Typography is the clothing we dress our messages in. Words, when typed, hold implied meaning in their form, and when we’re not careful, that implication can stray the viewer away from our original intentions.
The Rhetorical Handbook describes all communication as rhetorical in that its meaning of an idea can’t be separated from how it is expressed. This implies that even in the case of written communication, the visual aspect has to be considered. The visual impression of a written word enables us to communicate different qualities apart from its lexical meaning by concretizing or extending its possible explanations. (Jelinek, 2013)
This week, I want to explore what it means to convey feminism through type in a supposedly male-dominated field. How can this be done without feeding into some stereotype of what feminism means?
The issue of gender equality in the typography industry is two-fold. There isn’t enough representation, so the non-male experience doesn’t feed into the design output. Design historians Teal Triggs and the WD+RU (Women’s Design Research Unit), developer of the typeface Pussy Galore, began to argue this in the 1990s, addressing how “few women have then used their graphic design skills to redefine or restructure visual language.” (Morley, 2016)
Today, a handful of resources can point us in the direction of type contributions by female-identifying persons, such as Typequality and Femme-Type. Femme designers have been making their mark on the design scene and contributing to the discourse around feminist issues.
Marion Bisserier, a London-based designer, challenges the perception of femme-type through her typeface Good Girl. Marion explains that Good Girl aims to highlight the underrepresentation of female designers in the type industry by making a stark comment on female visibility. (Murphy, n.d.)
In 2010, the Egyptian designer Bahia Shehab illustrated the word “no” in a unique project published in a book and drawn in the streets of Cairo. It is a rejection of conformity and repression that often plagues the Arab and Islamic cultures. It traces the history of one letterform the Lam-alif (which means NO in Arabic), and repeats it a thousand different times to illustrate the common Arabic expression: “No, and a thousand times no!”. (The Khatt Foundation, 2010)
“When you want to deny all of the stereotypes that are imposed on you and that try to define your role in the world. When you want to reject almost every aspect of your reality. When you want to decline every political reality you live under. When you want to dismiss all of the options available to you. When you want to negate all the accusations that go hand in hand with your identity. When you want to refuse to be an imitator or follower of the West, yet you also refuse the regressive interpretation of your heritage. ‘A thousand Nos’ are not enough.” – Bahia Shehab
Golnar Kat, a Berlin-based Iranian designer, specializes in multilingual typography. A key project of Kat is ‘Type & Politics,’ a platform launched in 2018 to free Arabic type from ideological and political connotations. (Theodore, n.d.)
‘It tries to make people more curious about other aspects of the cultures, histories and societies where Arabic type is used, and through this, takes a step against all the political pressure and negative labeling which Arabic type also carries because of Islamophobia these days.’
My takeaway is that Bisserier, Shehab, and Kat’s work all convey softness to feminist and sociological subject matters. This softness is not stereotypically girly but rather decorative in a meaningful way. They utilize layers of meaning behind forms to make their statements.
Nawal El Saadawi, the great Egyptian writer and feminist, passed away this year, but her words will never be forgotten. I wanted to memorialize some of those words through a typographical piece that pays homage to a feminist struggle that we still tackle today.
I chose an excerpt from her book Woman at Point Zero. At this point in the story, the protagonist had described minute details of her suffering under the hands of various men. She had not experienced a drop of comfort until she befriended a woman who took her under her wing to protect her. The first moments of that comfort were described so vividly on this page that the sights and colors almost flew off the page. But those euphoric feelings came to a halt when her protector shocked her back to reality with a dose of truth about life.
