Love letters: the resurgence of typography

Typography reveals the character of language and cultures. As digital technology and globalisation encourage a homogeneity of type, passionate believers are researching and reviving the traditions of stylish placement and sculpting of words within our landscapes, writes Anealla Safdar

Reading this page won’t be your first engagement with typography today. From the moment you awake, the fruits of a typographer’s work are visible, even if you don’t consciously notice it. From the shapes and sizes of the numbers on an alarm clock, to the typographic logo on a toaster or kettle, the sign above a favourite bakery and the way a train ticket is designed, the artful arrangement of type or processing of data can be found everywhere. 

Amid a rush of nostalgia for a recent past and driven by the increasing possibilities for sharing images of our environment, typography is witnessing a revival as a subject and practice. The placement of letters and words on blank spaces is not only studied as a discipline at schools, colleges and universities, but is also captivating those who appreciate the artform from afar. Certainly, it is hard to discount our emotional connection to restaurant signs we knew and enjoyed as children, the ident logos that preceded a beloved, long-gone TV programme, or the typographic branding of that classic chocolate bar you can’t find at the supermarket anymore. Now such imagery offers personal, intimate and unique insights, as well as a respite from an overflow of corporate advertising.

“Before I even knew what typography and design were, I’d been interested in photography,” says Molly Woodward, founder of Vernacular Typography, a digital archive that documents and preserves vanishing examples of lettering. “My favourite photographers – Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbott – all photographed streetscapes, many of which incorporated lettering and signs. When I was 14, I went to Cuba for the first time and that’s where I started photographing signs myself. The billboards and signage in Cuba were on a completely different scale and contained a different message than anything I’d ever seen growing up in New York.”

In the years that followed she took more photos in the US and other countries she visited of signage and street scenes with the kind of storefronts that seemed to be rapidly disappearing from the urban landscape, taken over by homogenous chains and franchises. “At some point, without intending to, I realised I had amassed thousands of photos of lettering and typography and didn’t have anything to do with them, so I built a very simple website and posted them. The website was originally just a way for me to corral and organise the thousands of typography-related imagery I’d collected over the years.”

Bengali street signs
Bengali street signs on London’s Brick Lane reflect the south Asian community’s deep roots in the local area

The archive is now home to more than 10,000 images, with comple-mentary social media feeds. Woodward says she has thousands more pictures to share, from man-
holes and parking signs to the inscriptions on gravestones and giant, type-heavy advertising stretched across metal billboards. 

In the future, given time and funding, she aims to create an interactive map so visitors can click and view typographic details close to their homes, with the option of adding their own snapshots. People from all across the world regularly write to her, says Woodward, simply to talk about the kinds of lettering she is trying to safeguard, and to share their experiences. “Preserving everyday typography is essential to understanding our heritage, and helps orient us in the world,” she says.

In London’s East End, for instance, Bengali script adjacent to the Latin script on a Brick Lane street sign represents the south Asian community’s settlement. In New York, hand-painted Chinese characters marking a shop or restaurant signpost the history of an area. “Vernacular lettering and other forms of urban communication have a way of creating and preserving a sense of place and local culture,”says Woodward, “and when it disappears, our sense of place is diminished. If these symbols aren’t documented and preserved now, they’ll be irretrievably lost forever.”

Razan Basim, a young architect and designer who splits her time between Dubai and Amman, thinks that a city’s personality lies within its typography. “I believe that if you want to know about a city’s culture, take a tour in the streets and check the typography, see how people use typography to express their city,” she says.
“We are all affected by typography every day and it’s becoming one of the important things in our daily life: street signs, newspapers, TV, books, products, and mobile applications. It’s almost everywhere.”

It’s unclear whether new technologies will help or hinder typography. Will the uniformity of tools inhibit individualism? Has digital design eroded creativity? Does the proliferation of online publishing result in an oversupply of design, with limited quality?

“Digital design doesn’t necessarily remove creativity from the equation,” says Woodward, “but it can and should be used with greater consideration for the urban environment and context.”

