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044: Zapfino Arabic with Nadine Chahine: An Incomplete History of Type

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Name: Zapfino Arabic

Release Date: 2014

Designer: Nadine Chahine

Classification: Calligraphic

Owned By: Linotype

Claim to Fame: This typeface was designed by one of the most talented female type designers in the world today, who is helping to bridge the gap between Latin and Arabic letterforms.

I am beyond excited for today! Throughout the last nine episodes of Talk Paper Scissors, we’ve been exploring an incomplete history of type; an examination of type’s history through a deep dive into individual typefaces. From historic and classic typeface designers, to more contemporary type visionaries, today’s final episode promises to bring you a unique perspective on global typeface design… from the designer herself! Dr. Nadine Chahine, the incredibly talented and celebrated typeface designer who bridges the gap between Latin and Arabic letterforms, is here with us to discuss her work. She’s won several awards including the Award for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008 and 2011. In 2012 she was selected by Fast Company as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business. Her typefaces include Frutiger Arabic, Neue Helvetica Arabic, Univers Next Arabic and Palatino Arabic to name a few. Today’s episode is all about Zapfino Arabic and Nadine’s beautiful Arabic type.

To provide some context to today’s discussion, Zapfino Arabic an Arabic version of the calligraphic face, Zapfino, designed by famed typographer and Professor Hermann Zapf. The typeface was developed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, based on a typeface called ‘Zapf’ he penned in the 1950’s (it existed just in a sketchbook and not as a typeface). The Zapfino typeface has numerous alternate characters and lots of ligatures (for example, the letter ‘d’ has 9 versions!).

In the 1980’s Zapf was working with a number of other academics and had the idea to produce a font file with a number of glyph variations. The only way these swash characters were going to work was through digital means and not through traditional hot metal type, which he felt was too limiting for this type of face (remember Zapf was pioneering digital typography at our sister school, RIT, in the US for many years). He worked with an academic by the name of David Siegel who worked with Zapf to create the complicated software necessary to make this happen. They then teamed up with type designer Gino Lee (the ‘ino’ in Zapfino). Interestingly, Zapf received a letter from Siegel during the project that read that his girlfriend had left him and he’d lost all interest in the project. Siegel went on to help bring colour to Macintosh computers, as well as become an Internet design expert. (If Siegel had stayed on board, would the typeface name have been Zapfinos?) The project carried on and Linotype adapted the project and helped to finish it. It was released in 1998.

One of the most interesting parts of Zapfino Arabic for me, personally, is that I can’t understand its context. It’s what I imagine my 2 and 4-year-olds see when they’re learning the Latin alphabet for the first time. Because I have no basis for how the letterforms typically look or when they should be used (context, societal norms, expectations), I feel like I’m looking at type through the eyes of a child. I think that this is such an interesting and relatively rare occurrence and I feel very fortunate to be experiencing type through this lens. I am excited for Nadine to help me better understand Arabic typography.

We’ve already explored the work of Hermann Zapf (of ITC Zapf Chancery fame) who passed away in 2015. Prior to 2015, he and Nadine worked together to bring Zapfino Arabic to life.

In this conversation, Nadine shares incredible insights about the disciplines of design Latin and Arabic typography and I can’t wait for you to hear it.

Thank you, Ms. Chahine, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type. From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before. We’ve made it! Only time will tell who the next faces of type will be and which typefaces they change the world.

Nadine's Body of Work:

Music: Podington Bear - Squirrel Commotion

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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