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Full of character

Saturday 25 February 2012, by Trish Lorenz

There is a revolution taking place in Arabic design and Mourad Boutros is at the heart of it. Vision catches up with this master calligrapher and typeface creator

Type is the silent workhorse of design. When it works well, you probably barely give it a second thought. But it does more than merely convey words, whatever language you are reading. The heights and thicknesses of the characters, the sweep of the curves, the spacing – all combine to create a mood and a manner that should complement the writer’s message. This is why getting type right is an art and in the Arab-speaking world, one of the masters of this art is Mourad Boutros.

Though he may not be a household name, his work is everywhere: if you’ve ever seen an international brand logo converted to Arabic, noticed bilingual Arabic/Latin signage or read an Arabic newspaper, then the chances are that you’ve seen his fonts. With over 40 years experience of harmonising Arabic script with Western design aesthetics, Boutros is one of the world’s foremost Arabic typographers. He’s also a respected authority on the history of the Arabic language.

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Boutros near his north London office

We meet in a café in London’s trendy Belsize Park neighbourhood, close to his office. Boutros is dapper, charming and outspoken. Get him talking about Arabic calligraphy and type, and his passion and enthusiasm for the subject shine through. He’s a fount of knowledge, from the historical roots of Arabic script to the modern design implications of its use.

Boutros is particularly excited about the steps forward that modern technology is enabling: “There is a revolution taking place in Arabic design. With the move from manual hot metal typesetting, hand¬written calligraphy and manual design to the latest in digital, computer technology, designers today can do amazing things. The sky is the limit.”

The possibilities in Arabic type are perhaps more varied than with its counterparts in Latin script. Arabic is a very rich language; it does not have to be read in a linear way. “It is a linked language and depending on the character and where it falls within the word, each Arabic character can have either two or four different forms,” explains Boutros. This means that logos, for example, can be designed in a myriad of shapes and still be perfectly legible to Arabic readers.

Boutros is a master at manipulating the characters, subtly altering their styling to meet his needs. He cites an example of his work – an advertising campaign for the National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia. The bank wanted to communicate its leadership credentials and the fact that it had been established for more than 40 years, but equally, it also wanted to illustrate that it was continually embracing new technology.

“We found that the best approach was to create a lion-shaped logo in Arabic calligraphy with a slogan that read ‘Rooted in the past, banking for the future’,” says Boutros. The styling is classical – it could easily be imagined on the walls of the Alhambra Palace – but the idea is modern to the core. “The logo positioned the bank in line with its objectives without losing its important Arabic cultural associations. The script that makes up the lion shape is highly legible to the Arabic reader.”

Boutros admires the calligraphic styles, but doesn’t feel wedded to them. “Calligraphy is a high art form in the Arab world and it developed from the need to communicate the scripts of the Holy Qur’an; it plays a very important role in the communication world of today,” he says. “I will always use Arabic calligraphy providing I feel it fits with my objectives for the project I am working on.”

In fact his design company Boutros International, that he set up in 1978 with his wife Arlette, has created more than 150 Arabic typefaces, some of which are available on PCs and printers as core fonts. Run out a document in Arabic using any IBM printer and you’re using a font designed by Boutros.
The company has its headquarters in London but also runs offices in Dubai and Lebanon. Among its first clients was British creative materials company Letraset, with which Mourad and Arlette collaborated to create Boutros Advertisers Naskh, one of the first fonts designed to work in harmony with Latin typefaces (see below). The move was revolutionary due to the intrinsic stylistic differences between the two scripts.

“Any Latin typeface, be it classical or modern, will be discordant when used with an Arabic typeface simply because they were not designed to work together. Some Arabic and Latin fonts are more compatible than others, but none of them pass the test of the visual relation¬ship between the heights of the letters, the weights of the strokes of the letters or the overall calligraphic appeal. There are no common factors because the Arabic and Latin alphabets have been developed totally independently,” says Boutros.

Mercedes-Benz is among the blue-chip companies that have commissioned Boutros to design a corporate font. For Al Arabiya news channel, the group designed a modern-looking screen identity; the BBC in contrast wanted a more traditional style, one that matched Gill Sans, its Latin typeface, but the company learned that the task was far from straightforward.