It’s no longer about how to make non-Latin scripts to sit alongside Latin; we are really now making those scripts work. The beauty of the scripts has resurfaced again

Pascal Zoghbi, Type designer

The photo-sharing site Instagram provides a good gauge to measure current interest in typography. At the time of writing, there are 2.7 million posts adorned with the ‘#typography’ hashtag. Among the recent posts are handwritten quotes, ring-bound paper pads with phrases on the cover in various typefaces and a photograph of the Kunstgewerbemuseum Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin, which uses an industrial-style font on its entrance. 

“For me, vernacular typography and lettering are essential parts of everyday scenery,” says Lara Assouad, an Arabic type designer and graphic artist in Dubai. “It is what defines the character and charm of a city and is completely different from the very ‘manicured’ glossy signage in malls, which I find lacks soul and charm.”

Born in Montreal to Lebanese parents, Assouad is part of a move-ment hailing homegrown development, and she thinks there are opportunities ahead for future type communities, with some guidance. “We should do more to teach the new generations of graphic designers in this part of the world about Arabic calligraphy, lettering and typography,” she says. “This is the only way we can start to confidently design in Arabic and produce authentic and very contemporary work that represents us and represents the Arab world we live in – our reality seen through our eyes, not the eyes of the western world.”

Given the disparity between Latin and all other scripts in terms of their development, it is easy to see where such energy originates. The printing press, invented in the 15th century, aimed to make the production of Latin script easier, meaning the development of Arabic script and other eastern languages fell behind. And today, there are fewer than 1,000 digital Arabic fonts, compared with more than 80,000 fonts in the Latin script.

Promisingly, says Beirut-based type designer Pascal Zoghbi, technical advances are bringing about a change in this situation. “Technology has caught up,” he says. “Now we have advanced computers with new tools, applications and programmes – they allow us to approach all scripts. It’s no longer about how to make non-Latin scripts to sit alongside Latin; we are really now making those scripts work. The beauty of the scripts has resurfaced again.”

Yazan Halwani
Yazan Halwani’s mural to commemorate Lebanese singer Sabah on the occasion of her death in 2014

In 2006, Zoghbi founded 29Letters, a studio specialising in contemporary Arabic and multilingual typography. One particular recent movement, he says, is captivating both those familiar with lettering and new admirers. The current wave of ‘calligrafitti’ street artists in the region and diaspora is part of a wider embrace of calligraphy, a form of writing that was once confined to the status of being traditional and religious.

Inspired by calligraphy, calligraffiti artists use the graffiti medium in public spaces. Among them are France’s L’Atlas, the Beiruti mural artist Yazan Halwani, Egypt’s Ganzeer, Ashekman (Lebanese twins who are both artists and rappers), and el Seed, the French-Tunisian who helped pioneer the artform. “All of the artists in the Middle East should do more work on Arabic calligraffiti,” says Zoghbi. “When an Arab artist starts to be happier working with calligraphy, the typographer’s work will also be more distinguished.”

el Seed’s work was initially inspired by the 2011 Tunisian revolution, and one of his most famed projects saw him decorate the Jara Mosque in Gabes, a sacred religious landmark, during Ramadan. in 2012, to bring together Tunisia’s artistic and religious communities. In the years since, he has worked all over the world, and has even given a TED talk on calligraffiti, which he describes as “street art with a message of hope and peace”. Most recently, he painted a wall in London’s Shoreditch with an Arabic translation of verse from English philosopher John Locke: “It is one thing to show a man he is in error and another to put him in possession of the truth.”

In Lebanon’s capital city, aside from street art and some examples of lettering from the 1950s and 1960s, the artform seems to have disappeared. The further you travel from Beirut, however, more organic typography re-emerges. “In the Arab world, you see less and less street signage or lettering... They are now done in the modern typographic manner,” Zoghbi says. “It’s so clean, made of Plexiglass and backlit and with neon lights; we lost all of this lovely Arabic calligraphic aspect of it.

 “You see hand-drawn sign paintings or lettering when you go out to Tripoli or the Bekaa Valley,” he adds. “There, you’ll see less of the modern signage. It’s part of the socio-political and economic status of the cities – the more undeveloped it is, the more lovely Arabic lettering you will see.”