Full of character

There is a revolution taking place in Arabic design and Mourad Boutros is at the heart of it. Vision.ae 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.

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. 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 relationship between the heights of the letters, the weights of the strokes of the letters or the overall calligraphic appeal,” says Boutros.

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.

Now semi-retired, it’s clear Boutros 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.

Mourad Boutros is the author of a number of books on typography. The second edition of his Arabic for Designers is available from April 2012. www.boutrosfonts.com