The Dubai font

Nick Leech re­ports on a bold new ven­ture in bilin­gual de­sign that al­lowed a city to write its own script

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Nick Leech is a fea­ture writer at The Na­tional.

At the end of April, Dubai added yet an­other ac­qui­si­tion to its steadily grow­ing list of at­tributes. No longer just a city, an emi­rate, a tourist des­ti­na­tion or even home to the world’s tallest build­ing, the city now also has its own of­fi­cial type­face, the Dubai font.

The prod­uct of a two-year part­ner­ship be­tween the Dubai Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil, the com­puter gi­ant Mi­crosoft and Mono­type, the owner of some of the most pop­u­lar and in­flu­en­tial type­faces ever cre­ated, in­clud­ing Times New Ro­man, Arial and Gill Sans, the font was com­mis­sioned in 2015 by Sheikh Ham­dan bin Mo­hammed, Crown Prince of Dubai and chair­man of the Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil.

The ben­e­fits of the part­ner­ship that pro­duced the font be­came clear at its un­veil­ing at the Dubai Opera on April 30.

Not only is the font free to down­load from its own web­site – it has all the so­cial-media ac­cou­trements that any self-re­spect­ing dig­i­tal cam­paign could need, in­clud­ing its own hash­tag, #Ex­pressyou – but it will also be dis­trib­uted as a de­fault Ara­bic and Latin font through Mi­crosoft Of­fice 365.

At a stroke it was made avail­able to Of­fice 365’s 100 mil­lion reg­u­lar users in 180 coun­tries world­wide, and the am­bi­tion of the launch caught the imag­i­na­tion of the media; sud­denly the quo­tid­ian be­came the stuff of head­lines and the usu­ally ob­scure world of type de­sign be­came in­ter­na­tional news.

Such at­ten­tion to the is­sue of how and what we write and read may have set ty­pog­ra­pher’s pulses racing, but there was con­fu­sion among the media about just how big a deal the font was – a sit­u­a­tion ex­ac­er­bated by some of the state­ments that ac­com­pa­nied its re­lease.

“Self-ex­pres­sion is an art form. Through it you share who you are, what you think of and how you feel to the world. To do so you need a medium ca­pa­ble of cap­tur­ing the nu­ances of ev­ery­thing you have to say. The Dubai font does ex­actly that,” the font’s web­site claims. “It is a new global medium for self-ex­pres­sion. By cel­e­brat­ing the past and em­brac­ing the fu­ture, tran­scend­ing all bar­ri­ers, the Dubai font is the voice of our brave new world.” Here was yet an­other ex­am­ple, it seemed, of the city reach­ing for yet an­other first with typ­i­cal au­dac­ity. Could a font re­ally be that im­por­tant? In its race to pub­lish the story, The Guardian failed to get to the truth of the font’s finer print.

“This ar­ti­cle was amended on 1 May 2017,” the Lon­don news­pa­per ad­mit­ted. “An ear­lier ver­sion in­cluded an in­cor­rect claim that the font was the first to be de­vel­oped for a city and carry its name.”

If Dubai wasn’t the first city to have a font named af­ter it, what was go­ing on? Was this just a head­line-grab­bing mar­ket­ing push or a tilt at city-brand­ing de­signed to po­si­tion Dubai as a leader in the tech­nol­ogy sphere?

While the Dubai font rep­re­sents the first ty­po­graphic col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween a cor­po­ra­tion and a gov­ern­ment and is the first Mi­crosoft type­face to be cre­ated for, and named af­ter, a city, there is al­ready a long list of coun­tries and cities that have de­vel­oped their own be­spoke scripts. In 2014, Swe­den adopted Swe­den Sans for all of its gov­ern­ment, min­istry and cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, while in 2010, the Of­fice of the Brand of Abu Dhabi com­mis­sioned its own Latin and Ara­bic scripts, the Zayed the First font, which now ac­com­pany the emi­rate’s logo on newer Abu Dhabi-reg­is­tered ve­hi­cle li­cense plates as well as the brand­ing for the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Cul­ture Au­thor­ity.

Aes­thet­i­cally, how­ever, the ap­proach to font de­sign adopted by the cre­ators of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai type­face could not be more dif­fer­ent.

Whereas the Latin font de­vel­oped for Abu Dhabi at­tempts to echo the hor­i­zon­tal­ity and shal­low curves of tra­di­tional Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy, the Ara­bic and Latin scripts for the Dubai font, de­signed by Na­dine Chahine and her team at Mono­type, aim for par­ity in a sit­u­a­tion where there is, she in­sists, rather more than mere aes­thet­ics at stake.

