I am not a visual artist by training; even the term “autodidact” would be a bit of a stretch when applied to me. I am, however, a product of the digital age, which means that I’ve been exposed to digital art alongside more concrete fine arts since childhood.
From Microsoft Paint to online art-sharing platforms (DeviantArt, Pinterest, and now Instagram, to a certain extent), to more intense conceptual digital art: a 21st-century child/adolescent’s experience with art can include any and all of these things.
While recently browsing the art books section of a New York bookstore, I came across a sleek blue volume with gold-enamel Arabic characters lighting up the spine. Sliding it off the shelf, I found that it was a long-form, image-heavy “user’s manual” for graphic design and typography in the Arabic script: Arabic for Designers by Mourad Boutros. Like any good coffee table book, the pages were wide-set and white, with photos or digital renderings of Arabic logos, signage, print media, and artistic text from around the arabophone world framed by descriptions of their various meanings and origins and aesthetic backgrounds. Leafing through the white-framed pages, I may as well have been in any typical contemporary gallery filled with works by the likes of Charles Hossein Zenderoudi or eL Seed.
But Arabic for Designers is far more than your typical coffee table book, just as eL Seed’s space-conscious, political work would have trouble fitting in any typical contemporary gallery. Boutros goes beyond a simple “how-to” approach to Arabic typesetting and font design, providing case studies—with plenty of visuals, both from existing campaigns and art, as well as of his own creation—of Arabic script in media . He gives a lot of “good examples” of how some companies from the Western (Latin-alphabet-using) market have “arabified” their marketing materials (and also gives some examples of the reciprocal process—logos for companies from the Arab world that latinized their text when expanding to Europe).
The sheer cleverness of some of the inter-alphabet conversions floored me. This logo for the software company Radius was perhaps my favorite; the designer had managed to find a semantic and morphological match between the Arabic and Latin transliterations of the same phonic word, and played off of it with color. The Arabic “ي” here, which serves to produce the “i” sound in the transliteration of “radius,” bears, in this graphic rendering, an inverted resemblance to the Latin “i.”
There is even a vague morphological similarity between the Latin “d” and the Arabic “و”, which, even though their sounds have nothing to do with one another, creates a visual parallel that makes the new Arabic logo seem coherent with the Latin original. The use of a rotated Latin “u”-like character as the serifed Arabic “د” has the same effect; without tampering with the fact that the phonemes in the Arabic text run in the opposite direction of the English ones, the designer found a way to highlight otherwise arbitrary morphological similarities between the two.
There are few domains where the link between digital art and language is as inherent as that of graphic design, a practice that is essential to the contemporary advertising, education, and communications industries.
So if I, a complete amateur in the realms of type and graphic design, can be as impassioned about an ingenious logo design in a digitally-underrepresented language, couldn’t we justifiably conjecture that a real type designer must absolutely delight in it ? And why shouldn’t the language justice community seize on this combination of passion and professionalism, if it does or could exist, as a means of propelling forward new projects of script encoding and localization of existing textual resources, with an attention to visuals?
Script and language vitality on the Internet requires going a step beyond script/language presence and input/output capability on the Internet (See Kornai, 2013). It may seem trivial, but we could argue that having access to aesthetically pleasing, modern-looking digital materials in one’s own script/language increases that language’s prestige factor—and thus gives it a better shot at achieving solid online vitality (again, see Kornai’s work on digital language death). This might be achieved through localization of existing media and platforms with sleek interface designs – for example, facebook supporting X language by implementing X script, or etc.; however, this localization process, especially when it involves switching to a new script (which might, as in the case of switching from Latin to Arabic script, for example, imply differences in text alignment, ligatures, and other elements with aesthetic effects), requires more than just translation of the text on a page. It requires rethinking the design of the characters, how they interact with other elements on the page, and what aura or overall affect they emanate from a design perspective.
You might counter that there simply cannot be that many professional type designers, or even experienced amateurs, who would plausibly devote a significant amount of their time to projects of localization or type development for digitally underrepresented languages. This is where I’d like to bring in the incredibly active, and often highly amusing, online communities of type and graphic design devotees that I have encountered on some of my meanders through the time-warping black holes of Facebook, reddit, and Wikipedia, among other platforms.
With upwards of 50,000 members, the graphic design is my passion Facebook page isn’t necessarily just for people with a legitimate interest in graphic design; it is, at its core, a meme page (it even has significant overlap with the recent phenomenon of university meme groups). The content posted on it is intentionally sarcastic—page subscribers post images of what they find to be poor graphic design, and other users (usually in droves of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of likers and commenters) “roast” or mock the example. In the roasting process, however, the actual finesse of many of these users’ grasp and knowledge of graphic design concepts becomes clear; the critiques are sometimes quite nuanced.
I joined graphic design is my passion about a year ago, and have had as many laughs as I have had small epiphanies about some of the surprisingly engaging conversations that take place on the page. An active lurker on reddit, a platform that provides a more free-form and anonymous parallel to the Facebook Groups/Pages features, I found even more evidence of a thriving online community of graphic design nerds: in fact, on reddit, the special interest communities are even more specialized—there are over 80,000 subscribers to the “typography” subreddit, and nearly 20,000 on the related (and even more specific !) “identify this font” subreddit.
The Internet users spending hours creating content for, debating on, or even just passively scrolling through these sorts of niche-interest pages on type design already have a stake in typography diversification online. So the question becomes, how exactly might we channel that energy, excitement, and expertise into the development of solid, legitimate typography systems and options for underrepresented languages ? This question is a subsidiary of the greater mission for global language justice—a mission that seeks to provide equity and support to users of minority languages.
And indeed, this question may not have an easy answer—just as the initiative for global language justice does not have a simple solution. Putting talent to work for activism requires activation energy, and sometimes the incentives are blurry. But one thing is for sure: typography is everywhere, and it impacts our daily lives and self-identifications—even if it does so passively. Typography is the medium through which we absorb language, in newsprint and street signs and advertisements. Reviving scripts and enhancing their reconnaissance in the digital sphere (as well as in “real life,” where printed material most often originates, these days, on a computer screen, too) is inherently intertwined with visual presentation and design. If graphic design is indeed so many reddit and Facebook users’ passion, it may also be part of the greater solution to activating communities in favor of global language justice.
By Madeleine Leddy, ICLS Undergraduate and graphic design aficionado.
- Boutros, Mourad. Arabic for Designers: An Inspirational Guide to Arabic Culture and Creativity. Thames & Hudson, 2017.
- Elimeliah, Craig A. “art Vs. design.” AIGA, The professional association for design, 13 January 2006, https://www.aiga.org/art-vs-design.
- Kornai, Andràs. “Digital Language Death.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 10, 2013.