Type design is not calligraphy, but for certain styles of the Arabic script, the ties to calligraphy are a foundational starting point even when the destination is nowhere near the calligraphic origin. This is due to several basic design principles that tie one to the other. This article will focus on three of these basic principles as applied to the Naskh style, featuring the work of five prominent type designers practicing today as an illustration of how such principles are applied.
The undulating ribbon
The iron clad link between Arabic writing, calligraphy and type design is that Arabic typefaces must never break the illusion of continuous movement. The Arabic script is a partially connected one, and for those letters that do connect to what comes before or after, the illusion of a continuous baseline stroke is necessary for smooth reading. Depending on the typeface style, that ribbon can be straight, wavy or even slanted down to the left. In type design software, we draw each letter separately; and for Arabic fonts, we test how these letters combine to ensure it looks like they were drawn together and flow naturally into one another. We draw letters, but we design words. Every possible combination needs to feel real. This is the one basic principle for all Arabic typefaces—at least, until a grunge trend sets in, and we start breaking that chain.
Lebanese designer Kristyan Sarkis expands on the links between writing and Arabic type design: “I’m a firm believer that type is rooted in writing, even [in] the most constructed of typefaces,” he says. “Whether in proportions or contrast, letters evolve in reference to their original form: the written form.”
The rhombic dot system and classical proportions
There are several genres in the world of Arabic type, and their names follow those of their calligraphic reference: for example, the Naskh, Kufi and Ruqaa typefaces take their principles from the Naskh, Kufi or Ruqaa calligraphic styles. Naskh typefaces are the de facto text styles of Arabic, and there are various iterations that come close or stray far from their calligraphic origins.
The rhombic dot system is a system of proportions based on the rhombic dot drawn by the same nib that the letters are written with. The dots serve as a measuring stick that typically defines the height of ascenders and the depth of descenders. They also govern the size of the counters and even the curvature of certain curves. However, since the dots are loosely placed around or within the letters, there is still a degree of variation in how these proportions are applied. In Naskh, this system governs the classical calligraphic proportions used to initiate calligraphers into the field. How useful are these proportions to type designers today?
Lebanese designer Lara Captan looks to classical proportions as a guide: “I refer to classical proportions as a guideline when creating a typeface based on a calligraphic style,” she explains. “I would, however, seek graphic information in the penmanship of Ottoman calligraphers for the Naskh script as opposed to the rhombic dot system; Naskh has steadily been perfected through time, and the rhombic dot system does not seem accurate enough to serve as a reference for proportions.
“Choosing a specific calligraphic model is essential because it allows me to change proportions relative to those of the source,” Captan continues. “Ultimately, I would like to preserve the script’s essence, dynamics and identity. I also find the classical model essential as a reference for decision making and self-criticism. Without the fundaments of classical proportions, I would not know where to start in choosing how letterforms and their counter shapes relate to one another.”
Egyptian designer Maha Akl follows a similar path; the dot system and classical proportions are a beginning but not an end target. They provide “a solid guide and starting point for any design I make,” as she says. “However, I do not like to restrict myself to them throughout the process and move on to explore what my design needs. [The final typeface] may follow the rhombic dot system or it may not.” Akl sometimes begins in one calligraphic style and ends in another, like in her debut typeface Hudhud. “[Hudhud] was initially based on the Maghribi style, but throughout the process, I leaned toward the Naskh structure for solving some of the letters,” she says. “I was looking for [a] maximum fluidity [that] Maghribi did not offer in some letters.”
Renowned Syrian calligrapher and type designer Mamoun Sakkal shares his work methods: “I constantly check the proportions of each letter’s parts and of letterforms to the other letters in a typeface,” he says. “Although I don’t use the dot itself, I use other methods to verify proportions of the letters in relation to any historical references if appropriate and for consistency within the typeface itself.” He also presents a word of caution as to the limits of this system: “[Calligrapher] Ibn Muqla’s dot system will produce the proper letter size based on the pen used to write it but will fail if we want the letter to be lighter or heavier since the dot measure will no longer produce the same letter size.”
Iranian designer Borna Izadpanah speaks to the foundational role of classical proportions in his work: “Depending on the genre or style of the typefaces, I may use the rhombic dot systems; however, this is mainly in the initial stages, and as the design develops, I give more focus to visual harmony and consistency,” he explains. “In different typefaces that I have designed, there are various degrees of regularization and simplification in comparison to the written forms, which are informed by the brief or often imposed by limitations of current text-shaping engines. In addition, the intended languages for which I design [typefaces] have their own requirements, which can impact the general approach and proportions. For instance, in a typeface intended to [primarily] represent the Arabic language, the belly of the letter group that shares the same rasm, the basic form, can be designed to only accommodate one dot, [i‘jām, the dot diacritic that distinguishes consonants], in the letter. However, variations of the same basic letterform are used in languages such as Persian, Sindhi and Urdu, which need to be designed to accommodate three or four dots.”
