Wishing on a typeface

Nadine Chahine is a type designer for Linotype GmbH, where she is also Branding & CI Manager, and Arabic Specialist. She designed Frutiger Arabic with Adrian Frutiger and Palatino Arabic with Hermann Zapf, for which she won the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the TDC. Today I’m excited to announce that Nadine’s Neue Helvetica Arabic has just this minute been released.

Neue Helvetica Arabic nun

On being Lebanese

“We don’t live in a vacuum. Ideas have to come from somewhere. Is it possible to be an Arab, a Lebanese, and a woman today, and not be affected by the tragedies that unfold every day?”

“Typography is means to an end. Arabic typography is half Arabic and half typography. It is not possible to seperate letterforms from the reality in which they will appear. To understand Arabic typography is to understand first what is Arabic.”

I wrote this three years ago when Lebanon was going through a tough political and cultural crisis. Very little has changed since then. I wrote this on my blog which is dedicated to Arabic typography, but I found that I could not dissociate letterforms from the environment that they are designed for. And so design, culture, and politics, go hand in hand.

Neue Helvetica Arabic

On being Arabic

Can we really define what Arabs are like? I am not so sure. The Arab world stretches over a huge area and encompasses many different cultures and traditions. We all read the same language, but we have our own distinct dialects. We are conservative and liberal, traditional and modern, illiterate and well-educated, deeply religious and (yes) atheists. We are all of these things so how can one really define what is an Arab?

To my mind, it is the common experience of growing up in such context, and the common visual memory that many of us share. It is the Grandiser cartoons that we watched as kids, the Fairouz and Abed al-Halim songs that we listen to, the black-and-white Egyptian movies, the hand written signs across town, and the great food… It is hard to pinpoint, but there are definitely issues that deeply touch and affect many of us. One of these is the continuous political turmoil in the region. Passions run high, tension prevails, and storms are constantly brewing. This is the one river that flows underneath Arab cities.

And so, current and past events shape our visual memory and this is true of any script. The typefaces in which our newspapers are set are tinged with the news of today. To appreciate this, just pick up a newspaper from 50 years ago and you will be transported in time. You will not only read of the news that made the headlines that day, but you will come face to face with the visual memory of that period.

On Arabic typography

Finally, a resting place. This I can talk about easily. Arabic calligraphy is beautiful, diverse, and often simply breath-taking. Arabic typography is most often not. And this is just sad. Thankfully, many of the technological hurdles have been removed. The design standards of new typeface releases have been greatly improved. It is definitely an exciting time to live in.

When I joined Linotype, the company where I like to work, I had the support and back up to explore our Arabic library and recommend a way forward. This was certainly the most exciting task in my career so far. Isn’t it great to be a library architect? Over the last years we released several new Arabic typefaces, many of which proved to be popular. This gave further impetus to the drive to continue to explore the world of Arabic typography. What more could we do?

For a library that includes the world’s most popular typefaces, some of the answers are quite obvious. And one day, I came face to face with my Everest. I had suggested that an Helvetica Arabic would be a valuable addition to the Arabic library. The colleagues agreed.

On Neue Helvetica Arabic

Now how would you translate an iconic design into a script that defies neutrality? Is this even possible? To make things more complicated, Arabic calligraphic styles are many and some are more suited for headlines, others for text. Helvetica functions on both platforms so the Arabic needs to do so as well.

It needs to be commanding, professional, authoritative, composed, well-crafted, stable, and most important, neutral. The design process of Neue Helvetica Arabic was like taking a hot iron to a Naskh-Kufi hybrid design. Now that’s a tough negotiation. You see, I had to make sure not to iron what is Arabic out of it as well!

On the design brief

The design brief was very clear:

1. Design a typeface that would be the Arabic companion to Neue Helvetica.
2. The Arabic version would be true to Arabic script aesthetics and be able to function on its own as well.
3. The Latin and Arabic can be used at the same point size, with the same weight and optical size.
4. The typeface would translate the Helvetica concept into Arabic, especially its neutrality, formality, and ability to be used for a multitude of projects.

Neue Helvetica Arabic abjad

On the design of Neue Helvetica Arabic

One would think that all one has to do is to import the curves of the Latin into the Arabic script structure and the work is practically done. This is not the case. The design approach here is quite different: Look at what Neue Helvetica does as a typeface, how it functions, what visual message does it carry, and then see how to achieve that function and message in Arabic. It is not about how similar the curves are, but how similar the typefaces function. This is at the heart of multi-script type design.

