Current 08/2007

Bridging Cultures With Type Design

The Arab countries are often in the news for a number of reasons: the abundant possession of oil by some Arab countries has given the Arab world a huge geopolitical importance (and lots of money too), which has lead to close and at times direct armed interference from the West in some of those countries. There has been a large influx of Arabs in European countries and in the US. The Palestinian-Isreali conflict seem to have only worsened over time. Religious issues have regrettably become more important in practically all countries around the world.




The Arab countries still fall on average seriously behind in creating well organised societies for themselves.The image in the West of the Arabs is bizarrely skewed. Selective news images and in its footsteps Hollywood typecasting are contributing to the effect. This image is reinforced by the still strong tradition in the Arabic visual culture and the strong traits of the Arabic script. Maybe there is no culture were the script has such a huge iconic value. The completely static format the Koran has kept for centuries contributed largely to this effect.

Yet, the Arab world is changing, groups of well trained Arab artists and designers are starting to manifest themselves and European countries feel the need to actively create cultural bridges between groups living within their societies. A recent project for designers to work together on the enhancement of the design quality of the Arabic script has produced excellent results.

The Low Lands have a longstanding tradition in type design. There has been an impressive Dutch wave in type design during the last decade. This design project brought together 5 Dutch type designers and 5 Arab designers to create 5 Arabic fonts (in two weights) that seamlessly match with one of the existing Latin fonts of each Dutch designer. The combined use of the Arabic and the Latin script is quite common in Arabic countries. The result of the project is issued in a book (with the Arabic fonts on a CD) and is presented during a conference about Arabic visual culture in Amsterdam.

The successful Guggenheim initiative in Abu Dhabi already made use of one of these fonts. And the activities that were organised around the introduction of the fonts (and the book) in the Netherlands have generated a press coverage and public attention which is unheard of in the history of typedesign.

Symposium program




But we communicate more and more with screen images; not with print. One would expect things to be better under control with only a few (American) companies dominating the market almost completely. There is also additional support from a few global consortia that set industry standards. But we're clearly not there yet. I think most AGI members will be totally shocked when they realise how their carefully crafted images will show on the various screens all over the world.

I have only two browsers (Safari and Firefox) on my Apple laptop, but even these two browsers render quite different colours of the same webpage. Screen colours change dramatically with screen age and colour representation depends on computer settings and type of screen used. Moreover, system software and browser software changes all the time. Software older than two years is not 'supporting' the latest developments.

If you're interested how colour representation, for instance, may vary widely, go to Please bear in mind that not only the colour can vary dramatically on individual screens, also typeface, type size, spacing and layout may differ substantially.

WYSIWIG, yeah right!

Browser colours


The Total Makeover Strategy

Some organisations seem to have similar needs in respect to changing their looks entirely from time to time, although with a far less obvious purpose. Often graphic designers are asked to help with these visual transformations, under the guidance more and more of communication experts. The results tend to be merely fashion statements expressing first of all a dedication to the latest visual style, which is becoming a global wave. Making visual identity programs into exercises of visual style sometimes bears the risk of devaluating an established brand identity and an accepted visual order. It is also sometimes an amusing enterprise when retro-styles come into fashion again. Maybe sometime soon we will see an organisation that will adopt its once abandoned old visual style.

Cities have long kept their traditional shields as core part of their visual identity. In the early fifties a need arose to modernise the graphic representation of these shields. Starting in the late sixties graphic designers offered successfully a total makeover of visual identities for cities (and other organisations). This work was offered in combination with a much needed update of the functionality of the paperwork of the organisation. Starting in the nineties visual identities starting to become mostly style updates, at times quite curious or amusing.

logo rotterdam5.jpg
logo Rotterdam.jpg
mID_1614_cID_579_nieuw_groene R.jpg


From top to bottom: the traditional shield of the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, a modernised shield, the new logo designed by Total Design in 1972, 28 years later a total makeover designed by Studio Dumbar (1999). What is the next total visual makeover going to look like ?



The Whitechapel Gallery in London had their logo designed in 1985 by Peter Saville (top). Sometime at the beginning of this century the gallery changed their visual style. It was one of the first organisations to turn back to the grid based logos of the early seventies (detail). It was about during the same time the city of Rotterdam abandoned this style.





The French in general have a more traditional approach to design, in an odd combination with a strong believe that design is basically fine arts and should look like that. The city of Paris hasn't made any visual makeovers so far. The old shield is still in use, in combination with an 'artistic' version of its core image.


The Legibility Myth

Their new type is called Clearview and is likely to replace the currently used 'Highway Gothic' designed in the late forties by a traffic engineer called Ted Forbes. In the fall of this year a large team of traffic engineers, vision experts and cognitive psychologist will examine the supposedly improved legibility of the new typeface. Millions have been spent over the years on legibility research for typefaces used on traffic signs. The outcome always seem to reflect the personal preferences of the research team. Legibility of text is determined by custom and well known human physiological limitations, new research will add nothing to these facts. The development of typefaces used for road signs have remarkable comparable stages all over the world. First, it was the work of type tinkering engineers (even using solely capital letters in the beginning) and gradually type designers were involved in the design process. It is interesting to see how the road signs used in different countries reveal the national typographic sophistication. Maybe some day road signs (not only the typeface used) will catch up with an general accepted level for information design.

The New York Times


Left, the Highway Gothic from the late 1940s, right the new Clearview


Road signs.jpg
The new Clearview design is somewhere in between the Transport (UK road signs, since 1963) (top) and The Sans (Lucas de Groot) of 1987.


A German attempt to create one 'Euroface' for the European road signs scored astonishingly high in legibility tests. However, until today the typeface has remained hidden in bureaucratic drawers despite its supposedly magical qualities.




Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

Clément Vauchez work updates

Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

Alexandre Dimos work updates

Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

Yu Guang work updates

Yu Guang has updated their work, see it here.

Alan Chan work updates

Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

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