Arabic Fonts for the Masses

الخميس 17 أيار 2007

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Written by Ramsey Tesdell

Meet Ihsan Al Hammouri – a Jordanian artist who comes from a family of artists. Its no surprise then, he designed the first Arabic font based on Latin typeface.

Insan Ihsan Al Hammouri, a graphic design professor at Yarmouk University, has designed the first Arabic font based on the popular Latin typeface, Helvetica.

“I think Helvetica creates an international style that unites people from different cultures and regions,” Hammouri said.

The name of the font, Insan, which in Arabic means “human”, is just one of the many careful considerations that had gone into creating the first Latin-based Arabic font.

Designing a font that performs successfully in both Arabic and English requires attention to the smallest detail, such as the x-heights, baseline, and descenders. For the Arabic equivalent of Helvetica to succeed, the proportions of both fonts must match.letterkay

It’s hardly a surprise that Hammouri, who grew up in an artistic family, was the one to design this font.

“For my family, art is a lifestyle,” he said.

His father is a calligrapher, his mother an artisan and three of his four sisters studied art at the university level. As long as Hammouri can remember he has wanted to work with art.

After graduating from high school he spent four years working on artisan projects with his father, then after taking the tawjihi for a second time, he enrolled at Yarmouk University in Irbid to study graphic design. Graduating at the top of his class, he applied to be an assistant at the university’s design department.

While interviewing for the job, Hammouri’s talent was already turning heads. The president of the university asked to see his portfolio and surprised him with an offer that was too good to refuse: A full scholarship to a graduate school in exchange for six years of teaching at Yarmouk University.

At this point, Hammouri, who was born in Zarqa but moved to Irbid in 1990, realised that without an advanced degree, he wouldn’t get the respect he felt he deserved. “I felt I had something missing; Without a degree, I wasn’t as confident, so I decided to get one.”

He applied and was accepted at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and it was there that Hammouri’s interest in combining Latin-based fonts and Arabic developed.

He presented a two-week programme on the Arabic language at the San Francisco University High School and while he was discussing Arabic calligraphy and typography with the students, the idea of creating an Arabic font based on Helvetica began to form in his mind.

Volunteering and freelancing while in America, Hammouri worked as a graphic designer for Arab-American projects, including the first Arab cultural mural in the United States. The Arab-American community in San Francisco invited him to work on the mural after he presented a workshop on Arabic calligraphy at the community centre. He also designed henna and Arabic tattoos for two parlors.

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When the time came to start working on his final project, it was clear what it would be: Creating Insan. A year of research and designing led to the first modern style Arabic font using identical proportions as its Latin typeface equivalent.

For his Masters in Arts final project Hammouri had guidance from a leading expert on Arabic calligraphy, Huda Smitshuijzen Abi-Farès. He exchanged ideas via e-mail with Abi-Farés, chair of the Visual Communication Department at the American University in Dubai and author of Arabic typography: A comprehensive sourcebook.

But Hammouri, who is now starting his second year of teaching at Yarmouk University, has a bigger plan for the font. He envisions many changes to the Kingdom’s graphic design industry.

“For example, we have graphic design students in Irbid, but no graphic design companies,” Hammouri said.

“I still get the question, ‘What is graphic design?’ I want people to understand how to use Geneva, Helvetica, Optima. Graphic design in Jordan is growing, but it’s still very new.”

In 2005 he founded the Ihsan Type Foundry, where he hopes to continue designing and developing Arabic fonts. “I use Arabic typography because we don’t see our fonts with confidence,” said Hammouri, who feels that lack of confidence is a major obstacle in the Arab world.

He challenges the students in his classes by assigning each a font to study for the semester. When discussions arise about fonts in class, Hammouri knows this is exactly what the graphic design industry in Jordan needs.

“I want people to understand what graphic design is… They take a two-week course on Photoshop, but graphic design is more than just Photoshop.”

Ramsey G. Tesdell is an Arab-American working and living in Amman.