Part of the Multiple Baselines series.
I consider OpenType a proprietary font format
Interview with Adil Alawi, Director of Diwan
Edo Smitshuijzen: Your company, Diwan, started informally in the early 80's as a small bunch of Iraqi computer addicts living in London. We're now 30 years later – centuries in technology terms. What has been your role in the company all those years and how would you describe the major changes that happened in your company and in the business environment during this period?
Adil Alawi: You say centuries, but when you have been in computing for long enough you see that the technology like the rest of the world moves in cycles, and advances push the user experience forwards as well as backwards. Unicode embodies a huge leap forward in the ability for the world to communicate in multiple languages yet the added complexity has meant that the experience for Arabic writers has taken an equally large step backwards. It is 2011 and I cannot enter a telephone number with Arabic numbers on a standard web browser and have it appear in the correct order.
We are living in an era of major disruptions. Diwan came from nowhere in the 80's on the back of the Personal Computing revolution and changed the Arabic printing industry forever. Before Diwan's publishing system it would cost a daily newspaper at least one million dollars a year to send its pages for printing simultaneously worldwide. With electronic publishing and simple dial-up modems we reduced that to the price of an international phone call.
What happened since was that the market became international. A small company with its establishment in one market finds it hard to compete with international companies that can make their money in much larger markets around the world once they get round to your part of the world. As a result one mainly sees Adobe software in the market.
But, as I said, this is the era of disruption. Technology makes it possible for even a two-man operation to come from nowhere and become an international giant (just look at Google and Facebook). What I have done is to keep Diwan independent and concentrate on where I see the next major disruption. Only time will tell if I am right. As the Iraqi saying goes 'you only die once' and I would want to go down giving the world my best effort.
ES: The major players in Arabic type were traditionally the two competing giants Linotype and Monotype. The digital era decimated both giants and they recently merged. The big new players in the digital era were Microsoft, Adobe and Apple computers. All American companies. Each one developed their own technology to deal with all scripts other than Latin and none of them really invested in the development of well designed Arabic typefaces. By contrast, all used sub-standard Arabic type for the longest time. Do you have an explanation for why this happened?
AA: If I am not mistaken Linotype and Monotype started from the same company and have gone back to being the same company. It is funny how things turn around. The answer is simple: it is the same as transition from the sword to the gun or from scribes to printing.
The new tools were far cruder than the technology they replaced. But they allowed people to complete the same job at a much lower cost and with only basic training. The mass of users of the new methods simply overwhelmed the old technology. Older companies that cannot adapt withered away. The American companies succeeded because of the advantage of more open attitudes to new technology, easy access to capital, a local and large free market and permissive governments to allow them to trade internationally. This is changing now. Who knows if the next wave will be led by companies from Europe or even China.
ES: The two major producers of publishing software at the time, Adobe and Quark nominated licensees to develop specific technology to deal with the Arabic script but also to market these products to their territories. The Lebanese company 'Layout' developed Quark Arabic XT and the French WinSoft developed many Adobe ME products, but also these companies never invested seriously in new type designs. This is in stark contrast with the traditional metal type producers like Monotype and Linotype. Any comments on these developments?
AA: The dominance of these two companies has resulted in Arabic typography stagnating for some time. Diwan came from nowhere and had to build on new ground to establish our company. Adobe and Quark rely on size and connections and a good enough implementation. The two companies entered a market that was already mature. The only innovation they intended was to make their products fit the user requirements and no more. Their profits are guaranteed by the existing market so there is no push for innovation.
ES: Diwan has an exceptional position I think among the companies dealing with the Arabic script. Diwan developed the Arabic version of a publishing software originally designed by Apple computers. As with all others, Diwan ended up marketing this software themselves, originally under license but since Apple was no longer involved in this type of software, Diwan eventually owned it. However, there are still links with the Apple company. Can you please elaborate a bit more on the business relationship with Apple in the past, at the moment, and in the future?
AA: Just to correct you: 'Diwan developed the Arabic version of a publishing software (Ready, Set, Go) originally designed for Apple by an independent developer working under the name 'Mahattan Graphics' then bought by Letraset (another printing giant that disappeared). As with all others, Diwan ended up marketing this software themselves, originally under license but since Letraset was no longer involved in this type of software, Diwan eventually owned it '
Diwan created the original Arabic Apple and then worked with Apple to specify and design the Arabic Mac. We built the fonts for this system which were so successful that they are still used on the iPhone and iPad. It is interesting that the mobile revolution presented almost identical design challenges that the Mac and LaserWriter had 25 years ago. When Apple came out with its mobile phones it was extremely easy for me to present to them the correct way forward for their Arabic font. When I look at all other mobile phone companies I see them committing exactly the same mistakes with Arabic font design that I had to overcome in the 80's. The future – who knows? Certainly I want to see a practical application for Diwan's advanced calligraphic fonts on the iPad.
