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Could Good Type Design Promote Literacy In The Middle East?

Nadine Chahine talks about her PhD work using eye-tracking to test how children read Arabic script. The research could lead to new insights about literacy in the Arabic-speaking world.

Public perception of typography may be that it’s an insular details game, a culture of obsessive nuance. That couldn’t be further from the truth for Nadine Chahine, a young Lebanese type designer who believes that type holds the key to literacy—and by extension, education—in the Arab world.

Chahine is a type designer first and foremost: As the Arabic specialist at Monotype, she designed the best-selling Frutiger Arabic, Helvetica Arabic, and is currently working on Zapfino Arabic. But she’s also a strong advocate for reading. This fall, she received her PhD from Leiden University, where her dissertation focused on using eye tracking to test how children read Arabic in its three most common forms. Using a computer to test eye movements that are otherwise invisible to observers, Chahine was able to discover something that other designers have only speculated about: why children get mixed up about certain types of script, and whether one might lend itself to those learning to read. It’s a micro level of detail with a macro impact—and recently, I had a chance to chat with Chahine about her findings from a layperson’s perspective.

A diagram shows where Chahine’s subjects "fixated" on a word or letter while reading.

As a student at Leiden, Chahine knew that she wanted to focus on the science of literacy and type. Eye trackers are pretty ubiquitous in research institutions these days, but they had rarely been used in relation to Arabic script until Chahine proposed the idea. "I had to self-educate myself on psychology," she says. Her thesis adviser, Kevin Larson, a legibility expert at Microsoft, helped her develop a methodology from scratch.

Arabic script differs from Latin enormously. For starters, letters can change forms according to context and vowels appear above or below the letterforms. The letters take different forms depending on their placement in a word. The Arabic script often takes one of three widely used Naskh styles. In Dynamic Naskh, the most complex style of the three, there are many different forms that each letter can take. Then there’s Traditional, where each letter has four forms and the typeface has several ligatures. In Simplified, letters mostly have only two forms. Independent of style, authors and designers can choose whether to include or exclude vowel markings.

Chahine set out to answer several questions. How did the complexity of style affect reading in school children? Did the inclusion of vowel markings improve legibility, or did it confuse readers with extra information? What is—in Chahine’s words—"the cost of complexity?" She rented an eye tracker and flew to Beirut, where she spent several weeks measuring how the young eyes of 72 school children reacted to the same paragraphs written in Dynamic, Traditional, and Simplified forms. The eye tracker allowed her to detect and record three different types of infinitesimally small eye movements that occur while reading: fixations (when the eye focuses on a letter or group of letters), saccades (when the eye jumps forward), and regressions (when the eye jumps back). Each of these behaviors is barely discernable to the naked eye—a saccade, for example, might last 30 milliseconds. But they’re disproportionately important to their duration, since they provide a tell-tale map of where and why a kid might get hung up on a word or sentence.

Her findings support an important thesis: More complex is less legible. The Simplified style had significantly faster fixation times. Where vowels were concerned, though, things got more complicated. Kids had longer reading times when vowel markings were included, but they also had fewer regressions, which implies better clarity in reading. Still, vowels were doing more harm than good. "The short vowels in Arabic are second-rate citizens," Chahine writes, "and the cognitive cost of their addition to Arabic texts outweighs the benefits they bring to the linguistic clarity of the intended message."

It seems that there isn’t one "perfect" form of Arabic. It’s more like a balance between functionality and ornament, a compromise negotiated by the designer. If you’re designing a traffic sign, you want to express the content of your message faster. "But when the reader has the luxury of time, perhaps with a book of poetry, then we can go back to the more complex forms we have from history," she says. "It’s important to draw the line between the two." And it’s the job of the designer to decide what’s the most appropriate. "You can ask existential questions like, 'What should Arabic look like?' But I look at functionality first."

Chahine believes that typography could have far-reaching implications in the Arabic-speaking world, where illiteracy is disproportionately high. "What we need to do is collect design, education, and literacy and look at them as one subject," she tells me. "We need to present material in a way that is visually enticing and encourage people to read to their kids before they go to school and transition into literary Arabic." She’s also adamant that graphic designers will play a critical role in the push for higher literacy rates. "We need to acknowledge how designers influence culture and environment," she says. "It’s not enough to design logos and books. This is a talent, to be able to communicate to the masses."

[Image: Arabic via Shutterstock]