The typeface family consists of 3 weights: Light, Regular, and Bold. Neue Helvetica Arabic is a mono-linear design with very little contrast. Its design is a clean hybrid of Kufi and Naskh structures and this enables it to function in both text and headline settings. Its curves are very low on contrast and have been designed to be formal, well-crafted and robust in appearance. This is a no nonsense typeface. Its voice is calm and authoritative. Its design is, finally, neutral.

Neue Helvetica Arabic hawwaz

Wishing on a typeface

Can a typeface go beyond the present and into the future? Is it possible to bring Swiss neutrality into the Middle East? Peace and prosperity? The inspiration for Neue Helvetica Arabic does not come from type specimens or calligraphy books, but from the reality of life in Lebanon. This is a typeface for hard-working and motivated professionals. This is the only way forward.

But life is not only about work. And so we need many more typefaces, and many more ideas. More to come soon so stay tuned!


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  1. Arabic fonts distinct lines, a solid line and there is no spaces between the letters and thus can obtain the forms and decorations by writing it

  2. Good news from Lebanon, finally!
    congratulation on your last piece of art Mrs. Nadine!
    cheers

  3. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you!

    Where can I see more of this fascinating type?

  4. Great post. Thanks for sharing! A refreshing Helvetica, indeed.

  5. Nice header! Oh, I so want this Neue Helvetica Arabic! Yummy!

  6. Great, a really interesting design. I love the way it looks clean and precise.

  7. John Hudson

    “Neue Helvetica Arabic is a mono-linear design with very little contrast.”

    But Helvetica is not monolinear: it has a great variety of stroke weights and considerable thinning of strokes where they connect. This seems to me so much a characteristic of Helvetica that I wonder why it is not reflected in the Arabic design?

  8. Priestess355

    Its absolutely spectacular, but how can normal people afford to buy it? This seems to be something everyone would love, not just massive companies with design budgets. $225 is way out of the budget for any individual. Very sad.

  9. Thanks everyone for the kind words :)

    John, you always ask the right questions! I’ve looked at the contrast issue, and will explain more (with images) in a later post on my blog.

    > This seems to be something everyone would love, not just massive companies with design budgets.

    Yes I would really hope so. Maybe we can get this onto the system fonts like with Helvetica? We can start a campaign :)

  10. Thomas Rosefeldt

    I am sorry, but to put it bluntly, this article is complete rubbish. The unending stream of marketing B.S. was only punctuated by incompetent and irrelevant other B.S. This sad attempt of a report on the design and pertinence of Neue Helvetica’s Neue Arabic is embarrassing and silly. Where was Nadine’s editor or friend to help stop her from publishing this?

    John Hudson is correct: Helvetica does have a (relatively) great deal of stroke contrast and is rather elegant and refined – its new Arabic counterpart is sloppy and looks thrown together. Yes, the way the Latin and Non-Latin function together is key, but the outline quality is also important. And as Priestess355 point out: €141 per weight – that’s a bit greedy isn’t it? (of course the pricing policy is the company’s decision and not Nadine’s.)

    Linotype/Monotype’s reputation is at a delicate place right now and such desperate and poorly executed advertisements aren’t sending the right message.

    Wishing on a better article next time,
    Tom

  11. Indra Kupferschmid

    I’m anything but an arabic expert, but I am quite familiar with Helvetica. Sorry, to me this typeface does not bear any resemblance to it. Not in form, not in feel.

  12. Way to go Nadine!
    Neat fonts, keep it up :)
    Proud of you and your work!

    p.s.: “… وعليهم أن يعامل…” not “آن”

  13. Justin

    I would like to see a more expansive specimen comparing the weights of this against the equivalent weights of Helvetica Neue.

    It seems that the light weights harmonize best, and the bold weights the least.

    I look forward to a more in-depth explanation of the process and criteria. I see much more of a Kufi influence in this than Naskh, though I’m very much a beginner when it comes to non-Latin designs.

  14. John Hudson

    Thanks for the response, Nadine. I look forward to seeing more samples and understanding why the Arabic is the way it is relative to the Latin. I know you will have thought this through, and there is perhaps a good reason why the Arabic is more monolinear.

    But this raises an interesting question in itself: are there designs in one script that simply cannot be ‘captured’ in another script? It is always possible to achieve some measure of harmonisation on the page by careful control of proportions and weight, but capturing the idiom of a design in multiple scripts isn’t always possible or even, in my opinion, desirable.