“When I was study­ing graphic de­sign in the 1990s in Beirut, the num­ber of avail­able Ara­bic type­faces was very lim­ited and the qual­ity was very poor,” says Chahine, Mono­type’s United King­dom type di­rec­tor and leg­i­bil­ity ex­pert.

“Lebanon is like the UAE. There are lots of bilin­gual pub­li­ca­tions and projects, and ev­ery time we put the Ara­bic and the English to­gether, the English looked very nice and the Ara­bic looked poor and this is not OK,” she in­sists, link­ing ty­po­graphic har­mony with wider is­sues, not just of brand­ing and busi­ness, but of pol­i­tics and Arab iden­tity.

“That would be a re­flec­tion on who we are and that’s not where we want to be, [but] we need to be able to speak at the same level and to have har­mony and co­ex­is­tence at the same level. We are not less.”

To en­sure that no con­ces­sions were made in the de­sign of the font’s Ara­bic script, Chahine, who has de­signed Ara­bic ver­sions of well-known Latin scripts such as Neue Hel­vetica, Univers and Palatino, de­signed the Dubai font’s Ara­bic ver­sion first.

“Usu­ally the Latin is de­signed first, but that gives you less free­dom with what you can do with the Ara­bic, which then has to fol­low the Latin and so you in­herit de­sign de­ci­sions that you would not have wanted to face,” Chahine ex­plains, aim­ing in­stead for a sit­u­a­tion where both the Ara­bic and Latin type­faces achieve a har­mony with­out aes­thetic or cul­tural con­ces­sions.

“It’s a re­flec­tion of who we are, what we want to be and of Dubai. The for­eign­ers here don’t have to wear lo­cal dress and the lo­cals don’t have to wear western dress, they all are com­fort­able in their own iden­ti­ties and they co­ex­ist,” she says, re­flect­ing on the Dubai Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil’s orig­i­nal brief.

“But it was very im­por­tant that we re­spect the her­itage of each while meet­ing on mid­dle ground and re­spect­ing the tra­di­tions of where we come from.”

Other key fac­tors that de­ter­mined the font’s de­sign were that, as well as be­ing dis­trib­uted through Mi­crosoft Of­fice, it should be avail­able and leg­i­ble to any­one us­ing Mi­crosoft soft­ware – re­gard­less of the de­vice – and that it should also be ef­fec­tive re­gard­less of its con­text.

“Nor­mally when you have a brand who comes to you, they usu­ally have a spe­cific us­age in mind. They might want it for sig­nage or for tourist au­thor­ity work or for news­pa­per head­lines or TV and that guides your de­sign de­ci­sions,” ex­plains the de­signer, whose other fonts are al­ready in use by lo­cal clients such as Dubai Air­port, Emi­rates Na­tional Bank of Dubai and Emaar.

“But the fact that the Dubai font was go­ing to ship through Mi­crosoft Of­fice and be for use by ev­ery­one meant that the font needed to be ex­tremely ver­sa­tile to al­low dif­fer­ent kinds of us­ages and that made it an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult task,” she says.

Be­com­ing part of the Mi­crosoft suite also meant that the new font had to be read­ily dis­tin­guish­able from all the other stan­dard fonts cur­rently avail­able through Of­fice, both Latin and Ara­bic.

“Part of the brief, de­sign-wise, was that the type­face had to very leg­i­ble and easy to read and that’s why you see the sim­plic­ity of form in it, it’s not too com­pli­cated. But it also needed to carry the voice and the vi­sion of Dubai.”

Within days of its launch, Dubai Courts an­nounced that it had adopted the type­face for all of its of­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as did the Dubai-based con­fer­ence and events com­pany In­dex Hold­ing, be­com­ing the first Emi­rati pri­vate com­pany to use the font for its elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the process.

To un­der­stand the font’s ori­gins, it is nec­es­sary to look back to 2015, the UAE’s Year of In­no­va­tion, ex­plains en­gi­neer Ah­mad Al Mahri, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary gen­eral for the Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil and gen­eral sec­re­tar­iat af­fairs sec­tor of Dubai. “We were asked by His High­ness Sheikh Ham­dan to come up with ideas that would help to po­si­tion Dubai at the fore­front of in­no­va­tion, and a font also fit­ted well with the UAE’s aim of pro­mot­ing Ara­bic and lit­er­acy, which were pro­moted dur­ing the UAE’s Year of Reading in 2016.”

