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 focusing 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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