GDE720 – Week 1: how Amman writes

In our first module, we were asked in the second week to identify creative practices in our region/country/city of choice. Naturally, I chose Amman, not because I’m familiar with the design scene there, but rather because I want to further explore it and dig into its history. Essentially develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the letterforms I had once taken for granted. This week’s challenge is to do something similar, but with a focus on typography in the context of the particular city of our choosing. I’ve decided to re-explore my findings from that module and expand on it. Let’s keep it simple and start with a quick history lesson on Arabic typography:

Arabic calligraphy’s role in contemporary graphic design did not come through such a straightforward path. In a conversation between designer Hussein al Azaat and eyen design, Al Azaat states that due to the refusal of calligraphers to historically take on commercial work, the printing press did not become a part of the Arab world until much later. (eyen design, 2017)

Source: eyen Design, Amman Design Week 2017

The modernization of Arabic type can be traced back to the invention of the Arabic typewriter, whose authorship is contested between Selim Haddad and Philippe Waked. This led the way to what is known as Al Nahda, or the Arab Renaissance, bringing literary publications to the masses rather than just being reserved for the elite. (Kerning Cultures, 2019)

Source: https://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-arabic-typewriter-keyboard-and.html

To solve the demand for commercial calligraphy work, Letraset approached the Syrian calligrapher Mahmoud Hawwari to create an Arabic version. It was at that point that the craft started fading as technology began to replace it. (eyen design, 2017)

Today, there is a resurgence in preserving calligraphy and incorporating it more frequently in contemporary settings and applications. But before we dive into examples of type that adorn Amman, let’s define the types of Arabic calligraphy and typography:

According to Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, it’s important to make a clear distinction between calligraphy and typography. (Huda Smitshuijzen Abifarès, 2021) The dictionary definitions are the following:

Calligraphy: (kalli, fr. Gk, beautiful) beautiful of elegant handwriting.

Typography: (typos, fr. Gk, printing) style, arrangement, or appearance of typeset and printed letterforms.

There are several forms of Typography and Calligraphy that are also outlined by AbiFarès:

Source: David und Viki, a calligrapher’s workshop in Amman, 2019

Calligraphy takes on one handwritten form, in which continuous strokes are formed. They are meant to transmit a message and are usually done immediately during writing. There are also 3 hand-lettered forms, which require more careful concentration and skill. This includes drawing with ink (1), carving (2), and construction from materials, such as the neon sign shown below (3). (Huda Smitshuijzen Abifarès, 2021)

Fahres al Khataat, eyen Design – Amman Design Week 2017

Typography, on the other hand, takes three main forms, and all three are machine-produced and typeset letterforms. This includes etches plates or woodblocks (1), cast movable metal types for machine or handsetting (2), and hand-drawn, then photographically reproduced typefaces (3). (Huda Smitshuijzen Abifarès, 2021)

Source: https://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-arabic-typewriter-keyboard-and.html

And now on to Amman in the present day. I currently do not live there anymore, but I do have an idea of the areas I would like to explore, so let’s get started. For this exercise, I’ve taken the route of using a combination of Google Street View, sources from past research, and items from my personal collection. However, to make this easier to read and digest, I’ve decided on categorizing outdoor type into various sections. This includes the following: (1) calligraphic signage, (2) local brands and franchises, and (3) urban signage and wayfinding.

Calligraphic Signage

Calligraphy played a big role in adorning street signs and store fronts before printing became the norm. As explained in the intro of this blog post, calligraphy started to be phased out. Recently however, there has been some interest by local designers in Amman to bring back the art of calligraphy into the public space.

Wajha is an initiative by Hussein al Azaat and Ali al Masri that proposes traditional signage solutions that revive the hand-made calligraphy, fonts, and images that used to adorn the shops of old Amman.

Wajha Cube, Amman Design Week 2016

Another feature of Amman Design Week involving calligraphers was the sign fronts of the Crafts District.

Calligrapher works on Crafts District signs at Raghadan Tourist Terminal, Amman Design Week 2016

For the 2017 edition of Amman Design Week, eyen design presented Fahres Al-Khattat, a cause-driven nonprofit publication and interactive installation (vending machine) that aims to support the calligraphers in Jordan. Fahres Al-Khattat features a variety of calligraphy works, attributed to their respective calligraphers and paired with contact details, specialties, and services offered. Each publication is enveloped in a yafta (banner) fabric book jacket with hand-written calligraphy of the Arabic alphabet.

Fahres al Khattat by eyen Design, source: personal collection.

Today, we see more of these designer-led contemporary takes around the city, like in the case of Dark Room Amman, a photography studio that opened in 2020.

Dark Room Amman signage, coordinated by Ali Al Masri

While these examples are all designer-led and quite scarce, calligraphy is still a part of the identity of the public space.

