Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès

Kufin: visually interpreting the modularity of language

Interview with Lina Abdul Hadi, Senior Designer at Syntax. Part of the Multiple Baselines series.

Lina Abdul Hadi is a Jordan-based graphic designer and type enthusiast, passionate about the communicative value of graphic design and its ability to convey meaning across diverse cultures, ideologies and media. Throughout her career she has developed an interdisciplinary approach to graphic design, engaging in print and digital media, information architecture, applied to a diverse range of projects including branding, web and interactive design, wayfinding and system design, as well as layout and book design. A fascination with typography, calligraphy, and language, both Arabic and English, led her to London to undertake a degree in MA Contemporary Typographic Media at the London College of Communication in 2011, where she delved into the research of language and its visual manifestations.

LAH_Kufin_01 - The Kufin typeface set in a radial spiral pattern. Lina Abdul Hadi

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares: Can you introduce yourself briefly; what is your educational background, professional experience?
Lina Abdul Hadi: I graduated from AUB with a Bachelor of Graphic design in 2003. Straight out of college I joined the Jordan-based design firm SYNTAX and have been with them ever since. In 2011, however, I took a year off to pursue a masters degree in Contemporary Typographic Media (MACTM) at the London College of Communication.

HSA: When did you start being interested in Arabic type design? Was there any relation to the type of work you were doing in Amman, Jordan?
LAH: Bilingual type treatments are necessary in the Middle East. Although I have never had professional training in type design I often had to work on creating bilingual identities and layouts (mainly English and Arabic, occasionally with other languages). In the past we ran into difficulties due to the lack of variety in Arabic typefaces. Today the Arabic typographic scene has developed greatly, with many typefaces bearing bilingual versions. Still, there remains a gap within contemporary typographic endeavors to truly experiment and come up with new alternative solutions and typographic studies.  

HSA: Why did you decide to pursue your postgraduate studies in London? How did you choose the program and your thesis topic?
The program I chose at the London College of Communication was the first of its kind, in fact it was the first year that it was offered. It is an experimental program that focused on type as manifestation of language. The course investigated language and the written word within typographic frameworks. Although it does not delve into the technicalities of typeface design, MACTM prompted us to challenge conventions and preconceived notions of typography. 
My thesis topic stemmed from the frustration of an evident scarcity of experimentation in Arabic typography, and a desire to achieve a coherence within the Arabic and English language that would go beyond traditional equations of form and stroke. I researched origins and development of both languages. I looked at how Arabic and English, as well as other languages, deal with disparities between the phonetic and the written forms of language. This subject I found most interesting and a major differentiator between the Arabic and English languages.

HSA: Your Kufin (square kufi) typeface is a dual-script and bilingual font family. It is as far as I know a unique experiment, can you tell us more specifically about it.

1. What was the main idea behind this design?
LAH: The typeface was designed to be bilingual from the start, although I am still working on the Arabic version at the moment, as Arabic has infinitely more letter combinations and variables within letterforms. Square Kufi is an untapped lettering resource that remains relatively unexplored. The geometric forms of square Kufi, its strict grid and 1:1 ratio of black and white, reduces glyphs to their basic skeletal forms and allows for a closer relationship across languages in a way that is more intrinsic to the glyphs’ basic gestures. The name Kufin is an amalgamation of ‘Kufi’ and ‘Latin’ script, which is in essence exactly what the typeface is. 

2. What inspired you to work on this topic?
LAH: This project is inspired by the power of language as dialogue: a courteous exchange, devoid of political agendas and misinformed preconceptions. It aims to scrutinize language at its most elementary level. It employs letterforms and basic linguistic structures as devices to investigate the merits of a script acquiring facets of another language. It aims to conduct a dialogue of cultures through the formal aspects of each language's respective script. The Arabic and English languages, and their contemporary scripts, are fundamentally divergent, despite the shared ancestor found in the Phoenician alphabet. Reconciliation of Arabic and English, both in content and in written form as typographic constituents on a page, has been a subject of interest (and frustration) for designers, copy writers and translators, mostly in the Arab regions and, more recently, for Western enterprises and projects that aim to reach an Arab audience. The project was to experiment with a new way of reconciling these scripts.

3. What are the main characteristics of Kufin?
LAH: Kufin consists of predesigned letter combinations and ligatures that are based on diphthongs, triphthongs, digraphs and trigraphs common to the English language. As a modern interpretation of Square Kufi, Kufin highlights the ‘wordgram’ as a central unit, made up of syllables and letter combinations as sub-units, rather than individual letters, much the same as the ligatured ‘wordgrams’ of Arabic. Kufin requires an alternative reading pattern, forcing the reader to acknowledge the modular constituents and word blocks. It highlights the tangible geometric construction of a word.

