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The Type Design Jury President on pushing towards an expanding type design space

Award-winning type designer Dr. Nadine Chahine explores how to promote originality in type design

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

Dr. Nadine Chahine is an award-winning Lebanese type designer. She is the CEO at I Love Typography Ltd and the founder of ArabicType Ltd. Chahine’s work has been featured in the 5th edition of Megg's History of Graphic Design, and she was selected by Creative Review for its Creative Leaders 50 in 2017. The D&AD Jury President for Type Design has created typefaces including the best-selling Frutiger Arabic and Neue Helvetica Arabic. Here, Chahine tells us how changing the terms we use to describe typefaces can be the key to more originality in type design.

Words matter. The terms we use to describe our design space matter. For decades now, typefaces have typically been described using the Vox classification system. Developed by Maximilien Vox in 1954, it is a system that classifies typefaces in nine categories, each with specific characteristics. This promotes a view of type design as a process that is iterative and bound to a set of existing design characteristics that are features of these categories. This view is not wrong, but it does stifle originality. Fortunately, there have been many discussions around the limitations of categorising fonts by a dominant Latin-based system in a global landscape — and the system was recently even de-adopted by the typography non-profit ATypI, citing the way it disregards scripts like Hebrew and Arabic.

Many of the category names we use, such as old style and grotesque, have no intrinsic meaning to them, other than a historical reference to the time in which they were conceived. These terms often fail spectacularly when applied to scripts that are not based on the Latin tradition. A sans serif for example, is a category that is defined by the absence of a serif. When one takes the term sans serif and tries to apply it to world scripts, it doesn’t work. Thai, Arabic and Hebrew scripts, for example, do not have serifs. When I get requests for a sans serif Arabic for example, I have to say — there isn’t one, but there are other features we can consider. So how can one describe a typeface by the absence of something it doesn’t have in the first place? The category system is not fit for purpose. It works well as a mental shortcut to navigate the world of Latin typefaces, but one must be able to transcend its limitations and the artificial boundaries it creates.

“When one takes the term sans serif and tries to apply it to world scripts, it doesn’t work”

A cursory look at Latin typefaces today reveals overcrowded design spaces, particularly in the genres of geometric sans serifs and grotesques. As a result, typefaces are extremely similar these days, with just tiny details that set them apart. This erodes the value of type and type design, in my opinion. Are we designing, or are we just tweaking outlines? The situation is quite paradoxical, as we have an unmatched number of highly talented type designers that are practising today. There are many reasons for this abundance of iterative design. This is sometimes driven by customer requests — I have lost count of the times clients have asked for a unique Latin typeface but actually wanted the same thing everyone else is asking for — and the lack of an appetite for risk in branding design today. Often, though, this problem is on us as type designers.

The solution to an overcrowded design space is to either stop adding to it, or to expand it. It is difficult to see how the existing system of typeface categories can be successfully expanded as so many attempts to do so have failed. And they have failed because of one basic reason: typefaces were never meant to be put into pre-defined buckets. Typefaces are systems of variables that a designer controls in order to generate a desired effect. An approach to type design that is rooted in variation would lead to a wider and richer design space. This was the main reason why I developed CEDARS+.

“Typefaces were never meant to be put into pre-defined buckets”

CEDARS+ is a system of type descriptors that are based on the formal qualities of the typeface. The name is an acronym for contrast, energy, details, axis, rhythm, and structure. These are the variables that give shape to letters and govern the logic of their formation. And it is that logic that will expand our design thinking. It enables us to describe typefaces based on their formal qualities and puts a strong focus on the nature of the motion of the tool that created the letterforms, even when the typeface is not a pen-based design. It adopts a view of type design that is influenced by the movement of a tool that traces a certain structure, at a certain speed and angle. This view has helped me create Arabic companions to Latin typefaces throughout my career, guiding both my teaching and design practice.

Once we adopt a view of design that is based on variability, we start to move beyond pre-set characteristics and our design space will naturally grow. Once we describe typefaces as a series of design variables, we just might start to move beyond existing typefaces, and to continue the proud tradition of adding new design landmarks the same way Garamond, Johnston, and Frutiger did.

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