Arabic Calligraphy Reinvented: Interview with Tarek Atrissi
What has been, in your opinion, your greatest accomplishment and why?
I have always tried to be a multi-disciplinary designer and try to step beyond the sphere of just graphic design practice; to be involved on an academic and research level as well as on a level of promoting the field and working towards setting platforms for Arab designers to make their work more visible. The variety of type of work and the different levels I am active in, make my career as a designer more exciting and always creatively challenging and inspiring. It is hard however to point out what I would consider my greatest accomplishment because, as you say, several things happened on several levels and each of these has had a special success to it.
On a branding level, it was exciting to be able to complete the design of a complete visual identity for a country (Qatar in 2004). This was a unique project in scale and nature. Nation branding is just too rare to occur for any designer to experience it. As a judge I was honored to be part of this year’s jury panel of the Adobe Design Achievement Awards in San Jose, California, which is the biggest international student competition around the world. As a curator, bringing the first exhibition of Arabic posters to Europe was a special step in creating international awareness and appreciation for the Arabic visual culture. As a type designer, seeing my very own Arabic fonts become very visible and popular across the Arab world made the long process of font design and production process completely worth it.
I think maybe a combination of all these create a unique and satisfying sense of accomplishment, but more importantly, they motivate me as a designer to create further work and keep up with the creative challenges.
You’ve specialized in Arabic typography since the beginning of your career. What is the reason behind your fascination with Arabic typography?
Any graphic designer is fascinated with typography, and being an Arab graphic designer, it is natural that Arabic typography becomes an important part of your focus. I think the interest and specialization comes from the fact that the challenge was bigger. There was relatively less done in the world of Arabic typography, and it was frustrating to see, for no specific reason, less exciting typographic work occurring in our side of the world. The Arabic written letter holds a lot of value as well in our Arab World. After all, the written script is the only common aspect across all the countries in the Arab World. The spoken language differs, the cultural values differ, and even politics and religion are different. Only the written language is common and holds a lot of history in it from our heritage of visual language in the Arab World. It is a fascinating challenge to work with Arabic typography, calligraphy and lettering, particularly with the constant struggle to mix the traditional with the contemporary, as well as to combine the historic artistic practice with a new digital era that is constantly and rapidly developing.
You’ve studied and lived in various places such as Lebanon, Netherlands and the United States. Where would you say was the most inspiring location for your work?
Every place has its unique assets and its own design culture and hence its own inspirations. I think each of these countries influenced some aspects of my work and helped in shaping my design personality. Living in different places in the Arab World helped enhance my interest in our unique visual culture and in understanding the cultural differences within the Arab World itself. The Netherlands has a strong history in graphic design and being part of the Dutch design culture was certainly a very strong inspiration and eye-opener to functional and simple design solutions. The New York design culture had a very strong influence as well, particularly through the big designers that I was privileged to study with during my time there. I think it is very important for a designer to experience different cultures and different design environments and just be inspired by different geographic locations. The more you see, the more you broaden your creative environment.
What is so great and important about having a typography language?
Typography is at the essence of graphic design and hence a big part of visual communication. It is extremely important and should be localized so as not to become just another imported visual language forced into a specific market, culture, and environment.
There is a certain look or misconception that the world has towards the Arab World. Do you think that also applies to their views towards Arabic typography?
The Arab World in general is often very much stereotyped. Arabic typography was an unknown field with many in the West and the stereotype lied in the fact that many were not aware of the presence of a young emerging generation of graphic designers. Many looked at Arabic typography with the misconception that it is merely the historic calligraphic practice. While it is beautiful, it is not the only aspect of the written Arabic script, especially today, in the context of visual communication. I think this is where lies the responsibility of Arabic graphic designers, in trying to bring their work to a wider audience and actively change, as well as in using their communication skills to change any misconception relating to the Arab world, not only in the field of typography but in any wider context. That is what I have been trying to do since the beginning of my career: communicating a more positive image of the Arab world to a wider international audience by showing the constantly developing level of visual art and graphic design and reflecting its unique local flavor.
Arabic calligraphy is rooted in our culture and is, in a sense, timeless. How does Arabic typography parallel that and how does it re-invent itself in a modern age?
Our digital times are significantly different than the context and environment in which Arabic calligraphy developed. Arabic typography serves a different purpose on many levels and has to keep up with a rapidly changing technological surrounding. It is a very delicate task for typography to re-invent itself and stay, on one hand, loyal to the calligraphic values and, on the other hand, be innovative and functional in today’s requirements. How this is done seems to be different between different designers and different type design trends. Some are more inclined towards preserving the traditional aspects, while others are keener on focusing on the modern side. The in-between attempt seems to vary a lot as well between different approaches. I think it is hard to have a clear answer here to what is the best way for typography to reinvent itself. Time will be the best test to look back at this area and judge it more objectively.
Have you seen any major developments within Arabic typography?
The last ten years have witnessed a rapid and booming development in Arabic typography. There is more interest in the field and a growing number of graphic designers are leaving their impact. There are more type designers focused mainly on designing fonts and more cultural and non-profit organizations involved in Arabic typography. It is just a first step for the field to get to the point where it should have been much earlier. All in all, the developments are very positive.
You have recently ventured off to Jeddah for the design conference Tawasol. Did you expect it to be a hit? How did you find the graphic design scene in Saudi Arabia?
I did not know what to expect but I was certainly very impressed by the conference as well as with the level of design students and the general interest in graphic design and typography. It showcased the growing scene in Saudi Arabia and I was very pleased to see this positive development.
Do you think that enough inspiration can be derived from an Arabic heritage and background, that graphic designers will be able to build from that on its own without having to address what the West is up to?
Absolutely. There is a lot of inspiration and visual culture in the Arab World to focus on and build on so that designers can create their own local graphic design language. Something the West needs, as globalization is imposing a less exciting international design style. Local design inspired by a specific local culture is a powerful strength that needs to be developed all the way, particularly in our world.
What advice would you give up and coming graphic designers from the Arab World?
It all starts with hard work. A graphic designer needs to be fully dedicated to his profession to make the best out of it. Always nourish your creative soul by actively researching various aspects of design and keeping an eye on all the work happening regionally around you as well as internationally. Also, seek as much education in design as possible, since a solid design academic background is key towards having a more solid design career.