Water truck, source: personal collection.
Hijaz Railway Station Amman, source: personal collection.
Building supervisor’s name and contact information, source: personal collection.

An Instagram account @jordaniankhatt also documents such examples of handwritten or even machine-made signage that feature beautiful calligraphic forms.

Source: https://www.instagram.com/jordaniankhatt

Local Brands and Franchises

If I try to imagine what Amman looks like as a city, I can visualize white stone buildings, often clad with colorful but unaesthetic signage of numerous local shops and franchises. As a city, it’s quite masculine, only made so by its vernacular. It’s easy to spot trends in signage for particular places, like bakeries, cafes, or restaurants. As the city has grown, automobiles have become the dominent form of transportation. Poorly connected sidewalks and pedestrian areas make it difficult and unpleasant to cross from one district of the city to another. Thus, signage seems to follow these trends in order to be easily recognizable by their aesthetic. These signs are often digitally produced, but not always featuring photographs or icons to describe their offering. I’ll be featuring three different shops: bakeries, coffee stops, and butcheries, and noting down similarities in typeface usage as well as the overall visual style.

Bakeries

Deir Ghbar
Jabal Arafat Street
Jabal Arafat Street

Medina Street

Bakery signages often utilize modern Arabic typography which are thick, chunky, and sometimes a bit stylized. The bakery in Deir Ghbar even features italics, which doesn’t exist in Arabic script.

Butcheries

Ali Ben Abi Taleb Street
Jabal Arafaat Street

Unlike bakeries, photography is a main feature of a lot of butchery signage. There is a common usage of modern typefaces as well, in different fonts and weights to denote a heirarchy between the information featured on the store fronts. It’s important that the signage not only features the name of the butchery but also a phone number for orders, the types of cuts they can prepare, and other pieces of information that might help them stand out from other butcheries.

Coffee Shops

Ali Ben Abi Taleb Street
Jabal Arafaat Street
Jabal Arafaat Street
Prince Muhammad Street
Prince Muhammad Street
Ali Ben Abi Taleb Street
Jabal Arafaat Street
Medina Street
Prince Abdullah Street
Swefieh

It’s important to note that these are not cafes in which you can sit in to enjoy a cup of coffee. They are roadside coffee stops, and they offer service directly to your car. Unlike butcheries, they don’t need to offer any other types of information, nor do they need to stand out from the rest. In fact, they benefit from looking alike as they are usually situated to provide convenience. However, while the colors and styles of the store fronts are quite similar, the usage of typefaces range from modern to koufi to standard naskh.

Iconic Storefronts

These are storefronts are immediately recognizable as a unique brand offering a distinct product sought after for their reputation.

While Abu Jbara is an iconic brand, its current logo was not received well by fans of this hummus restaurant.
Al Shaab offers high quality roasted nuts. Its logo is an Arabic comic sans, and can be considered a modern typeface.
Google Maps Street View in Amman was captured in 2016, but this signage no longer exists. It’s a beautiful piece of design from a more prosperous past, but was also vital for the identity of its neighborhood in Downtown Amman. It’s a loss to have seen this signage removed.
This Ata Ali shop is one of the last surviving of the iconic dessert chain. Its logo is retro and a remnants of an experimental time in Arabic type design.
Jabri, like Ata Ali, is a classic favorite. Its logo is platful, almost swinging from side to side.
Habiba is such a beloved dessert brand that it is often imitated, in both its name and logo. Unlike Jabri, Habiba’s branding denotes a higher quality product.

Urban Signage and Wayfinding

In 2009, commissioned by Greater Amman Municipality, the agency took on the task of branding the city of Amman. The branding of Amman also ended up leading to the development of a unique bilingual typeface for the city. German type designer and SYNTAX collaborator Yanone the typeface FF Amman. The typeface has become an integral part of Amman’s visual landscape, being used on street signs as well as GAM’s communications, including their posters, websites, and advertising material.

Source: Syntax
Source: Syntax
Source: Yanone
Source: Yanone

Reflection

I personally feel that Amman has quite a distinct personality through the myriad of typographic and calligraphic features scattered across its white stone buildings and steep hills. Its personality is masculine and utilitarian, with a focus on functionality and practicality rather than aesthetics or beauty. While there are always attempts by the design community to offer their take on more visually pleasing signage, the city eats it up and reverts back to the standard vernacular practice that it is known for today. This is evident in the design solution for Amman’s branding by Syntax, where there is an attempt to use softer letterforms, but eventually compromise for familiarity.

Reference list

Huda Smitshuijzen Abifarès (2021). Arabic typography, a revised and concise sourcebook. Amsterdam: Khatt Books.

Messenger, R. (2014). oz.Typewriter: The Arabic Typewriter Keyboard and the Syrian Artist. [online] oz.Typewriter. Available at: https://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-arabic-typewriter-keyboard-and.html [Accessed 28 Jan. 2022].

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