Naji El Mir

Even at a fairly early stage of his career Naji El Mir has already been involved in many cross-cultural projects, solving Arabic and Latin combinations in branding, logo design, broadcast design and corporate identity, his work can be coined as mixture of both Arabic and Western visual cultures.

Some of us here at Hug heard his name through the launch of the official book for in the UAE last month Typographic Matchmaking in the City– the offical journal documenting a 3-year design research project investigating new approaches for bilingual lettering and poetic narrative for public space in the middle east. We were delighted when he was kind enough to share some of his insights.

GH: Please start by telling us a little bit about your background.

NEM: I’m a lebanese graphic designer living and working freelance in Paris. I graduated in 2003 with a Bachelor in graphic design from the Lebanese American University and also holds a Bachelor in applied arts with an emphasis in animation from the University of Toulouse Le Mirail.

GH: Focusing on your type design works; namely your Storyline font, this was featured as part of Typographic Matchmaking in the City, including the popular selling book. Can you talk more about this?

NEM: I was contacted by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares to participate in this round of the Typographic Matchmaking series. The idea was to come up with a font that interacts with its environment in any vernacular context. I teamed up with Max Kisman (designer and typographer) from Holland and Hisham Youssef (egyptian architect) based in New York to develop the Storyline font.

NEM: The font is a monospaced “one letter one glyph” that supports Arabic and Latin languages. We thought of letters as a unit of construction that could be used in constructing buildings, in creating a type façade only by playing with negative and positive shapes, in making elevations by extruding each letter, or even that can be used in a modular screen system where each letter fit into one screen. The font is very geometrical because we wanted designers, architects, artists or anyone to be able to reproduce it in 3D and in different materials. The whole challenge was to design an Arabic font with a fixed width and height box where the letters still connect with each others. Another challenge was to make both alphabets designs look the same not only in the way each glyph was drawn but also in the overall texture that we get by setting all the letters next to each others.

GH: So if you had to sum up and articulate your type design process – specifically in the way of comparison between Arabic and English (aside from the obvious), how would describe it?

NEM: Well it all depends on the project and the context the font will be used in. My approach to Arabic typography is of a designer and not of a typographer and sometimes strives from the need of an Arabic font that will match the Latin font or even that will come completing the whole design composition itself. Some of the designers just don’t like using existing fonts, they tend to create their own fonts especially for titles and headlines, I think I tend to do the same thing, it is always more fun and makes the design unique. I am not interested in creating the Arabic version of Univers or Helvetica, there are Arabic and even Western typographers who know exactly how to do it, their approach is conducted by a different process where the typeface itself is the final product whereas in my case it is the overall context where the font or the “Arabic lettering” will blend in.

GH: Does it begin by pursuing an aesthetic niche which lends itself particularly to the style of writing, then adapted later on?

NEM: Yes sometimes it is processed this way, I think of a certain aesthetic and start applying it to the Arabic writing. I always try to respect the Arabic rules of writing and legibility, sometimes it works and sometimes I fail, my intentions are not to change the Arabic way of writing but to play around with it and explore its limits. Also not to forget that when Arabic letter design is destined for a logotype, I use a whole different process, it is the whole context of the logo that determines the letter shapes.

GH: Does it concern you when you see your own typefaces used in places and on products you don’t like or who’s brands you don’t agree with their values?

NEM: It had never occurred to me yet to encounter my fonts in a bad usage since I am still at the beginning of the road. I remember seeing what design students were able to make with the Storyline font during a workshop organized by the Khatt network in Doha, I was impressed by the way they were able to play around with letters in volume. I learned that some other designer were able to build up chair and other objects from this font.

GH: It occurred to me that many of the more popular type foundries in general tend not to house many Arabic fonts or even Arabic interpretations of popular classic fonts such as Helvetica. What are your thoughts on this?

NEM: I don’t think that popular foundries don’t want to feature interpretations of classic fonts, i think the whole process of having arabic fonts is still kind of new for these foundries. It also depends on how much the initial latin type designer is willing to have his font adapted in arabic by other arab type designers. We also shouldn’t ignore that for economical reasons foundries wouldn’t want to invest more if the demand is not there yet. But I think the trend is changing, demand is growing every day and arabic designers are taking more initiatives to nicely readapt these fonts. So far the best example is Linotype where the arabic department is managed by Nadine Chahine who did a great job creating Arabic versions of Frutiger and Helvetica. On another level many other smaller foundries around the world are getting more and more interested in featuring new Arabic type designers and to sell their fonts, and this a great advantage for arabic typography because there is a lot of empty space to fill.

GH: How would you summarise and predict the forecast of the arabic graphic design and typography scene?

NEM: It is never easy to summarize the actual arabic graphic design scene, many progress has been done and many things are still need to be done, we could write a whole essay about this subject… But in my opinion arabic graphic design is witnessing a great explosion , the world is changing and so graphic design in the Arab world. This visual renaissance is due to an increasing feeling of the modern arab identity that is inspired from its history and is taking advantage of the new technologies and the new means of communications. Also the exposure that arab artists and designer are getting with other parts of the world like Iran and the west arouse the feeling that arab graphic design identity must exist and speak for itself. I remember 10 years ago, when I was a student at university in Beirut, few were the students interested in arabic graphic design or in arabic typography, whereas today every graphic design student want to be part of this graphic revolution, when you see them you can feel all this energy and excitement. Today Arabic graphic design just exists!

GH: So your current top three typefaces right now?

NEM: I have the Storyline font that you mentioned in your previous question, so far it is the most experimental font I ever designed with Max Kisman for the Khatt Network. Another font is Branji that will be soon published by Gestalten, a geometrical gothic condensed font. I am also developing another font with Max that is called Highlight, another monospaced font that I hope it will be published on hollandfonts.com.

GH: Naji, many thanks & hugs! We look forward to seeing more of your work featured in the near future.

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