What is Arabic type design?

Arabic is a language that is very rich and carries a lot of heritage and culture, but in modern times we have seen an obvious neglect of the Arabic language in both written and spoken, that is due to various reasons. Only recently some movements by certain individuals that are trying to highlight the beauty of the language, and stressing on the need for Arabic type to be more frequent are encouraging people to take pride in their mother tongue and spark the interest of people all over the world. Furthermore, what’s best to communicate that with Arabic type?

A brief history on Arabic type design

The masters of calligraphy spent a great time and effort crafting these beautiful letters, in addition to the maximum devotion to make rules for the type and proportions, not just to look beautiful but also to be easier for the eyes to follow, the most known Arabic calligraphic styles are:

  1. Kufi (Old Kufi & Ornamented geometric Kufi)
  2. Thuluth
  3. Diwani & Diwani Djeli
  4. Naskh
  5. Persian
  6. Ruqaa
  7. Maghrébi.
Different Arabic calligraphic styles

During the industrial revolution in Europe and the invention of the movable type, several Arabic typefaces were made in France, Italy, England, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands between the 16th century until the 18th century. The first Turkish press using Arabic printing types was found in 1727 in Istanbul and the first Middle-Eastern Arabic printing press existed in a Christian monastery in Mount-Lebanon in 1733 where the first Arabic book was published in 1735. (source 1)

Since the Arabic alphabet consists of 29 consonants and 11 vocalization marks in the shape of accents. The basic structure of the alphabet can be found in only 19 basic shapes. But the Arabic letter form changes according to their position in the word (initial, medial, final or isolated) then the set of glyphs (the letter forms that need to be individually drawn on the computer) will add up to 106 (since 23 letters have 4 alternative shapes and 7 letters have 2 alternative shapes). If we add the 2 indispensable ligatures of Lam Alef then the number will be 108. 

Lam-alef ligatures

The Arabic alphabet is not only used for Arabic, therefore more letters can be added up, increasing the number of glyphs to 130. Furthermore, the number can increase greatly if we add more ligatures and letter combinations that originate from calligraphy. So according to each typeface, the number of glyphs can start with 130 and end in hundreds. (source 2)

Therefore to create letters that fit within the printing technology in old times they had to make a lot of compromises in the number and used only one letter form for all positions (initial, medial, final or isolated). That made the Arabic letter shapes have a straight baseline and very unnatural forms. Sadly some of the compromises in the letterforms stayed and no updated versions were created and even after the appearance of new technology, no new efforts where created to update it, and that marked a static moment in the development of the Arabic type design Industry.

Anatomy of Arabic typeface

How to tell a good typeface?

Now you know the history of the Arabic type, to be able to judge a good typeface you need to look for a few points. You can see here an image that explains the Arabic letters, and how the letters aren’t all aligned above the line, and how it has various forms that descend from the lines.

Anatomy of Arabic typeface

1) Stay away from the Latin lookalike

Early type designers wanted to create Arabic type that looked nice with English counter, so by doing that they sacrificed some of the beauty of the Arabic letters, two main traits that you can spot right away:

  1. Straight baseline
  2. Same X-height

In the images, you can see an Arabic typeface and it’s supposed latin counter you can see how the type doesn’t look neutral at all as claimed and the letters are far from the naskh typeface in addition to having a straight baseline. Underneath it you can see Helvetica Arabic verses Nassim Arabic which is a very well designed neutral font. What I want to say is, you can use Helvetica Arabic but keep in mind that it isn’t by any means a neutral font as it claims, its contemporary and abstract.

Stay away from Latinized Arabic typefaces

2) Badly drawn typefaces

Some Arabic typefaces are very poorly produced, either they are digitally traced from a sketch, feel rough and unrefined, or their curves are drawn poorly and not will refined. The good fonts tend to have an extra curve drawn to prevent the appearance of a thin white line when letters connect as it shows in the image below.

How to detect well-designed Arabic typefaces

3) Good examples of Arabic type faces (Good FREE fonts)


Now I believe you have the basic knowledge to be able choose the most fitting typeface for your project, and hopefully got a brief insight on the Arabic type design world. I have listed some recommendation for designer, type foundries, articles, blogs and videos. That if you are interested you can dive in!

“Arabic typefaces can have a wide glyph set that can start with 130 and end in hundreds…”


Designers links:

Type foundry:

Font rental: 

Font sources:

Nice resources for learning more about Arabic type: 

Classical Naskh Typeface 

Calligraphy-/Sketching Tools 

Arabic Calligraphy Online Courses 

Arabic type articles: 

Arabic type videos: