How To Redesign An Iconic Typeface For Arabic

Zapfino is one of the most well-known cursive typefaces in English. But can its suave elegance be translated to Arabic?

Hermann Zapf, the designer behind popular typefaces such as Palatino and Optima, was born in Nuremberg, Germany, almost 100 years ago. The typeface that bears his name, Zapfino, is in many ways his most personal design. A calligraphic font with the elegant loops and strokes worthy of a dandy, Zapfino is based on a sample of Zapf’s own handwriting from 1944, which was then turned into a typeface almost 40 years later.


But what if Hermann Zapf had been born in the Arab world, instead of Germany? What would his most personal typeface look like then?

Released today, Zapfino Arabic is an addition to Monotype’s Zapfino family that answers that question. Created by Arabic typeface designer and Fast Company‘s Most Creative People 2012 winner Nadine Chahine in consultation with Zapf himself, Zapfino Arabic aims to translate the distinctive elegance and dapper grace of Zapfino into a Arabic counterpart that still feels harmonious with the Latin version.

With Zapf-Final approval

Chahine is no stranger to adopting Western fonts for an Arabic-speaking audience: she created the Arabic version of Neue Helvetica. Design details of Neue Helvetica had clear Arabic counterparts, she says, but not so with Zapfino. “Zapfino is just so iconic and distinctive in its form,” she tells me. “It’s a whole different animal.”

When you adapt a Western typeface for the Arabic language, the main goal is to create a typeface that doesn’t just have a similar design, but is harmonious with the original. In other words, you should be able to put Zapfino and Zapfino Arabic side by side, and they should look like they were written by the same hand. Because Zapf himself does not speak or write Arabic and simply consulted on the typeface’s overall feel, the nuts and bolts of the design fell to Chahine.

Zapfino is as modish as it is relaxed: Letters like “S,” “B,” “D,” and “T” all lean forward to the right with a deep, almost rakish angle. And that angle was the first hurdle Chahine needed to overcome. In the Latin alphabet, we write letters from left to right, but in Arabic, script is written from right to left. That means that Zapfino’s rakish forward slant would become a recumbent backward slant in Arabic. It looked weird in Arabic calligraphy. “It’s like leaning your seat back while flying coach: in Arabic calligraphy, the characters recline a little bit, but we needed it to recline a lot,” she tells me. “We needed business class caliber reclining to make it work.” After a lot of experimentation, Chahine ultimately settled on an angle that she thought worked well in Arabic, while still being harmonious with Zapfino Latin: a good middle-ground between between business class and coach.

ZA leaning backwards

Another problem was character stacking. “In Latin, all characters sit side by side. Nothing ever really comes on top or below,” Chahine explains.” But in Arabic, characters stack up on top of one another.” In other words, parts of some characters overhang or underhang others. In English, the equivalent might be writing the word ‘sad’ and having the “A” written above the “D.” In Arabic, stacking makes text look very busy, which is at odds with Zapfino’s more relaxed attitude.

ZA poetry: Arabic poetry book (simulated)

For Zapfino Arabic, Chahine needed to figure out how to reconcile Zapfino with Arabic’s penchant for having characters topple and tumble all over each other. As with Zapfino’s slanting, Chahine tackled the problem by experimenting with different combinations. At first, she experimented with a traditional Nastaaliq style, which stacks characters diagonally, but this looked unharmonious with the Latin version of Zapfino. Instead, Chahine turned to another Arabic calligraphy style called Naskh, which allows for a horizontal stacking style. That style looks similar to Zapfino Latin’s side-by-side character spacing.

Asked to summarize her technique in adopting typefaces for an Arab audience, Chahine says it’s very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants kind of affair. “Just like Zapfino comes from a Latin tradition, Zapfino Arabic needs to come from an Arabic tradition,” she says. “But you can’t just cut apart Zapfino and rearrange [the letters] into Arab shapes.” Precedents for Zapfino’s defining characteristics needed to be found, researched, and pieced together. “There was a point in the development of Zapfino Arabic where it was really ugly,” she admits. “The characters looked fine individually, but when I put them into words, they looked disgusting.” Ultimately, two years passed before Zapfino Arabic took shape.

Now that Zapfino Arabic is complete, Chahine says that she expects it to be used in many of the same ways Zapfino is used: in greeting cards, in poetry books, on wedding invitations, for printing song lyrics, and more. But while Zapfino, for all its elegance, feels familiar and a little dated to Americans, like a worn-in tuxedo, Chahine expects it to feel much more modern and progressive to Arab eyes. “There’s just nothing like Zapfino in Arabic,” she tells me. At least, not until now.

Zapfino Arabic is available for purchase starting today.