A variety of hand-drawn and typographic store signs competing for the attention of shoppers in the Khan bazaar of Yazd, Iran. Photo courtesy of Sahar Afshar.

Sahar Afshar

Through the Typographic Looking Glass: Reflections on the Concept of “Decentralizing” Type

Published  08/04/2018

When we talk about “decentralizing” type, what do we define as the center? Type designer Sahar Afshar challenges the notion that Western innovation and education form the “center” of the type industry, while the rest of the world subsists in a “margin” whose only function is to consume the knowledge and technology generated by the West.

Arabic type has long suffered from the limitations imposed on it by typesetting technologies. The large character set, various contextual alternates, and a cascading baseline are just a few features of the script that got lost in the transition from pen to print. Only in recent years, with the advent of OpenType, have the basic requirements for addressing the needs of the writing system been met. Even now, widely accessible technology that lets typographers beautifully set Arabic text across various platforms seems like more of a promise than a reality.

None of this should come as a surprise. The type industry exists on a supply-and-demand model, where fonts are developed for use in specific contexts and to satisfy clients’ needs. In that light, the increasing commitment to improving technologies for scripts that have more structural complexities than Latin makes sense: it’s a direct response to globalization and increasingly multilingual societies. But these efforts are, in turn, still restricted by the dominant market for Latin fonts, which ultimately limits the allocation of resources to the typographic progress of other scripts.

A partly eroded sign in a street in Old Kashan, Iran advertising a traditional hotel in drop-shadow Nastaliq letters. Nastaliq is a style of Arabic calligraphy developed (and still widely popular) in Iran. Photo courtesy of Sahar Afshar.
Stone-cut Arabic letters on a marble tombstone outside the Jameh Mosque of Yazd, Iran. Photo courtesy of Sahar Afshar.

So what happens when this scenario changes and Latin is no longer the predominant script a country uses to communicate? What if Arabic becomes widely used instead and starts being demanded by the general public, as has happened in Iran?

I recently demonstrated how to use a piece of software called Qalam Bartar (literally, “superior pen”) to a fellow type designer who was not familiar with what it could do. In fact, until then, he hadn’t even heard of it. This lack of familiarity is by no means an indictment of my colleague, but the result of the software’s unavailability outside of Iran. In a nutshell, this product acts as a plugin for a variety of desktop publishing programs (most notably Adobe InDesign and Microsoft Word). It gives users direct control over a variety of typographic decisions like letter extensions and justification, the placement of diacritics and dots, and alternate stylistic forms; ultimately, it enables nicely set Arabic text in a variety of styles and contexts. This is a far cry from the standard Arabic script functionality offered by mainstream productivity and layout software, in which even the most basic essentials for shaping this writing system are frequently absent. That’s why it’s not unusual to encounter Arabic text written backward and with disconnected letters—the requisite support is missing.

“The increasing commitment to improving technologies for scripts that have more structural complexities than Latin makes sense: it’s a direct response to globalization and increasingly multilingual societies. ” —Sahar Afshar

Maryam Soft, the company that produces Qalam Bartar, has an online shop with an assortment of typefaces published by local designers—none of whom graduated from a Western typeface-design program. Instead, they all share an embodied knowledge of a script they have written both calligraphically and informally, and have been visually immersed in, all of their lives. This imbues them with a deep-seated understanding of the sociocultural and aesthetic preferences of the community they serve—an understanding that is difficult to acquire or teach.

Why, then, do native designers of countries like Iran increasingly seek formal academic training and degrees in typeface design from institutions like the University of Reading or the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague? Without presuming to speak for other designers, my own answer is that programs like the aforementioned simply do not exist in Iran. Furthermore, the reduced availability of capable educators and resources, along with post-graduation job opportunities in markets with a healthier appetite for new typefaces, drove my choice to attend the University of Reading. This is probably not so far removed from a European designer’s reasons for choosing to pursue a degree in typeface design: academia offers privileged access to resources and archives that are otherwise difficult to come by and, in a competitive job market, a degree from a well-regarded institution erases the doubts associated with self-education.

This hand-painted store sign in the grand bazaar of Isfahan, Iran features a mix of Arabic calligraphy styles and reads “Confectionary Workshop,” along with the name of the store owner and sample products. Photo courtesy of Sahar Afshar.

These reflections return us to the question that opened this article. On the surface, it seems easy simply to respond that Western innovations and educational structures exist at the center of the type industry, relegating the rest of the world to a periphery that exists only to consume transmitted knowledge and technology. However, a deeper understanding of the social, political, and economic histories that shape the publishing practices of each region challenges this hypothesis, opening the door for fresh narratives that don’t silence and exclude indigenous efforts. Only with the shifting of the arbitrary placement of the West and the Latin script as the central point of reference can the rationale for using superfluous and—to borrow a phrase from Edward Said—geographically ambitious1 terms like “non-Latin” be abandoned, making way for improved modes of thinking and engaging with a variety of global practices.

  • Sahar Afshar is a type designer and researcher from Iran. Her interest in typography during her years as a student at the University of Tehran led her to the University of Reading, from which she holds an MA by Research in Typography and Graphic Communication. Since graduation, she has been working on the design, consultation and quality assurance of Arabic typefaces, as well as researching the printing of Arabic and Indic scripts. She is currently based in the UK, and is a doctoral candidate at Birmingham City University, where she also works as a research assistant to the Centre for Printing History and Culture.

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