4. Why did you choose the Square Kufi script as a starting point?
LAH: Square Kufi is a highly modular, geometric lettering system that adheres to a strict grid. Most cases of this lettering style are found on facades and interiors of buildings, rather than written by hand. The most common type of application is engraving, mosaic or bricklaying. The most beautiful examples create a uniform texture that is reminiscent of a maze of black and white lines. What is unique about Square Kufi, other than its geometry, is the ingenious interlocking of letters into ligatures, glyphs fit into and around one another to ascertain that no blank spaces are left untouched. Another interesting feature of Square Kufi is the spiral square formation that it is often used, which created an unusual reading pattern that is much more elaborate and elastic than the standard right-to-left or left-to-right reading directions the reader is accustomed to, a notion which I found to be most intriguing and have used it as a method to test the typeface rather than using the standard hamburgefonstiv.
The very modular nature of Square Kufi established the perfect setting for a visual interpretation of the modularity of language, a key element of my research. Modularity was one element that is essential to most languages, all of which are built up from units that could be further deconstructed into more basic elements, until we reach the actual characters of a language. The geometry of Square Kufi provided a blank slate unto which a common skeletal system can be designed for both Arabic and English. Letterforms relinquished calligraphic and theoretical/ideological backgrounds and were given elementary characteristics that were enough for each letter to be identifiable by readers, and yet attained a flexibility of form that pushed the norms and allowed glyphs to morph beyond their natural frames into modular constructions.

5. How did you combine the old calligraphic style with more contemporary and inventive new traits that take into consideration the modern reader and the new technological possibilities?
LAH: While Square Kufi is an artistic, individual endeavor, where the calligrapher or artist composes words within their context and could change their shapes and interlocked forms according to the calligrapher's aim and preference, Kufin is a system, based on set combinations of letters that can be incorporated into the typeface with OpenType ligatures and substitution features. A definitive set of letterform variations was possible to determine and design according to their context within the underlying grid, and set into the typeface. 
Square Kufi traditionally bears no word spacing, as the ligatured wordgram is always set into solid blocks that are easily identifiable by the reader. The Latin version of Kufin however does not use ligatures, since trials with letter connections proved too complex and unnatural to the reader. The disconnected Latin letterforms were integrated into modular blocks, and wordspacing was incorporated into the typeface to enhance legibility and ascertain that each word block stood separately. Punctuation and numerals were also incorporated into the typeface to create a complete character set. 

6. What is the most innovative aspect of the Kufin font?
LAH: Kufin is a study of language and visual form, experimenting with the features of two distinct languages. It adapts the structure of an Arabic lettering style to the Latin script, while attempting to maintain the integrity of both scripts. Interpreting the interlocking style of Square Kufi into a functional typographic system, based on a repository of linguistic modules, is the most innovative aspect of Kufin. The result underlines the word as a solid building block of language.

7. When do you estimate that this font be completed and available commercially?
LAH: I aim to finalize the Arabic version within a few months, which is needed for the programming of the typeface. I hope to have the font commercially available by 2013. Additionally, an ornamental version of the typeface, based on arabesque modules, will shortly follow.

HSA: You have explored in your project some key linguistic aspects and some key ornamental principles of Arabic/Islamic design. Can you describe those and can you imagine applications of this type of text to other forms of design (for objects, different materials, new media…etc).
LAH: My initial research and experiments focused on linguistic structures of Arabic and English, in an attempt to find unifying factors or common attributes. Despite the disparities between the two languages, the modularity of language soon became apparent; language consists of recurring linguistic basic unit that become ingrained into our subconscious and create a library from which language, whether in speech or in writing, is built. 
This same modularity is also found in Islamic ornamentation. The non-representational nature of early Islamic art instigated a passion for patterns, geometry and abstraction, and elevated the status of calligraphy to an art form. Arabesques with repetitive patterns of geometrical units (foliage and floral forms, and calligraphic elements and words) are found profusely across Islamic artifacts. They are used in the illumination of manuscripts, applied to furniture and fittings such as the mashrabiya*, used in the designs of rugs and textiles, and on architectural facades and interiors. The ornamental arabesque, which very often has mystical or mathematical significance, is based upon a modular language of form, highly intricate and elaborate in some cases, and in others a mere pattern of simple shapes. The square Kufi comes into play most evidently in the architectural applications of Islamic art, as it incorporates aspects of the modularity of the islamic patterns and integrates it with the most vital representation of the word. Kufin can be considered a modern interpretation of these traditional methods of incorporating text into architectural designs and other forms of ornamental applications.

HSA: Would you consider working further on more Kufi-inspired typefaces?
LAH: Definitely. Traditional Kufi, specifically archaic forms of it, has many beautiful characteristics which should be explored and can bear many modern interpretations. I believe that the Square Kufi style and its design principles may be explored in different methods other than the way I have interpreted them in Kufin, and these could lead to more typeface designs and lettering projects.

HSA: What are your future plans and aspirations?
LAH: I plan to elaborate further on Kufin, continuously adding to it and expanding its character set and variations. I think that there could be many more versions of it and there is the potential to evolve the typeface in different forms. I would also love to continue working with Arabic-Latin experimental typefaces and other type-inspired projects, finding new ways to reconcile Arabic and Latin through various linguistic and formal experiments, and applying these experiments to practical design applications.

HSA: And what is your advice to the new young generations of Arab/Middle Eastern typographers?
LAH: I think it is necessary to encourage new typographers to defy norms and attempt modern interpretations of the Arabic script, backed by the proper research and learning. There are only a handful of initiatives and typographers who are currently engaged in modernizing the Arabic typographic scene, such as the Typographic Matchmaking projects with the Khatt Foundation leading the front, as well as other prominent Arabic type designers. There is still much more left to uncover and explore.

*Mashrabiya is the Arabic term given to a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second storey of a building or higher. It is an element of traditional Arabic architecture used since the middle ages up to the mid-20th century. It is mostly used on the street side of the building; however, it may also be used internally.