an Arabic typography class with the great calligrapher and art critic Samir Sayegh. We had an assignment to design a typographic composition of our names using one of his Kufi designs. I did not like the way the characters ended — they were too flowery for my taste — and so asked if I could redesign those. He said yes. Then I found that I did not like the final Nun and it occurs twice in my name, and again I asked if i could change it and got the same answer. Two weeks later, I had a brand new design and was completely hooked! As you can see, I am very finicky when it comes to type design :) For my final year project in 2000 — I was 21 by then — I designed 2 unattached Arabic fonts. I thought I was going to solve all the problems of Arabic typefaces.

Adrian Frutiger

Then I went to Reading and learned a bit more about type design and I discovered that instead of treating a cold, I had sent the patient into surgery! The Arabic fonts that we worked with had a lot of problems and I blamed it on the script and the attachment to calligraphy. Thankfully, I realized in time that the script is actually flexible and dynamic enough to yield wonderful results and that the problem was just the lack of quality. I also came to understand the difference between emulating calligraphic styles via typefaces and the effect of the tool on letter forms. The first is a design concept, the second is basic to the script.

What are some of the challenges of designing Arabic fonts?

There’s the good news and the bad news. Bad news is: you have to design almost all the basic characters before you can get a feel for the design. Because the script is attached and the height alignments vary so much, I need full sentences to be able to judge a single character.

palatino arabic determining proportions

The character dynamics are volatile and react so much with the neighbors that looking at isolated forms is practically useless. Also, you need a bit of complex programming to get going but it’s not so bad. The good news is, well, there’s many! First, thank you OpenType! We can do much better designs and it’s very liberating. Second, there’s a lot of very interesting styles and a lot that one can be inspired by. Third, it’s a lot of fun to play across the boundaries. All of my designs are hybrid styles and I find that the mix of different styles opens a lot of doors to new directions. The challenge is how to make it work and not seem odd to the reader.

What’s your proudest type-related achievement?

There’s 3 occasions that have been the highlights for me so far. First time was when I was still at Reading and had suddenly managed to make Koufiya Arabic look right. I was so happy I couldn’t fall asleep that night! It was so wonderful, to see on paper an image that I had in my head and had been struggling for months to able to “see”.

Frutiger Arabic

The second was when Adrian Frutiger saw my first sketches for Frutiger Arabic. It was before I joined Linotype. Bruno sent me an e-mail saying that AF loved the design and that he wrote on the printout: This work has a touch of genius. I just cried! The third is my recent TDC win with Palatino Arabic.

Zapf and Chahine

It was the perfect ending for a wonderful project with Prof. Zapf. I’ve been very lucky to work with such great designers and I’ve learned a lot from these experiences.

What do you enjoy most and least about designing type?

I enjoy the beginning phases when it is rushed and crazy. I hate kerning Arabic.

How do you design?

I usually sketch 1 or 2 characters very quickly on paper. It’s usually a rough sketch but I just sit and stare at it for a while then I go and start working directly on screen. I don’t have any clean sketches except from the first few months at Reading and those were quite lousy….

Which work of other type designers do you like?

I admire the work of many Latin type designers, more than I can count here. I am influenced the most by the works of Frutiger and Zapf, and by the teachings (and designs of course) of Gerard Unger and Jean François Porchez. Working with Akira Kobayashi at Linotype has also been great. He’s a wonderful designer and type director. For Arabic, I am a big fan of Mamoun Sakkal and Tim Holloway.

What are you working on now?

My PhD! Last time I actually designed anything was November, and I am currently focussing on my research. I’m starting to miss it though, and I think I will start again in the summer.

[You can learn more about Nadine and about Arabic type on her blog.]


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  1. This was a fascinating read. Thanks, John.
    It must be something out of this world to be working with the legends in type design, so in that sense Nadine is definitely lucky.

    I have a question to Nadine: how did you decide on becoming a designer in the first place, and how hard (or perhaps easy) it was for you to receive the recognition (deservingly so)?
    Good luck with your PhD, and look forward to seeing more incredible Arabic typefaces from you. Btw, have you ever designed a Latin typeface?

  2. What an interesting interview! The world of Arabic typography is complete foreign to me — this was really quite enlightening.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Nadine. Your typefaces are wonderful, the header looks great. :)

    Is there any equivalent to Helvetica in an Arabic typeface? (I love the Frutiger crossover)

  3. DN

    Beautiful stuff. I love that you cover non-Roman type design. Any Devanagari (or other Indic) designers?

  4. inspirationbit
    Thanks, Vivien. Yes, it must be quite an honour.

    Hamish
    It’s pretty alien to me too, so it was great to hear Nadine talk about it. I love the header too. I only wish I could pronounce it. Anyone?

    DN
    Thanks for contributing. Dan Reynolds would be a good place to start. He’s designing a typeface family with a Latin and Devanagari component.

    Also Tiro Typeworks specialises in non-Latin type. And they do it very well. Tim Holloway, John Hudson et al. designed the TDC2 2008 winner Vodafone Hindi.

  5. Mostafa

    The header reads “ana ohebbo-lkhatta-ttaba’i” and you know what it means! I think it’s the simplest iLT header I’ve ever seen: no change in color, size, or anything all along the header! However, it was a big surprise and joy when I saw that at the head of iLT.

    I have a huge thank you for this interview. I always feel there’s a great lack of information about Arabic type design. That goes further when it comes to Persian typography, which have differences with Arabic types, and misses people like Nadine Chahine and Tim Holloway so deep.

  6. great interview, john—- thank you so so much! :)

  7. Great article. Nice to see more info on Arabic type. I’ve been casually browsing Nadine’s blog since I saw a link to it here a few Sundays ago. It’s great to know that a fellow Lebanese is making such progress with Arabic typography (go Nadine!).