“I had to explain that you can’t just go from one geometric design to another,” says Boutros. “To begin with, technological limitations meant that Arabic was restricted to 256 characters or glyphs, but with today’s technology you can have up to 64,000 characters to choose from. You also need to consider more than just how the type looks: it’s about language, identity and culture.”

The BBC wasn’t alone in dealing with this issue (see box on typography challenges for more). Many Western companies found their logos and corporate typefaces were entirely unsuited to an Arabic-reading audience, so Boutros began creating fonts that enabled Arabic to be set in harmony with a Latin type. Foremost among these is Tanseek, a typeface that encompasses both Latin and Arabic elements.

Given this breadth of work, it’s interesting to note that Boutros came accidentally to a career in design. Born in Lebanon, he worked first as a mechanic, but an accident and injury to his hand changed his direction and he did a commercial art course, graduating in 1967. He then spent two months learning calligraphy in a traditional studio in Beirut and in 1968 began working at advertising agencies. In 1974, at the age of 23, he was awarded a national first prize for best advertisement in the French language daily L’Orient Le Jour’s competition. He then opened a studio in Badaro with a partner, which he ran for two years.

In many ways it was a challenging time. “For me, being at the heart of the revolution in Arabic design and type technology has been extremely exciting, but that doesn’t mean that it has always been easy. The Middle East now has many educational institutions specialising in Arabic creativity and typography. But it wasn’t like that in my day. I always say I graduated from the Al Hayat University (the university of life),” he says.

In the mid-70s, the outbreak of the Lebanese war drove him to England where he opened his studio, combining his knowledge of traditional calligraphic techniques with new technology.

Now semi-retired, Boutros believes companies today are less inclined to commission typographers and says copyright piracy remains an ongoing problem.

“Boutros Advertisers Naskh is the most pirated typeface in the world. Only 30 per cent of those people who use it, have paid to use it,” says Boutros. “People need to know that when they are downloading free fonts online, most of those offers are not legal. Individuals would not be happy to go to an office and work without pay. Creative people are not happy when they see individuals and businesses using the fruits of their labour, their creativity, without any compensation.”

Despite this niggle, Boutros is at heart an optimist. It’s clear he loves what he does and that he believes that Arabic design will go from strength to strength.

“Successful Arabic design requires an appreciation of history together with an eye for a contemporary aesthetic and an understanding of technology. By combining the past and present, written Arabic can maintain its illustrious history and move into the future with innovative and effective graphic design and typography that both informs and inspires,” he says.

On a signpost near you

Designed in 1977 by Mourad and Arlette Boutros in collaboration with Letraset, Boutros Advertisers Naskh was created to work in harmony with Helvetica, one of the most popular Latin typefaces.

Since then it has become the typeface of choice for bilingual signage throughout the Arabic speaking world; in part because of its harmony with its English equivalent, but also because of its versatility and readability.

“We started by looking at the type that people read most, which is the traditional Naskhi style of the Holy Qur’an,” explains Boutros. “The design is based on this; we kept the style and flavour, but added some elements such as linked straight lines so that we can match the Latin more effectively.”

Boutros Advertisers Naskh is used in hospitals, on motorway signs and in commercial spaces throughout the Arabic-speaking world including Dubai International Airport and Riyadh International Airport among others.

Cultural challenges

Developing campaigns and communication materials for the Middle East is not a simple matter of translation, says Boutros. Quite apart from the risk of offending cultural and religious sensibilities, transposing creative concepts poses real challenges.

For example, one company set its double page advertisement with perfectly accurate Arabic type but failed to change the creative concept. The original English advertisement was designed to be read from left to right: illustrating on the first page a humble poor village, on the second a high-tech, wealthy one. The company’s products, it proposed, would take you from one to the other. It’s a pity that the creative consultants did not take into account the fact that Arabic is read from right to left – and that the Arabic advertisement instead conveyed that the company’s products would transport you from wealth to poverty.

Typography: not just for geeks

When Helvetica – the most widely used sans serif type on the planet – turned 50 in 2007, there were parties, exhibitions and events dedicated to its half century. It became official: typography had cachet and cool. And now a bricks and mortar shop dedicated to type has opened in trend-setting Copenhagen.

Called Playtype, the store has a super stylish monochrome interior and is a
monument to typography. Pay a visit and choose from a host of special digital typefaces loaded on USBs or pick up a typographic gift for a design-conscious friend – posters, t-shirts, mugs, tote bags and very cool notebooks are all available.

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