FontCast #17 — Amman: The City, The Typeface, The Film
At the end of 2008 the young type designer and multimedia artist Yanone visited Amman, the capital of Jordan, to develop a multiscript Latin-Arabic type family. His collaboration with the local design agency Syntax took place at the occasion of the preparations for centenary celebrations of the metropolis. In merely a few weeks Yanone succeeded in enhancing the type family with innovations previously unheard of in digital Arabic type design. Today his extended family has become the “corporate typeface” for Amman.
Ahmad Humeid, founder and managing director of Syntax, and Yanone first met in 2004 at the Bauhaus-University in Weimar. Humeid gave a presentation and organised a workshop on design that straddles cultures. Shortly thereafter he invited Yanone as the third of ten students for an internship at his agency in Amman. Four years later, as Yanone’s studies of Visual Communications were nearing their end, both designers decided to create a bespoke type family for Amman. Syntax had just won the assignment to redesign the graphic identity of the Greater Amman Municipality. The newly elected mayor of Amman, Omar Ma’ani, wished to use the forthcoming centenary to introduce a new image for the city.
Ahmad Humeid remembers:
As far as I know there have not been any attempts yet to create an exclusive type family for the Arab capital. The concept of branding a city is pretty novel in these latitudes; merely a handful of projects have originated, primarily in the Gulf region. To be able to develop a type family for a capital like Amman was like a dream come true. But at the prospect of the centenary celebrations the stars seemed perfectly aligned for a project like this.
We knew Yanone as a talented and motivated trainee through the exchange program with German Bauhaus students. In addition we had Hussein Alazaat on board, an in-house designer who has a great passion for traditional Arab calligraphy. And last but certainly not least, we met an open-minded and forward-looking team from the client, the Greater Amman Municipality, led by a mayor who valued design and was very aware of its strategic importance.
On top of that the project provided Yanone with the perfect subject for his thesis at the Bauhaus-University. Yanone summarises: “I wanted to leap into the great unknown that is contemporary Arabic type design.” Although the Western world is quite familiar with the different aspects of extensive, classification-crossing type systems, they had not yet been introduced in the Arabic world. The most obvious was the integration of two type styles in one single family – a humanist sans with with even stroke width and a modern appearance, and a serif face with a rather traditional appearance.
Possibly the most important innovation is the integration of a genuine Arab italic.
Italics have been in use in Western typography since their introduction in 1501 by the Italian writing master Aldus Manutius. Today they are mostly used as a decorative element, to stress or emphasise words, as well as to indicate titles and foreign words. Latin italics are narrower than their roman counterparts and lean to the right. Their shapes originated from cursive hand writing: individual letters are drawn in one uninterrupted stroke, without lifting the pen/quill from the paper (see illustration above).
Because currently text setting in the Middle East is predominantly bilingual, mostly English and Arabic, the Arabic counterpart of an English text requires the option for setting italics. The manufacturers of digital Arabic typefaces meet these demands by providing with slanted variants of the upright designs. This can be compared to what happened in the 1980s in the Western world. Under pressure from the competition many manufacturers of typesetting equipment digitised their metal and photo composition heritage in a hurry. This led them to neglect the italics, instead simply using the computer and mechanically slant the roman to obtain an oblique.
Yanone translated this long tradition of true italics into Arabic. He drew a digital variant of the common Arab handwriting style Ruq’aa, which should from now on accompany the upright printing type style Naskh. Ruq’aa is a simple italic style from the 9th century. It has round, fluid curves, and narrow words containing many ligatures. It is the most frequently used style in everyday handwriting. Naskh is a quickly written, round style, exceptionally readable, with short horizontals, and ascenders and descenders of even lengths. It is currently the most frequently used type style for printing books and publications, for which also the majority of metal and digital typefaces were produced.
The construction of the Amman alphabet channels the “angular”, unconventional way of life in a young, nimble capital. Individual letter forms were designed as angular as possible without compromising the legibility of the text. The line quality reflects the predominant architecture of the city – squarish houses nested on the seven hills and their valleys.