Sarkis explains that he analyzed classical styles in his early career to understand the shapes and mechanics of Arabic script, and that he uses this research to inform his decision-making when it comes to type design—but not inflexibly. “I would not say that I adhere in a strict manner to the classical proportions—most contemporary typefaces should not,” he says, “but knowing how the different parts of a letter and how letters relate to each other in terms of size helps me make more harmonious decisions when manipulating the whole set’s proportions—i.e., when making the heads of the letters larger or the bodies smaller.”
The rotating nib
Naskh calligraphy is written with a slanted nib cut at a 45-degree angle. When traced on paper, this results in strokes of non-uniform thickness. This modulation of thin and thick strokes is similar to what one sees in Latin calligraphy and many serif typefaces. However, in Arabic calligraphy, the calligrapher will rotate the nib while writing so the distribution of thin and thick strokes varies even within the same letter. This feature is almost always brought into Naskh typographic forms to preserve what feels natural to each letter.
The type designers I spoke with were unanimous in their agreement on how important this is. For Akl, “it is an essential part of the identity of the Arabic letters,” as she says, “especially if I am to make a calligraphic-based design.”
For Captan, her understanding of where to position contrasts across Arabic letters comes from paying attention to calligraphic norms. “When it comes to choosing where to place the thicks and thins and how they evolve between two points,” she says, “I need to understand how this was done in the sources and why I’m making these graphic choices to eventually have the freedom to play.”
Sarkis notes that he studies the angle of the calligraphic pen when looking at a script’s distinct contrast and stroke modulation. “Knowing how the pen functions and understanding how and where it creates the thicks and thins [help] me make more informed decisions whether I’m in a more ‘written’ context or a constructed one,” he says.
Sakkal elaborates on the necessity of studying the norms: “Pen rotation is used in Naskh calligraphy to reduce the width of excessively bold strokes—usually, [the] oblique strokes sloping from top left to bottom right. This is a necessary adjustment for optical and aesthetic reasons. Pen rotation may be more prominent in Nasta‘līq calligraphy, but in Naskh, another method to achieve the same goal is used more frequently: pen lift, where one side of the pen’s chiseled nib is lifted while writing. [This creates] a thinner line written by the portion remaining in contact with the paper. The result is a reduction of the stroke thickness from a quarter and up to half the width when the writing is very small: the smaller the writing, the more severe the optical adjustment.”
For Sakkal Kitab, Sakkal’s traditional Naskh font, he chose to include these optical and aesthetic adjustments in the final design. The font features “not only more familiar letterforms, but also a more balanced font color in longer text blocks,” as Sakkal says. “By reducing the heavy dark areas in oblique and intersecting strokes, words become more legible and reading [becomes] smoother and more effortless.”
For Borna, pen rotation is a feature to be deployed depending on the desired outcome: “It depends on the genre and the writing style, which I use as the model,” he says. “For example, in Nasta‘līq and the Persian flavor of the Naskh style, the nib must frequently rotate to form the characters. Therefore, when designing a typeface based on these styles, I follow the same conventions, including the angle of the nib. The nib rotation is less evident in low-contrast and hybrid-style typefaces, which follow a different rationale; in such cases, I try to imagine a writing tool which may or may not rotate to achieve consistency. These different approaches are particularly evident in two of my typefaces, Gulzar and Marlik. Gulzar is designed based on an Urdu flavor of the Nasta‘līq style and closely follows the conventional angle of the nib and rotation of the pen, while Marlik is a ‘simplified’ and hybrid-style typeface that follows an imaginary tool and loosely represents some of the characteristics of the Naskh style.”
Bringing all three concepts together
The links between all three principles is one: the pen that carved a path on paper. The angle in which the tip of that pen is cut, the path it traces, the angle with which it is held—these provide the clues as to why letterforms look the way they do. There is an organizational logic within every style, a system of proportions that ties letters to one another. It is a series of conversations happening between parts of letters that resemble one another but are not the same and the overall rhythm that brings them all together. This is true of almost every script and every style but explicitly so in the Naskh style in Arabic, even in the instances where typefaces stray far away from the calligraphic reference. In those cases, the relationships remain, and the conversations continue to flow, even when the actual form is changing. This is the fluidity that enchants type designers. It presents a world of possibilities waiting to materialize. ca