Wishing on a typeface

By Nadine Chahine

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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