ES: What makes Diwan outstanding is the fact that Diwan was the only company that took the development of new Arabic type seriously and also was the first company that offered the major traditional complex (calligraphic) type styles, like traditional Nask, Thuluth, Nastaliq and Ruqa. The last part is as far as I know still a unique position, although this position may end soon. Please explain why Diwan was unique in paying so much attention to type design development.
AA: In one word: love. I really did no more than show my engineers and the calligrapher we contracted what was possible with the technology. They came up with all this on their own. A lot can be achieved when you let programmer work on what they believe in.
ES: Please list the names of the type designers/calligraphers you feel were the most important ones between let's say the 60s and the turn of the century working with Diwan but also working outside of the Diwan company.
AA: I really am not the right person to ask as I do not spend time anymore going round in typography circles. However, I cannot go without mentioning Mohammed Said Saggar and Hamid Al-Saadi who were able to translate to me their knowledge of calligraphy into terms a computer programmer can understand. Nadine Chahine has the potential to be very influential – but I have not seen typography out of Linotype that yet rivals the magnificence of their Yaqout and Lotus typefaces. Not in typography, but in the field of Arabic design, I look at the composition and use of color by Dhia Azzawi and the vast bulk of Arab design pales into insignificance.
ES: The period of frantic new type development is effectively over for Diwan. Looking around, we've only seen Linotype renewing their Arabic type collection at an amazing speed with new high quality Arabic type, thanks to an initiative of its director at the time, Bruno Steinert who hired the very young Lebanese type designer Nadine Chahine. Can you please comment on these developments and the change at the Diwan company. Is Diwan changing its business model and or its products? Last year you were suggesting that Diwan was considering selling its fonts collection as a separate product.
AA: We effectively reached our limit with the technology. We managed to replicate the main type styles that our calligrapher could produce. For example Diwan's Mushafi typeface not only contains the shapes of the calligraphers font but also encodes the rules that he uses when drawing text. But Diwan never engaged with more than a small number of designers. Becoming a typography house was never been our main intention – it just happened that we built a large library of high quality typefaces. The next wave I want to work on is to make this universally accessible. This is where I think there will be another frantic new rush of type development. I think this will be in the domain of web fonts.
ES: Type development for the Middle East and North Africa has always been led by technicians and entrepreneurs with calligraphers and (often self-taught) type designers in the role of advisers. Not so long ago, for the first time, independent type designers for the Arabic script have established businesses. Interestingly, Western type designers have found designing type for the Arabic script challenging. There are only two schools that educate in Arabic type: Reading in the UK and the art academy in the Hague (the Netherlands). How do you think these developments would influence type design and what do you think about the current schools for type design for the Arabic script?
AA: The world of modern typography never really married with the world of Arab calligraphy. Diwan was the only company that really tried to bridge that gap. Arab typographers have existed for a long time but they have kept their skills in a closed shop with the knowledge passed from father to son. I have met with long-established Egyptian book printers that still have not forgiven Monotype and Linotype for, in their words, 'stealing' the Arabic fonts from them.
Diwan grew in a vacuum – we really broke new ground where there was little before. There is a very dynamic, technically aware and well-connected generation of young Arabs. I have great hope for what they will produce.
ES: You told me about a year ago that web browsers were finally supporting open standards that allow custom fonts to be used on the web. We have reached that stage now. You predicted a sort of second Desktop Publishing Revolution. What do you believe will change during this revolution? How about proprietary font formats against open source formats? What about complex Arabic type on the web?
AA: We are there but there are still challenges to overcome. The technical hurdle of implementing web fonts needs to be brought much lower. Right now it is almost impossible to publish a web font for any platform other than Mac OS without proper hinting. A process so arcane and complex that it is only practical for a few companies that have made heavy investments in that technology.
I consider OpenType a proprietary font format as implementation of this standard can be so complex that very few companies have the ability to implement it in a way to work with existing fonts efficiently and correctly. And only two companies, Adobe and Microsoft, have any real control on how this standard develops.
What I think will be a big leap is when there will be full support for font standards based on XML (like SVG fonts) and proper rendering of fonts without hinting in browsers as this will bring the barrier of font development much lower than before.
Complex Arabic fonts are possible but still there are technical hurdles. Diwan is working on making these a reality.
ES: The amount of people and companies dealing with type for the Arabic script are few. Do you have regular contact with these people? With whom do you have contact? Do you discuss matters? Western companies have played a big role in the development of type for the Arabic script. Now institutions in Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are becoming players, do you see a major development coming from this end?
AA: The problem is with the educational institutions in these countries. A lot of their design courses only reflect western thinking but sometimes a generation behind. I have met with designers studying at one of the top design institutes in region telling me that they chose Arial because it indicates the modern era of the web browser. Yes, maybe ten years ago!