Yanone chose a single storey “a” and “g” as base forms for the Latin half of the Amman extended family, which are rarely found in serif text faces. These specific shapes are meant to emphasize the connection with the typical local architecture. Hussein Alazaat, calligrapher and designer at Syntax, elaborates:
When you are thinking in Arabic, your thoughts must travel from right to left. In addition you must take into account the long horizontals. The Latin alphabet on the other hand displays a distinctly vertical orientation. The challenge inherent in this project consisted of harmonising both type styles without compromising on the tradition of both alphabets. From the onset the Amman family was developed bilingually for an Arabic capital – a unique project. As far as I know it is the most extensive Latin/Arabic type system ever produced.
Ahmad Humeid is proud of the final result:
The Amman extended family is versatile and universally applicable. City communication – particularly for a booming metropolis like Amman whose identity is in constant flux – must generally have a traditional and conventional feel on the one hand; yet at some occasions needs to be able to look young and dynamic on the other hand. To be able to work with both a serif and a sans version is extremely useful in this regard. “Modern” typography usually applies typefaces with even stroke widths, which look very geometric and possibly a little rigid to Arabic eyes. The “traditional” variant definitely looks more calligraphic, with a more pronounced contrast and softer features. The Amman family sufficiently differs from the mainstream, which may occasionally cause an eyebrow to be raised. Nevertheless it is close enough to the tradition of Arabic writing to be accepted by the large majority of potential users.
Upon completion of the Amman extended family FSI – FontShop International offered the designer to include it in the FontFont library, making it available to the public at large. It was to become the second Arabic type family in the famed type foundry’s catalogue, after Lebanese type designer Pascal Zoghbi’s Arabic extension of Martin Majoor‘s sans/serif type system FF Seria which was released in 2009. His type family originated in the context of the Typographic Matchmaking project, organised by the Khatt Foundation to promote and move forward Arabic typography. Its goal was to develop ten Arabic counterparts to well-known Latin font families. FF Amman was released in June 2010.
The best document on the typeface, the city, and its design is a wonderful 58 page brochure, compiled and designed by Yanone himself. It can be downloaded as a PDF document, but also viewed full screen in the embedded presentation window below.
Amman: The Film
In the past weeks Yanone captured his typeface in an audiovisual document. He produced a documentary film in the Jordan capital with all the people involved in the type project.
Actually there are two films. The 20-minute main feature titled New (type) face for Amman introduces both the type family and daily life for the Jordanian designers. The designers Ahmad Humeid, Ahmad Sabbagh, Roba Al-Assi, Zeina Darwatsah, Ibrahim Owais (and Yanone) share their thoughts on the graphic identity of their home town, and the role of its new “corporate typeface”. In between they show the viewer places of interest and striking views. Subsequently Ivo Gabrowitsch and Andreas Frohloff share their enthusiasm for FF Amman.
The short Part II of the Amman film project consists of an energetic high-speed trip with a hand camera through the main road of the Jordan capital. With total disregard for his own life the producer squeezes himself between the stop and starting cars standing in front of traffic lights in Rainbow Street. The microphone captures fragments of music and conversation that escape through the open car windows and join the symphony of the metropolis. No one has ever promoted a typeface this way.
The dedicated website for the film offers further bonus material, including the entire interview with Ahmad Humeid, managing director of the Syntax design agency and initiator of the FF Amman typeface project.
Over the past decade, Syntax has evolved into one of the Middle-East’s largest independent branding and design focused companies, and one of the region’s leading independent brand, design and media consultancies. Today, Syntax is entrusted with the creation and re-invention of major corporate and institutional brands. Destination and city branding have also become one of Syntax’s strengths. In 2008, Syntax was commissioned with the creation of the first comprehensive citizen-focused branding program for Amman, Jordan’s capital city. Syntax’s team culture is driven by progressive strategists, designers, writers, media specialists, technologists and project managers. Ultimately Syntax aspires to be its clients’ innovation partner. Its unique blend of services and disciplines enables it to deliver “positive transformations”: distinctive brands, informative media, inspiring environments and engaging experiences.
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