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Arabic Type Designer Nadine Chahine

By Charles Purdy

Around the world, readers of Arabic are immersed in the work of prolific type designer Dr. Nadine Chahine. Currently the Arabic type specialist for Monotype, Chahine counts Frutiger Arabic, Neue Helvetica Arabic, Univers Next Arabic, Palatino Arabic, Koufiya, Janna, Badiya, and BigVesta Arabic among her designs—along with the new Zapfino Arabic.

Nadine Chahine grew up in Lebanon, and she says her foremost source of inspiration is still the streets of Beirut. During the 1990s, she studied graphic design at the American University of Beirut, and this is where her passion for type was born—in part due to frustration at the lack of well-designed Arabic typefaces. 

Arabic has a rich heritage of beautiful calligraphy, but when Chahine was beginning her design studies, this artistic tradition hadn’t been carried into the modern era. She remembers, “If you wanted to design a poster for a party, there was nothing informal. If you wanted to make a corporate identity for a bank, there was nothing that looked professional and contemporary. We had only traditional, badly drawn fonts…. It’s almost like you’re not allowed to become modern—because if you’re not allowed to express it visually, how can you be it?”

Chahine went on to earn her MA in typeface design from the University of Reading, in the U.K., which she says opened the doors to her design career. One focus of her studies at Reading was creating harmonious relationships between Arabic and Latin typefaces—her typeface Koufiya was the first to include simultaneously designed Latin and Arabic parts. In 2005, she joined Linotype (which later become Monotype) in Germany, where she has been ever since. 

specimens of typefaces by Arabic typeface designer Nadine Chahine
notes on an early version of Zapfino Arabic, a typeface by Nadine Chahine
eye fixation patterns on Arabic type

From left to right: specimens of some of Chahine’s typefaces; Hermann Zapf’s notes on Chahine’s typeface Zapfino Arabic; a graphic showing how the eye moves across a line of Arabic type.

THE ILLUSION OF AN UNBROKEN LINE

Designing an Arabic typeface is in many ways similar to designing a typeface for any alphabet—attention to curve, weight, and texture is important, as is legibility and communicating a distinct and consistent personality. But a major difference of Arabic is that it requires the appearance of a continuous line, especially in highly calligraphic typefaces. “Even though we draw it as separate shapes, we need to maintain that illusion,” says Chahine. 

In this video, Chahine talks about her inspirations, as well as the art and science of typeface design.

A typeface can go through scores of iterations before it’s final—Chahine estimates that she has about 200 not-quite-right-yet versions of Zapfino Arabic, which she designed in collaboration with the legendary Hermann Zapf (who recently died at the age of 96). Her process involves a lot of drawing. “When you’re creating the first version of the typeface, you sit, you draw—and it can be a little bit exhausting because you go through everything without the luxury of stopping to see if it’s working in text or not.”

When it’s time to test, Chahine uses Adobe InDesign to output her test documents. “The first time you put the font in the test paragraph, it looks terrible. And then you say, ‘OK, I need to fix this, and I need to fix that’—and you go back and you fix it. And you do another test, and then you repeat. Sometimes you do this a hundred times, no joke.”

Arabic typefaces designed by Nadine Chahine, including Helvetica Arabic
Arabic typefaces designed by Nadine Chahine
Arabic typefaces by Nadine Chahine

More specimens of Chahine’s typefaces—including Neue Helvetica Arabic and Frutiger Arabic. Click on the magnifying glass to enlarge an image.

And developing harmonious typefaces in two very different alphabets presents unique challenges. “Latin usually is very vertical, and Arabic is very horizontal,” explains Chahine. “So to get them to talk to each other, we introduce a little bit of the opposite—but in a way where you’re not defying convention. The Latin has to stay Latin; the Arabic has to stay Arabic. And it’s this understanding that it’s okay to be different that sort of unlocks things—you don’t have to mimic, but you see if they can live together. And this is bigger than design, for me. This is politics, at the end of the day. Most of the Arabic typefaces that I’ve designed, they’ve been companions to existing Latin typefaces, and maintaining the equality between the two is very important to me.”

Thankfully, new technology has brought some parity to typeface design across major alphabets. “Some of the latest tools that we work with are meant for every script,” says Chahine, “not just Latin or Arabic or Thai or whatever else. And this is really liberating—equality for everyone, which is good.”

A NEW FOCUS ON LEGIBILITY

On a personal level, Chahine says that now, having explored and created many typefaces, she feels “more relaxed.” At the beginning of her career, she had so many things to say and so many forms she wanted to draw—she says she couldn’t rest until she’d drawn them. She was driven to create a modern voice for Arabic: “We can be contemporary,” she says. “We don’t have to live in a tent and ride camels, because that’s not who we are anymore, and we need to be able to communicate that. We needed to be able to communicate more-refined views of the Arabic-speaking world than available typefaces allowed us to in the 1990s. Now it’s easier…. It’s a very exciting time to be an Arabic type designer.”

Nowadays, she’s also driven by a newer passion. Chahine currently spends only about half her time designing typefaces for Monotype’s library and customers—the other half is devoted to a new area of scientific research. 

In 2012, Chahine earned her PhD from Leiden University, in the Netherlands. Her PhD research aligned with work she has been conducting since 2012 with MIT AgeLab: an attempt to understand and quantify legibility (in numerous alphabets), with a focus on automotive interfaces.

With her colleagues at MIT, Chahine is investigating the effects of typeface, type size, background color, and other factors on driver distraction. 

Afandem and Univers Next Arabic, two typefaces designed by Nadine Chahine

“Keep in mind that the application of text today is not as straightforward as sitting down to read a book,” she says. Modern people are reading as they move—looking at dashboard information while driving, looking at their smartphones while walking (even while crossing busy streets), and so on.

Modern readers are bombarded with text that is competing for our attention, so we often read in brief glances. Interface designers are conscious of the need to communicate quickly, and Chahine believes that one role of design is to bring order and clarity to this daily deluge of letterforms. But she also believes that important design decisions (like the design of automobile interfaces—which can truly be matters of life or death) can’t be based purely on a designer’s intuition. Here, she wants science to give design some direction.

Chahine embarked on her career in typeface design in order to answer questions about the place of Arabic text in modern contexts. Now, with her legibility studies, she has discovered a whole new world of questions she wants to answer—and those answers will shape how we interact with the small-screen text we all glance at hundreds of times each day.

You can learn more about Chahine’s legibility studies by watching this recording of her fascinating TYPO San Francisco presentation, “At a Glance.”

An image showing both Zapfino and Zapfino Arabic, which Nadine designed in collaboration with Hermann Zapf