ﺣﻴﻨﻤﺎ ﻓﺘﺤﺖ ﻋﻴﻨﻲ ورأﻳﺖ ﻧﻔﴘ ﰲ المﺮآة؛ أدرﻛﺖ أﻧﻨﻲ أوﻟﺪ ﻣﻦ ﺟﺪﻳﺪ، ﺑﺠﺴﺪ ﻧﺎﻋﻢ ﻧﻈﻴﻒ، وﻣﻼﺑﺲ ﻧﺎﻋﻤﺔ ﻧﻈﻴﻔﺔ، وﺑﻴﺖ ﻧﻈﻴﻒ، وﻫﻮاء ﻧﻈﻴﻒ، وﺗﻨﻔﱠﺴﺖ ﺑﻌﻤﻖ ﻷﻣﻸ ﺻﺪري ﺑﺎﻟﻬﻮاء اﻟﻨﻈﻴﻒ، وﺗﻠﻔﱠﺖﱡ ﺣﻮﱄ ﻓﺮأﻳﺘﻬﺎ واﻗﻔﺔ ﺗﻨﻈﺮ إﱄﱠ ﺑﻌﻴﻨين ﻳﺸﻊﱡ ﻣﻨﻬﻤﺎ ﺿﻮء ﻗﻮي أﺧﴬ ﺑﻠﻮن اﻟﺸﺠﺮ وﻟﻮن اﻟﺴﻤﺎء وﻟﻮن اﻟﻨﻴﻞ، وأﻟﻘﻴﺖ ﺑﻨﻔﴘ ﺑين ﻋﻴﻨﻴﻬﺎ، وﺣﻮﻃﺘﻬﺎ ﺑﺬراﻋﻲ
وأﻧﺎ أﻗﻮل: ﻣَﻦْ أﻧﺖِ ؟
ﻗﻠﺖ: أﻣﻲ ﻣﺎﺗﺖ ﻣﻦ ﺳﻨين.
ﻗﻠﺖ: ﻟﻴﺲ ﱄ أﺧﺖ وﻻ أخ، ﻛﻠﻬﻢ ﻣﺎﺗﻮا وﻫﻢ ﺻﻐﺎر ﻛﺎﻟﻜﺘﺎﻛﻴﺖ.
وﻗﺎﻟﺖ: ﻛﻞ اﻟﻨﺎس ﺗﻤﻮت ﻳﺎ ﻓﺮدوس، وأﻧﺎ ﺳﺄﻣﻮت وأﻧﺖِ ﺳﺘﻤﻮﺗين، وﻟﻜﻦ المﻬﻢ أن ﺗﻌﺮﰲ ﻛﻴﻒ ﺗﻌﻴﺸين.
ﻗﻠﺖ: وﻛﻴﻒ أﻋﻴﺶ؟ اﻟﺤﻴﺎة ﻗﺎﺳﻴﺔ،
وﻻ ﻳﻌﻴﺶ إﻻ ﻣَﻦْ ﻫﻮ أﻗﴗ ﻣﻦ اﻟﺤﻴﺎة ﻳﺎ ﻓﺮدوس، اﻟﺤﻴﺎة ﻗﺎﺳﻴﺔ، وﻻ ﻳﻌﻴﺶ إﻻ ﻣﻦ ﻫﻮ
وﻗﻠﺖ: وﻟﻜﻨﻚ ﻟﺴﺖِ ﻗﺎﺳﻴﺔ، ﻓﻜﻴﻒ ﺗﻌﻴﺸين ﻳﺎ ﴍﻳﻔﺔ؟
وﻗﺎﻟﺖ: أﻧﺎ ﻗﺎﺳﻴﺔ ﺷﺪﻳﺪة اﻟﻘﺴﻮة.
ﻗﻠﺖ: وﻟﻜﻨﻚِ رﻗﻴﻘﺔ ﻧﺎﻋﻤﺔ.
ﻗﺎﻟﺖ: ﺑﴩﺗﻲ ﻧﺎﻋﻤﺔ، ﻟﻜﻦ ﻗﻠﺒﻲ ﻗﺎسٍ وﻟﺪﻏﺘﻪ ﻗﺎﺗﻠﺔ،
ﻗﺎﻟﺖ: ﻧﻌﻢ، ﻛﺎﻟﺤﻴﺔ، واﻟﺤﻴﺔ واﻟﺤﻴﺎة ﳾء واﺣﺪ ﻳﺎ ﻓﺮدوس، إذا ﻋﺮﻓﺖ اﻟﺤﻴﺔ
أﻧﻚِ ﻟﺴﺖ ﺣﻴﺔ ﻣﺜﻠﻬﺎ ﻗﺮﺻﺘﻚ، وإذا ﻋﺮﻓﺖ اﻟﺤﻴﺔ أﻧﻚِ ﻻ ﺗﻠﺪﻏين ﻟﺪﻏﺘﻚ.