    But if one is going to call something ‘Helvetica’….

  15. John Hudson

    Justin, yes, the bold weight seems most problematic, which is not surprising: the heavier Helvetica gets, the more pronounced the stroke modulation becomes.

    [By the way, I think Neue Helvetica itself narrowly missed over-regularising Helvetica, and although — or perhaps because — it is a more consistent design without many of the idiosyncrasies of Helvetica it is less interesting.]

  16. jason

    Its ok.

    Are there any specific Arabic fonts that are famous and/or popular?

    Thanks!

  17. Good description of Arab world followed by a deep description of the necessary feelings when any typeface designer create a new typeface. Good job Nadine.

    Just one comment: “Its voice is calm and authoritative. Its design is, finally, neutral.”

    I agree with the first part not at all with the last. Specially true in Arabic, who should confirm this for latin too. Helvetica in its arabic or latin version can’t be neutral.

    Nadine: What do you think?

  18. Sara

    Gorgeous! Wish I had projects to do in Arabic…

  19. It has never entered my head before, but Arabic script is beautiful. You get used to seeing out-of-date typefaces that look like something out of the Dark Ages and for me, that has always portrayed Arabic as this antiquated, redundant script.

    This take on Helvetica has totally changed my perception and it looks totally amazing. I’m learning Japanese at the moment, so there is no way that I can turn my hand to Arabic; a shame though, all the same…

  20. Chris

    I simply don’t like it. It doesn’t look anything like Helvetica

  21. Wow… Very interesting (and a few heated) reactions. A few issues are raised and so I’ll try to address these systematically:

    - Contrast:
    The description of the Arabic typeface says that it is mono-linear which is true of the overall feel of the typeface. However, it of course has thins where necessary. If you first look at the Latin and compare the numbers 2 and 7 as in the sample, the 2 is almost fully mono-linear, while the 7 has thinning where the the horizontal and diagonal strokes are coming very close in direction, and would have closed up otherwise. This is is also found in the top arches of m, n, h, p, q, r etc. This is not found is characters such as the c, s, v, x, y, z…

    So: The Latin has obvious thinning of characters were 2 strokes are getting to be very close in direction.

    Solution: The Arabic also has this in the cases that 2 strokes are getting close in direction (look at the way the Beh joins to another Beh). This is not obvious in these samples but you can test it on the Linotype site. The Arabic has less of this kind of situation, and so has those thinnings less often but that is in its nature.

    Conclusion: The Arabic has more c and s type of curves than n curves. This gives a different rhythm of contrast.

    - Shapes:
    Readers who are not familiar with Arabic are usually looking to see the same curves of Latin reproduced in the Arabic.

    This doesn’t work.

    Every script has its own logic and we can’t used the curves of one to make the other. John raises an excellent point (as always): There are features that are may not be desirable to take into other scripts.

    The Arabic counterpart to Neue Helvetica is its companion, not its slave. It is meant to do in Arabic what the first does in Latin. It’s not about having the same curves (Arabic is often more organic), but about the way the typeface speaks to its readers. I do believe that the Arabic has the same tone of voice as the Latin, just don’t expect it to wear the same cloths.

    There are enough example of botched logo designs in the Middle East (by designers of various nationalities) where the designers have taken the curves of the Latin and chopped-rotated-flipped-pasted them to make Arabic letters. This makes the Arabic look very close to the Latin in terms of details, but in reality it is often only misshaped forms and nothing more than a typographic Frankenstein. There’s examples of this on my blog.

    And if I just copied the curves of the Latin and constructed my Arabic out of those, what would I do next? Design a Times Arabic and slap serifs on it? No. Some lines are not meant to be crossed and we need to accept that different scripts are different. Sounds simple, but many miss on that.

    In all of my presentations about the relationship of Latin and Arabic, I always say: The Arabic needs to stay Arabic, and the Latin stays Latin. If you design both at the same time (like in my Koufiya), then you get a better fit. But here we deal with a different design brief.

    I think different people approach this issue differently. After all, this is design and not math.

    If there are other issues that you would like me to clarify please let me know. I hope this helped to shed some light.

  22. Nadine
    It’s not about having the same curves …, but about the way the typeface speaks to its readers.

    Absolutely. I’m not terribly familiar with Arabic scripts, but I often see the same mistakes made with contemporary Japanese typefaces, where elements of latin letterforms are transposed to Japanese kana, and it hardly ever works. There are Japanese typefaces with latin serifs, and although these sometimes make for interesting display faces, they really come off as little more than parodies.

