Student Work by Maha Akl Hudhud

Where to Start Learning Arabic Typeface Design?

An interview with Kristyan Sarkis and Lara Captan

When you want to be an Arabic type designer, the most exciting but frightening hurdle is that there are no foundations in Arabic type. Which letters to begin with? What rules or guidelines does one adopt to design? Are there guidelines? This week, TypeThursday spoke with the founders of the Arabic Typeface Design — Beirut Program learn more their program.


Kara in discussion with Michelle about her lettering project at GoogleNYC

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TypeThursday: Kris and Lara, thank you for being here for TypeThursday.

Lara and Kristyan. Photo taken by Luke Garcia

Kristyan Sarkis: Thank you for having us.

Lara Captan: Hello! It’s good to be here!

TT: To start, can you share a bit about yourselves? How did you two meet?

Kristyan Sarkis: I was giving a talk in the American University of Beirut in the winter of 2012. Lara came to speak to me after the talk. We had coffee the next day and an ongoing exciting conversation started that lead to many projects.

Lara Captan: We are both Arabic type designers living and working independently in Amsterdam [well, Kris has a foundry with Peter Bilak called TPTQ Arabic]. And we often meet and have extensive chats about the state, history and our dreams for the future of Arabic type.

Kris is a graduate of the Type]Media program [class of 2009–2010] and currently teaches Arabic type there.

I studied at the American University of Beirut, Department of Architecture & Design where the Arabic Type Design — Beirut program now takes place. And then got a masters at EINA in Barcelona [2011] and did the type@cooper condensed program in 2012.

TT: Lara, you shared chatting with Kristyan about the state, history and dreams of Arabic type. It sounds like there was a lot of agreement between you two on those topics. Is that fair to say?

Kristyan and Lara’s Approach to Arabic Typeface Design

LC: Yes of course there was and still is. We also have different approaches to type but they converge in our common philosophy that is: to learn and observe the inner qualities or characteristics of the script to inform type design and be inspired by the incredibly rich tradition of Arabic writing. Our aim is not to stay fixated in the past of course, rather to make conscious choices in terms of contrast, proportion, and many other unique aspects of Arabic to explore the very diverse unexplored possibilities Arabic has to offer.

TT: Kristyan shared before you two have worked together on projects. Could you share a project that took this approach of observing the inner quality of the script while working with the formal properties in unexplored ways?

The Arabic Type Design — Beirut Program

KS: The biggest fruit of our conversations and collaboration is the Arabic Type Design — Beirut program. The program started as a dream on an uneventful afternoon. We both agreed that there’s a serious lack in Arabic type education and in sharing the knowledge we have, we can create a certain community of individuals with a passion for Arabic type to carry informed experiments and explore the incredibly rich history of our script. It took us two years to make the program happen. In those years we got to understand and refine each other’s perspectives, where they converge and where they diverge and create a clear methodology for analyzing the script. This methodology is inspired by the TypeCooker (typecooker.com) method through which the script’s characteristics are broken down into parameters allowing us to explore very different recipes and their effect on the outcome.

TT: So you see the program as a kind of incubator for innovations in Arabic typeface design. It’ll achieve this by applying a structured methodology informed by TypeCooker. Is what a fair summary of your thoughts?

Student work by Hares Bassil Mahrous

The Program’s Process

LC: We do hope the program is a kind of incubator for innovations in Arabic type design, last year was a proof of the efficiency of the methodology.

And we would say inspired rather than informed by TypeCooker. Indeed, the structure is what matters. Perhaps a little bit of background is important to understand the importance of a methodological approach:

When you want to be an Arabic type designer, you are confronted with many challenges. The most exciting but frightening at the same time is that there are no foundations in Arabic type: Which letters to begin with? What rules or guidelines does one adopt to design? Are there guidelines? These are all questions that you ask before diving into the unknown waters of type.

We tried to give ourselves and the participants of the program some foundations that we all question and refine together.

TT: Thank you for that expansion. If I understand you correctly, the structured approach is methodological: where to start, how to proceed, how to assess the work of an Arabic typeface. Is that understanding correct?

KS: That’s precisely it!

TT. Great! Lara shared this is the second year of the program. What was learned from the first year and applied to this coming year?

Lessons Applied to The Second Year

KS: We learned that 22 people is a big class! That part was a bit tiring, but joking aside, we mostly learned that the interest in Arabic type comes at this stage from the East and the West with varying levels of knowledge into the script on one hand and various degrees of involvement in type design on the other. Though the program will keep the same main structure progressing from script to digital type experiments, we learned to deal better with the diversity of one class, meaning to reshuffle some timings. For example, instead of starting to learn the font editor at the 3rd week like last year, this year we will start with that in parallel with the first week dedicated to learning the script.

TT: That’s interesting. So you found knowledge of the script and the type design process have to go hand-in-hand. Is my understanding right?

LC: Not really, it’s the technical aspect we would like to bring in early on because it was a bit overwhelming for the people who had no experience with type to think of their type project, draw a few first letters and learn the software all at the same time.

TT: Would it be better to say technical knowledge of making fonts requires a bit more upfront work, if the participant doesn’t have a competence before taking the program? You’re adjusting the scheduling to accommodate for that observation.

KS: Ideally, yes. Also, since the main objective of the first week is analyzing and learning the script, getting to know the software with which the eventual typeface will be developed gives insights into the possibilities and limitations of the current technologies as well as ignites this shift from writing to mechanisation.

TT: What’s the one thing you’re most excited about with this upcoming year?

LC: We are really excited to do this all over again with new additions to the team such as an Iranian master calligrapher called Vahid M. Jazayeri and our guest speakers and critics and hopefully another passionate group of participants.

TT: Kristyan and Lara, thank you so much for being here for TypeThursday.

LC: Thank you so much for having us!

KS: Thank you indeed!


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