Design: the fine print behind Dubai’s new font

The recent introduction of the Dubai font, which made world headlines, has been celebrated and questioned. Nick Leech considers the fine print behind the typeface.

At the end of April 2017, Dubai added yet another acquisition to its steadily growing list of attributes.

No longer just a city, an emirate, a tourist destination or even home to the world’s tallest building and busiest airport, the city now also has its own official typeface, the Dubai font.

The product of a 2-year-long partnership between the government of Dubai, the computer giant Microsoft and Monotype, the owner of some of the most popular and influential typefaces ever created – Times New Roman, Arial and Gill Sans – the font was commissioned in 2015 by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai and chairman of Dubai’s Executive Council.

The benefits of the partnership that produced the font became clear at its unveiling at in a launch event that was held at the Dubai Opera. 

Not only was the font free to download from its own website – it has all the social media accoutrements that any self-respecting digital wannabe could want including its own hashtag, #Expressyou – but it would also be distributed as a default Arabic and Latin font through Microsoft Office 365.

Added to the entities involved in the deal the scale of the launch – at a stroke it was made available to Office 365’s 100 million regular users in 180 countries world-wide – caught the imagination of the media and suddenly the quotidian became the stuff of headlines and the usually obscure world of type design became international news. 

Such attention for the issue of how and what we write and read may have set typographer’s pulses racing, but there was confusion amongst the media about just how big a deal the font was, a situation exacerbated by some of the statements that accompanied its release.

“Self-expression is an art form. Through it you share who you are, what you think of and how you feel to the world. To do so you need a medium capable of capturing the nuances of everything you have to say,” waxes the font’s website.

“The Dubai font does exactly that. It is a new global medium for self-expression. By celebrating the past and embracing the future, transcending all barriers, the Dubai font is the voice of our brave new world.”

Here was yet another example, it seemed, of a city obsessed with record-breaking reaching for yet another first with typical headline-grabbing chutzpah.

Could a font really be that important or was this yet another announcement from the Neverland that brought us asteroid-suspended skyscrapers and hyperloops designed to propel passengers across the emirates at credulity-stretching speeds?

In its race to publish the story, The Guardian failed to get to the truth of the font’s finer print.

“This article was amended on 1 May 2017,” the London-based newspaper admitted. “An earlier version included an incorrect claim that the font was the first to be developed for a city and carry its name.” 

If Dubai wasn’t the first city or even country to have a font named after it, what was going on? Was this just a headline-grabbing marketing stunt or yet another tilt at city branding designed to position Dubai as a leader in the technology sphere?

While the Dubai font represents the first typographic collaboration between the corporation and a government and is the first Microsoft typeface to be created for, and named after, a city, there is already a long list of countries and cities that have developed their own bespoke scripts.

In 2014 Sweden adopted Sweden Sans for all of its government, ministry and corporate communications while in 2010 the Office of the Brand Abu Dhabi commissioned its own Latin and Arabic fonts, which accompany the emirate’s logo on newer Abu Dhabi-registered vehicle license plates as well as in the branding for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

Aesthetically, however, the approach to font design adopted by the designers of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai fonts could not be more different.

Whereas the Latin font developed for the office of the Brand Abu Dhabi attempts to ape the horizontality and shallow curves of traditional Arabic calligraphy, the Arabic and Latin scripts designed for the Dubai font by Nadine Chahine and her team at Monotype aim for parity in a situation where there is, she insists, rather more than mere aesthetics at stake.

“When I was studying graphic design in the 1990s in Beirut, the number of available Arabic typefaces was very limited and the quality was very poor,” Monotype’s UK type director and legibility expert explains.

“Lebanon is like the UAE. There are lots of bilingual publications and projects and every time we put the Arabic and the English together, the English looked very nice and the Arabic looked poor and this is not OK,” she insists, linking typographic harmony with wider issues, not just of branding and business, but of politics and Arabic identity.

“That would be a reflection on who we are and that’s not where we want to be, [but] we need to be able to speak at the same level and to have harmony and coexistence at the same level. We are not less.”

To ensure that there no concessions made in the design of the font’s Arabic script Chahine, who has designed Arabic versions of well-known Latin scripts such as Neue Helvetica, Univers and Palatino, designed the Dubai font’s Arabic version first.

“Usually the Latin is designed first but that gives you less freedom with what you can do with the Arabic, which then has to follow the Latin and so you inherit design decisions that you would not have wanted to face,” Chahine explains, aiming instead for a situation where both the Arabic and Latin typefaces achieve a harmony without aesthetic or cultural concessions.

“It’s a reflection of who we are, what we want to be and of Dubai. The foreigners here don’t have to wear local dress and the locals don’t have to wear Western dress, they all are comfortable in their own identities and they coexist,” she says, reflecting on the Dubai Executive Council’s original brief.

“It said in the brief that the Latin and Arabic should be designed together, harmoniously,” Chahine remembers. “But it was very important that we respect the heritage of each while meeting on middle ground and respecting the traditions of where we come from.”

