The design brief for Skolar Sans Arabic sounded fairly straightforward. Extend an existing design, wherein a significant part of the conceptual work had been done. The whole family can be described as a system with ‘universal’ aspirations, made to look good on the web but ultimately serving a broad purpose. A sans-serif conceived for continuous reading, developed to cater for complex typography, as the name suggests. According to David Březina, who initiated the project, it was ‘nothing deep really’.
While one may differ about this assessment for the Skolar Sans family as released in 2014 – by most standards a typeface of exceptional complexity – translating its characteristics to an Arabic design proved to be challenging. Here, the notion of a sans-serif is everything but straightforward. In the Latin script, the sans-serif genre has been solidly established for more than a hundred years and had ample time for evolution, design movements, counter-movements and even plentiful revivals. In Arabic typography, however, sans-serifs are an utmost novelty, seriously pursued only since the last ten years. While the model of the Latin sans-serif towers above any Arabic attempts at the genre, and is bound to influence its inception, the definition of an Arabic sans-serif is a work in progress with open outcomes. Recently many Arabic typefaces conceived as companions or extensions to established Latin sans-serif designs have fallen into the so-called Kufi strand, defined by geometric, strongly modular, and often static type forms.
To me, however, it is all but certain that the Kufi approach is suitable for typefaces that are used for continuous text, rather than headlines. A contemporary Arabic design might as well be based on a (typographic) Naskh structure, and for Skolar Sans with its explicit text orientation, it was my direction of choice. The fundamental nature of the decisions and design approaches that are only emerging for contemporary Arabic typeface design is also apparent in the terminology: in the absence of serifs a ‘sans’ companion makes little sense, and it is more useful to refer to such Arabic type as ‘low-contrast’ designs until a better term has been found.
It comes as no surprise then, that finding the right amount of typographic contrast was one of the first issues that I encountered in the development of Skolar Sans Arabic, and the answer didn’t provide itself immediately. Many of the most frequent and important Arabic letterforms – alif, lam, and bah, for example – could easily have a completely monolinear design because of their simple skeletons. Yet, some of the most frequent and character-defining Latin letters – think of n, e, and a – by their very nature require a significant amount of contrast. If the goal is to match the Arabic extension to the Latin model, should then the key letterforms be drawn with (unnecessarily) pronounced contrast? Or in other words, should contrast be consistent within a script or between multiple scripts? Or should individual type forms be allowed to diverge from general principles if it contributes to the overall appearance of words and sentences?
In the design of Skolar Sans Arabic I began with fairly geometric letterforms. Alif and lam, for example, were initially based on straight rectangles – following the simple stems of the Latin letters I and l – with minimal adjustments for the joining glyphs. My initial tests, however, weren’t convincing. The frequent pairing of alif and lam was too rigid in comparison to the joined horizontal letterforms, breaking the flow of the line.
Similarly, the design of the diacritical dots required extensive testing and frequent revisions. Since it was going to be a companion to a sans-serif, I wondered if the traditional rhombic dot would be suitable and assumed that a different configuration would work better. As the dots in Skolar Sans are round, I began with rounded, but slightly more squat dots for the Arabic too. This seemed to work reasonably well, but neither David nor I were fully convinced. Because of the high frequency of Arabic diacritics, the round design felt somewhat too jovial. Every possible variation was considered, half-rounded, at different angles, rectangular. Even if a drawing was successful as a single dot, its repetition in double and triple dots was usually not. Especially if the angle was half-way between the conventional rhombic dot and the square, the nesting of the three dot combinations did not work well. After weeks of testing and revising, I resorted to a much more classical configuration. Seeing the effect of something more akin to the rhombic dot across the typeface, it became clear that this was the way to go. Sometimes the simplest answer to a problem is correct after all.
Many more questions and design challenges such as these made this a particularly exciting and interesting project to work on. In this process David was an ideal partner, as his confidence in my work never descended into uncritical reliance, asking pertinent questions and raising relevant observations. In all the design decisions that were eventually taken, the ultimate goal was always to arrive at an authentic, original and functional interpretation of Skolar’s design for the Arabic script, extending the reach of its voice to many more countries and languages.