Image: Sahar Afshar

On the font lines

Calligrapher and designer Sahar Afshar describes her push to bring Arabic typefaces to the mainstream
December 6, 2023

“Type doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of a continuum.” Sahar Afshar sits across from me in a café on Gipsy Hill in south London, one hand holding her still-steaming chai latte and the other on her belly. In broad strokes, Afshar makes typefaces. In detail, she’s a London-based calligrapher, graphic designer, Arabic typographer and print historian (and 36 weeks pregnant). 

When I ask which of her skills came first, she has to think about it. “It’s very chicken and egg.” She realised she had a knack for type while studying graphic design at the University of Tehran in Iran. Working with text was a big part of her studies, “and I would often find that when I was trying to do my project, I wasn’t able to find something that suited the tone and field I was trying to achieve. So I just started drawing my own.”

Afshar is leading the push to diversify the world of typography. You’d think that with globalisation we could expect better representation with, at the very least, our world lexicon, she argues. But the lack of development in Arabic typeface is stark. At airport arrival gates, a spread of welcome signs in different languages greets you—and the Arabic is often backwards and disconnected. “It’s not very welcoming.”

“It’s very much market-driven,” Afshar says of the problem, with a demand for “more Latin fonts than regional styles of Arabic.” She typically works with clients who request from her a bundle of Latin, Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic fonts. But Arabic typography is not a monolith and variations of the script are used in several languages. And instead of asking for type specific to Gulf countries, or ones with an Urdu flair that might work in Pakistan, clients will ask for an all-encompassing font with a “neutral tone that covers the needs of all these languages and specificities.”

These regional types aren’t wholly unobtainable; recovering them could be a matter of consulting the past. Compared to Latin, Afshar says, “there’s not a long history of painting with moveable type, digital type and so forth. But Arabic has a rich, old, rudimentary history of calligraphy ranging from North Africa to China… there’s a lot of rich history to draw on.”

Another part of the issue, she tells me, is a lack of access. Afshar says she would love to work with a typeface inspired by Nastaliq—a traditional calligraphic style “very particular to Iran”. Problem is, the font she wants to buy and download, Mirza, is not up for sale: sanctions make it impossible to buy Iranian products, including fonts. And because Arabic is not Latin, designing Arabic type for digital use requires a different skillset from what many western typesetters are used to. “In Latin, you always have vertical strokes being the heaviest and then anything horizontal is a bit lighter. In Arabic, it’s the opposite.” Plus, unlike Latin typefaces, which use the same baseline for each letter, Arabic characters use a “cascading baseline”—going lower and lower as the word progresses.

This issue can be propelled into relevance, Afshar says, simply by talking about the history behind it. She, among other designers and scholars, are working to research and talk more about the history of type, and highlight the practices from China, Iran, Mexico and elsewhere. Some countries are more difficult to represent than others. Printing was introduced to India by accident in 1556 by Jesuit missionaries. This meant that, for a long time, its printing technologies “didn’t suit the needs of the country or its writing systems—at all.”

Afshar and I talk about diaspora and identity. There’s this concept of social imaginaries that she subscribes to—how, even if members of a society never meet, what connects them is a social image. “You can’t grow up in Iran without seeing Nastaliq everywhere, it’s the language of poetry. And when you see something like that a lot, you’re exposed to it and it becomes your cultural heritage, your language.” She wraps her hands around her chai. “I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, but maybe something a bit deeper. Subconsciously, you relate to that form of letters.” She’s drawn lines, connected the dots—surely, the world will soon too.