When I opened my eyes and looked into the mirror, I realized that now I was being born again with a new body, smooth and tender as a rose petal. My clothes were no longer rough and dirty but soft and clean. The house shone with cleanliness. Even the air was clean. I breathed deeply to fill my lungs with this pure air. I turned around and saw her. She was standing close by watching me, her eyes radiating a strong, green light, the color of the trees, and the sky, and the waters of the Nile. I abandoned myself to her eyes and put my arms around her, whispering: ‘Who are you?’
And she replied, ‘Your mother.’
‘My mother died many years ago.’
‘Then your sister.’
‘I have neither sister nor brother. They all died when they were small, like chicks.’
‘Everybody has to die, Firdaus. I will die, and you will die. The important this is how to live until you die.’
‘How is it possible to live? Life is so hard.’
You must be harder than life, Firdaus. Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.’
‘But you are not hard, Sharifa, so how do you manage to live?’
‘I am hard, terribly hard, Firdaus.’
‘No, you are gentle and soft.’
‘My skin is soft, but my heart cruel, and my bite deadly.’
‘Like a snake?’
‘Yes, exactly like a snake. Life is a snake. They are the same, Firdaus. If the snake realises you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.’
Life is a snake
اﻟﺤﻴﺔ واﻟﺤﻴﺎة ﳾء واﺣﺪ ﻳﺎ ﻓﺮدوس، إذا ﻋﺮﻓﺖ اﻟﺤﻴﺔ
أﻧﻚِ ﻟﺴﺖ ﺣﻴﺔ ﻣﺜﻠﻬﺎ ﻗﺮﺻﺘﻚ، وإذا ﻋﺮﻓﺖ اﻟﺤﻴﺔ أﻧﻚِ ﻻ ﺗﻠﺪﻏين ﻟﺪﻏﺘﻚ.
Life is a snake. They are the same, Firdaus. If the snake realises you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.
The first step was to decide on the main title and a supporting caption. That was an easy choice for this piece as it was the hard-hitting truth our main character was faced with.
Because this was a bilingual piece, I utilized the fluidity of the Arabic script to wrap it around the English translation of the title.
Green and pink represent the colors of a reptile. Combined, they represent heat and fierceness. Pink and blue represent the visualization of the mysticism of the story.
The title is rendered in the highly ornamental Arabic display font Mozarkash, the Arabic word for ‘Emblazoned,’ by Egyptian type designer Mostafa El Abasiry. To provide an uncomfortable contrast to that, the English title is rendered in an equally decorative font Solide Mirage, a font designed by Jérémy Landes with Walid Bouchouchi. It is a unicase type with a monospace feature, which worked well with the original concept sketch for this piece. Changa was chosen for the bilingual body text.
3D tubular gradient applied to the Arabic title attempts to mimic a snake, nestling itself around the Latin script.
In the final iterations of the design, the caption text was decorated with Bodoni Ornaments.
Life’s hopes and fears in a dreamlike state, hazy and soft, its fierceness blurred.
After receiving feedback on the final design, I opted to break the structure of the layout to give the main title more real-estate on the page and decrease the rigidity of the caption underneath.
Thoughts and Conclusions
I thoroughly enjoyed the typographical process of this week, from exploring different possibilities of type treatments to illustration using words. Whether or not my choice of typefaces were the right ones considering the topic matter is an ongoing debate in my mind. However, my main takeaway from this week is that regardless of what’s right or wrong, typographical design is more fun when all of the rules are dropped and you design purely based on what your eyes see and your heart feels.
Jelinek, O. (2013). The Spoken Word in Typography. [online] Issuu. Available at: https://issuu.com/inkform/docs/jelinek_book_final_issuu_reduced.
Morley, M. (2016). The Women Redressing the Gender Imbalance in Typography. [online] Eye on Design. Available at: https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/the-women-readdressing-the-gender-imbalance-in-typography/.
Murphy, Z.L. (n.d.). Good Girl Typeface | Marion Bisserier – FEMME TYPE. [online] Femme-Type. Available at: https://femme-type.com/good-girl-typeface-marion-bisserier/.
The Khatt Foundation (2010). “A Thousand Times NO.” [online] Khatt Foundation. Available at: https://www.khtt.net/en/page/15813/a-thousand-times-no.
Theodore, E. (n.d.). Golnar Kat on Combining Multilingual Typography & Graphic Design for a Better World – FEMME TYPE. [online] Femme-Type. Available at: https://femme-type.com/golnar-kat-on-combining-multilingual-typography-graphic-design-for-a-better-world/.