  23. Zak

    Usually I would say nothing but Helvetica is a very important and popular font family.
    Like some others, I do not feel Helvetica Arabic is a successful design.

    Just by having avoided the obvious trap of doing a cut and paste job from latin letters does not automatically make it a good design.

    As someone has written above, I also find it not that well drawn. But it is also very badly spaced, and the design of the letters is inconsistent in the different weights. It is not up to the same level of design quality as the latin Helvetica

    But as a user, this is not the main concern, the following is. The text of the presentation says:

    “Arabic calligraphic styles are many and some are more suited for headlines, others for text. Helvetica functions on both platforms so the Arabic needs to do so as well.”

    This is the fundamental problem with this Helvetica Arabic. It is not a “Naskh-Kufi” hybrid. It is dominantly a modern Kufi with few (inconsistent) Naskh design features. As a mostly-Kufi style of fonts, this family is unusable as type family for common text settings at reading size. It does not “function on both platforms”.

    Of course Helvetica is very frequently used for setting text, not just headlines. Calling this Arabic family Helvetica Arabic will mislead designers who are not familiar with our abjad to think that this is an acceptable equivalent to Helvetica for setting texts in arabic, which it is not.

    Because of this essential problem, the decision to call this font family Helvetica Arabic is either a badly informed decision or an irresponsible marketing strategy to use the fame of the name Helvetica.

    Praise be to Ms Chahine to have the confidence to want to make an arabic companion (which we need) to a design classic like Helvetica, but I am disappointed, this font family is a result not successful both on the idea and the design.

    But I like some of your other fonts, please don’t give up!

  24. Your typeface would have been a good companion, if the round dots are replaced with either square or diamond ones; Helvetica never uses a round dot.

    When I saw the cursive Arabic, the dots resemble a rounded diamond. Why not use a square or a diamond instead of a circle? Using round dots make it closer to Neuzeit Grotesk S than Helvetica.

  25. Ahmad Osman

    Here is a number of things that came to my mind when reading the article:

    1. You write very well, and I mean it. It is heart-warming to see a designer really thinking her design out.

    2. I totally agree with what John Hudson said: ‘capturing the idiom of a design in multiple scripts isn’t always possible or even, in my opinion, desirable.’ I would even put the ‘desirable’ part aside. I think it simply is not possible. Text, display, and neutral cannot be combined in an Arabic fount, and this is because ‘text’ Arabic is Naskhi, while ‘display’ Arabic is all the others (for the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and Egypt at least). Of course, a mannered Naskhi could manage to be both text and display, but neutral (which in our heads stems from the orthonormal) is not inherent to Naskhi, but rather to Kufi.

    My point is that the best compromise we can come up with to combine text, display, and neutral would be a text display that is neutral only at the most rational or academic level, that level which does not see with its eye but with its brain, and which understands that the orthonormal is not necessarily neutral, nor the neutral necessarily orthonormal. This brain, however, is disrespectful to the eye, because the eye is naïve. It knows its semantics and only those. The problem is, the brain must always pay respect to the eye and where the semantics of this eye come from. This is why combining the three qualities is impossible.

    What we Arabic type designers have to do, I think, is to come to terms with the absence of a point of intersection among the three, and to move on. In the case of Helvetica, I would have discarded of the ambition for a text fount, and would have focused on preserving the humanist orthonormality of Helvetica (I am not going to call it ‘neutrality’ anymore). This would have produced an outright Neo-Kufi fount, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    3. One of the commentators asked for an example of a famous, popular Arabic fount. From what I have been observing, Boutrus Mourad’s GE SS Text is all over town, and so I would give that as an example of a famous, popular fount. Saying this sounds like anathema, of course, because no self-respecting designer would respect that flagrantly Latinised creature, but this is what the market likes and wants; orthonormal displays.

    4. Of course, Nadine, you are being showered with criticism, some of it constructive, some of it otherwise, but Gibran - I think - said that only the tree that bears fruit is thrown with stones. My point is this; someone had to do Helvetica Neue Arabic, and I do not think that any one would have handled that mission with greater lucidity to its weight than you.

  26. I appreciate your insight on such a small, niche subject. I believe we share more than just our names! My father is from the Middle East; my mother American. Unfortunately, I’ve never identified with either culture. However, I can identify with your final product, here. Simple and clean yet, traditional all the while maintaining the beauty of the Arabic alphabet.

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