Viewed from this per­spec­tive, the Dubai font can be un­der­stood not just as a clever pub­lic­ity stunt or a so­phis­ti­cated piece of place-brand­ing but as part of an on­go­ing and far wider set of ini­tia­tives that be­gan in earnest with the launch of the UAE’s Na­tional Strat­egy for In­no­va­tion, and also in­clude the so­cial media cam­paign #MyDubai, both of which were launched in 2014.

De­signed to help broaden pub­lic per­cep­tions of the city while keep­ing it firmly in the spot­light, such ini­tia­tives, which also in­clude the forth­com­ing Dubai In­sti­tute of De­sign and In­no­va­tion, a joint ven­ture with the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and New York’s Par­sons School of De­sign, are a part of the emi­rate’s strate­gic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion ef­fort, not just beyond oil but beyond tourism and shop­ping as well.

Hav­ing said that, the Dubai font also rep­re­sents mar­ket­ing and brand-build­ing at its most so­phis­ti­cated.

“When I heard about it I im­me­di­ately wished I had thought of it,” ad­mits Mark Rollinson, chair­man of the Abu Dhabi-based cre­ative con­sul­tancy All About Brands.

“The idea of de­sign­ing a font that has the po­ten­tial to be­come ubiq­ui­tous in the field of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and is also one of Mi­crosoft’s de­fault fonts is in­cred­i­bly smart be­cause it will con­stantly put Dubai at the front of peo­ple’s minds even if they only scroll past the font and never use it.” The agency be­hind Brand of Abu Dhabi and the re­vamped crests for Manch­ester City foot­ball club and the gov­ern­ment of Abu Dhabi, All About Brands has also de­vel­oped cor­po­rate iden­ti­ties for Abu Dhabi Air­ports, the UAE Space Agency, Mas­dar and Yas Ma­rina Cir­cuit.

“On the face of it, cre­at­ing a font seems like a fairly small ini­tia­tive, but when you start see­ing the num­bers – 100 mil­lion peo­ple in 180 coun­tries – it’s amaz­ing,” says Rollinson.

“Can you imag­ine what you’d have to pay for an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign with that reach? I think it’s a re­ally clever piece of mar­ket­ing, and what­ever they had to pay for it, I think they’ll find it’s value for money.”

To put mat­ters in per­spec­tive, this year’s Super Bowl at­tracted an au­di­ence of 113.7 mil­lion, while the Os­cars could muster only 32.9 mil­lion view­ers.

As well as its po­ten­tial ubiq­uity, how­ever, Rollinson also be­lieves that the ini­tia­tive has the mar­ket­ing legs to move beyond the world of com­put­ing and type.

“They can start call­ing for po­etry, writ­ing and even de­sign com­pe­ti­tions where the en­tries have to use the font and hash­tag,” the brand­ing ex­pert en­thuses. “The choices to ex­ploit the font when more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple have got it just go on and on.”

Chahine is more cir­cum­spect and re­fuses to be drawn into a dis­cus­sion on the likely fate of her new font.

“When we de­signed the type­face it was with the in­ten­tion that it would have many us­ages, but only time will tell whether it has a res­o­nance with peo­ple and whether they will want to use it,” the de­signer in­sists.

One of the fac­tors that might de­ter­mine how the font is em­braced and adopted is the fine print of the terms and con­di­tions that ac­com­pany its use.

These in­sist that the Dubai font can­not be used “in any man­ner that goes against the pub­lic morals of the United Arab Emi­rates or which is of­fen­sive or an af­front to the lo­cal cul­ture and/ or val­ues of the United Arab Emi­rates” and that users of the font also agree to “ir­re­vo­ca­bly sub­mit to the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Courts of the Emi­rate of Dubai”. Whether these clauses are enough to pre­vent the font’s po­ten­tial mis­use is un­cer­tain as the his­tory of print­ing and ty­pog­ra­phy is full of ex­am­ples of tools and tech­nol­ogy that have had con­se­quences their in­ven­tors could never have imag­ined.

His­to­ri­ans have cred­ited the in­ven­tion of the print­ing press and mov­able type with ev­ery­thing from the pro­lif­er­a­tion of books, lit­er­acy and lenses in Re­nais­sance Europe to the cre­ation of an environment where cities, economies and in­tel­lec­tual rev­o­lu­tions could thrive. But when it comes to the Dubai, one thing is cer­tain. The new type­face is a free font whose po­ten­tial is dif­fi­cult to put a price on.

AFP; cour­tesy Mono­type

Top, the Dubai font’s launch at the Dubai Opera on April 30. Mono­type’s UK type di­rec­tor and leg­i­bil­ity ex­pert Na­dine Chahine, top right, de­signed the Ara­bic and Latin scripts si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

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