  8. Okano

    Great interview. When I saw her presentation at TypeCon Seattle last year, she was really eager to introduce Arabic language and typefaces. That was very striking for me. I can’t read and use Arabic language, but I’ve been curious about Arabic fonts after her presentation. Nadine’s blog is also really great.

  9. Thanks for posting that one. Very interesting read. (Now off to reading her blog.)

  10. sallyyi

    It’s very interesting to learn Arabic fonts. Nadine and her fonts are beautiful.

  11. Areg

    Thank you for the absolutely wonderful and very interesting post!!
    Nadine, thank you for the beautiful experience!

  12. This is just the post I have been waiting for so I could ask some questions. Do all languages share the same characteristics of type? It seems to me that becuase of the way other languages are read it would be hard to make many different font faces. I’m probably wrong, but thats why I’m asking. For example. Do Chinese characters, (Hanzi. I think.) for example have serif and sans-serif style?

    Thanks for posting this. It answered a lot of questions I had.

  13. Jongseong Park

    Dylan B., if your question is about whether typefaces for other scripts have stylistic variations comparable to the serif, sans-serif, slab, humanist, geometric, etc. styles of the latin alphabet, then the answer is yes in general. John will be able to tell you all about typefaces for the hiragana, katakana, and kanji (Chinese ideographs) scripts used for Japanese. These include what could be called serif and sans-serif styles (called mincho and gothic in the Japanese context).

    Nadine alludes to the different styles of Arabic in the interview. Arabic typefaces can draw from a rich tradition of different calligraphic styles, including Naskh (used for most everyday Arabic typefaces), Ruq’ah, Thuluth, Kufic, Nasta’liq, Maghribi, etc. Each style is suited for different contexts that depend on such issues as formality and linguistic traditions (Nasta’liq was developed for writing Urdu, I think). Modern Arabic typeface designers such as Nadine often produce hybrids of styles, even incorporating elements of modern vernacular handwritten Arabic. To get an appreciation for the range of possible results, just look at how different Palatino Arabic and Frutiger Arabic are from the samples in the interview.

    Nearly all the writing systems that have been used for centuries, such as Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian, Georgian, Ge’ez (Ethiopic), Hebrew, Devanagari (many Indian languages), Thai, and Hangul (Korean) to name a few, have rich writing traditions that generally have translated into a wealth of typographic styles. It’s important to pay attention to what the culturally appropriate contexts are for these different styles, just as with the Latin alphabet, you wouldn’t use blackletter faces to set an instruction manual for a mobile phone. For instance, there’s a variation of Hangul serif faces that are almost exclusively used for setting newspaper text.

    I should point out though that some writing systems with shorter traditions, such as the Canadian Aboriginal syllabic writing systems, don’t seem to have a comparable wealth of stylistic variations. Maybe I just don’t know them too well, but the only examples I’ve seen do not deviate much from the monoline geometric designs that could be called sans-serifs.

  14. This was fascinating, and I feel I learned a fair bit. This is an area I am interested in as a designer.

    I have designed several typefaces for North American Indian languages, as well as versions for European languages with extra diacriticals, ending up becoming something of a specialist by accident. The one most folks are likely to encounter was for a dictionary of the Dakota language published by the Minnesota historical Society.

    I always appreciate reading about the issues surrounding multi-lingual typography, and the variations and possibilities. It can really bring out the artistic aspect of type design.

    Thank you.

  15. This was very cool. Now I’m waiting for the one on Japanese typography, John! Maybe I could interview you for your own blog ;)

    @Dylan, great questions. I’d like to see them answered, too.

    @Jongseong Park, hmm, maybe you should write an article on multi-lingual type design!! You seem to have quite a bit of knowledge about the subject and there is obviously an interest here for it.

    I never thought I would be exploring the world of typography for other languages. So neat! In school I designed a poster for dans oriental and created my own typeface that took on the look of the Arabic letters even though the title was in English. Too embarrassed to show it, but it was fun to research the letter shapes. They’re very beautiful.

  16. Compliments to Nadine & Johno for this great interview! I wish I could understand Arabic typography to fully comprehend the beauty of Nadine’s creations. It looks stunning.

  17. Thank you all for the wonderful comments!!! I am very flattered!

    > I have a question to Nadine: how did you decide on becoming a
    > designer in the first place, and how hard (or perhaps easy) it was for
    > you to receive the recognition (deservingly so)?

    I was fascinated by the letter forms and was so inspired, my head full of ideas, and I just wanted to get it out on paper… It’s a bubble of energy and I’ve been very lucky all along. I had wonderful teachers and advisers but I also had to work really hard.

    > Btw, have you ever designed a Latin typeface?

    Yes, Koufiya during my Reading MA. It’s my only Latin and it’s designed alongside a matching Arabic. I’ll post it on my blog once it’s available. A specimen with an early version of it is on the net.

    > Is there any equivalent to Helvetica in an Arabic typeface? (I love the Frutiger crossover)

    Not yet but I think it would be a very interesting design challenge.

    > Do all languages share the same characteristics of type?

    Jongseong Park answered very well… This is a very interesting topic. There’s so much variety and wealth of languages and scripts and diving into that is a great experience.

    It’s great to see that there’s a mounting interest in non-Latin typography and I am very glad to be able to answer questions. I’ll try to keep adding more info to my blog.

    Thanks again :)

  18. Nadine, thank you for wonderfull typefaces. Congratulations!

  19. amir arian

    the art is about iranian (only)
    see these
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/26727915@N04/2506814120/
    http://khat.blogfa.com/
    and …
    that can search from google with “Nasta`liq script” keyword.

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