The other key factors that determined the font’s design were that, as well as being distributed through Microsoft Office, it should be available and legible to anyone using Microsoft software – regardless of the device – and that it should also be effective regardless of its context.

“Normally when you have a brand who comes to you they usually have a specific usage in mind. They might it want it for signage or for tourist authority work or for newspaper headlines or TV and that guides your design decisions,” explains the designer, whose other fonts are already in use by local clients such as Dubai Airport, Emirates National Bank of Dubai and Emaar.

“But the fact that the Dubai font was going to ship through Microsoft Office and be for use by everyone mean that the font needed to be extremely versatile to allow different kinds of usages and that made it an extremely difficult task,” she says.

Becoming part of the Microsoft suite also meant that the new font had to be readily distinguishable from all of the other standard fonts currently available through Office, both Latin and Arabic.

“Part of the brief, design-wise, was that the type face had to very legible and easy to read and that’s why you see the simplicity of form in it, it’s not too complicated,” Chahine admits. “But it also needed to carry the voice and the vision of Dubai.”

Within days of its launch, Dubai Courts announced that it had adopted the typeface for all of its official communications as did the Dubai-based conference and events company Index Holding, becoming the first Emirati private company to use the font for its electronic communications in the process.

To understand the font’s origins, it is necessary to look back to 2015, the UAE’s self-declared Year of Innovation, explains Engineer Ahmad Al Mahri, assistant secretary general for the Executive Council and general secretariat affairs sector of Dubai.

“We were asked by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan to come up with ideas that would help to position Dubai at the forefront of innovation and a font also fitted well with the UAE’s aim of promoting Arabic and literacy, which were promoted during the UAE’s Year of Reading in 2016.”

Viewed from this perspective, the Dubai font can be understood not just as a clever publicity stunt or a sophisticated piece of place-branding but as part of an ongoing and far wider set of initiatives, which began in earnest with the launch of the UAE’s National Strategy for Innovation but also include the social media campaign, #MyDubai, both of which were launched in 2014.

Designed to help broaden public perceptions of the city while keeping it firmly in the spotlight such initiatives, which also include the forthcoming Dubai Institute of Design Innovation, a joint venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and New York’s Parson School of Design, are a part of the emirates’ strategic diversification effort, not just beyond oil but beyond tourism and shopping as well.

Having said that, the Dubai font also represents marketing and brand-building at its most sophisticated.

“When I heard about it I immediately wished I had thought of it,” admits Mark Rollinson, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi-based creative consultancy All About Brands.

“The idea of designing a font that has the potential to become ubiquitous in the field of digital communication and is also one of Microsoft’s default fonts is incredibly smart because it will constantly put Dubai at the front of people’s minds even if they only scroll past the font and never use it.”

The agency behind Brand Abu Dhabi and the revamped crests for Manchester City football club and the government of Abu Dhabi, All About Brands have also developed corporate identities for Abu Dhabi Airports and the UAE Space Agency, Masdar and the Yas Marina Circuit.

“On the face of it creating a font seems like a fairly small initiative but when you start seeing the numbers – 100 million people in 180 countries – it’s amazing,” he says.

“Can you imagine what you’d have to pay for an advertising campaign with that reach? I think it’s a really clever piece of marketing and whatever they had to pay for it, I think they’ll find it’s value for money.”

To put matters in perspective, Superbowl 2017 attracted 113.7 million-strong audience while the 2017 Oscar Ceremony could muster only 32.9 million viewers. 

As well as its potential ubiquity however, Rollinson also believes that the initiative has the marketing legs to move beyond the world of computing and type.

“They can start calling for poetry, writing and even design competitions where the entries have to use the font and hashtag,” the branding expert enthuses. 

“The choices to exploit the font when more than 100 million people have got it just go on and on.”

Nadine Chahine is more circumspect and refuses to be drawn on the likely fate of her new font.

“When we designed the typeface it was with the intention that it would have many usages, but only time will tell whether it has a resonance with people and whether they will want to use it,” the designer insists.

One of the things that might determine how the font is eventually embraced and adopted is the fine print of the detailed and labyrinthine terms and conditions that accompany its use.

In a bid to avoid any potential misuse these insist that the Dubai font cannot be used “in any manner that goes against the public morals of the United Arab Emirates or which is offensive or an affront to the local culture and/or values of the United Arab Emirates” and that users of the font also agree to “irrevocably submit to the jurisdiction of the Courts of the Emirate of Dubai”, clauses that sit uneasily with a project dedicated to allowing “all type users to express themselves freely to the world”.

One thing, however, is certain. The history of printing and typography is full of examples of tools and technology that have had unintended consequences their inventors could never have imagined.

Historians have credited the invention of the printing press and movable type with everything from the proliferation of books, literacy and lenses in Renaissance Europe to the creation an intellectual environment where cities, economies and intellectual revolutions could thrive.

The eventual impact of the Dubai font will be just as difficult to foresee and is likely to be just as tangential, but it would appear that for the unsuspecting, this is a free font whose use has the potential to come at a very high price.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National

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