Reflections on “It’s Time to Act”

Alphabettes is a diverse group of women from across the globe with a variety of backgrounds, views, and life stories. The article “It’s Time to Act” is an example of a collaborative effort aiming to respond to recent events and to raise difficult questions that our industry needs to engage with. Difficult questions are by nature controversial and are often highly emotive. One such question is the one raised in point 4 which calls for designers to stop taking design commissions for scripts they did not grow up with. This article will examine this issue and focus on 3 key questions: Is a designer able to design for a script they cannot read? If yes, should they? And finally, how can we as an industry support designers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds?

There are many advantages to designers who are designing for their native script. They can read the language and are immersed in the visual culture. Does being native to a script make one a good type designer? No, there is a lot more to being a good type designer. Conversely, it is quite possible to be a great designer for a script one did not grow up with. Tim Holloway is the designer of excellent Arabic typefaces such as Markazi, Adobe Arabic, and Mitra. Adobe Arabic is one of the best contributions to contemporary Arabic type design and Tim has been at the leading edge of the field of Arabic type design. His contributions are of great importance and should be celebrated. Tim is just one of many designers who have dedicated their careers to the development of scripts they are not native to. Designing for a script one did not grow up with requires a lot of research and effort. One needs to show respect to the culture, the script and its aesthetics, and the contemporary discourse on its design. These are difficult tasks and designers who embark on this journey often invest a lot of time and effort to expand their knowledge.[1]

This leads to the next point. If a type designer has invested significant effort in learning to design in a new script, should they reject requests for such designs? In other words, are they expected to do all the learning, but not be able to make a living out of that new skill? The article states that this is to not take work away from BIPOC designers “who come from regions and cultures that have long been exploited for financial gain” and while this is a noble sentiment and made in good will, it draws borders within the type design world when we urgently need to work together to improve the development of type design worldwide. Others might disagree, but we need to accept that many of us do not want to draw borders and that we stand to benefit from a collaborative approach to type design rather than a protectionist one. Further, the circumstances of one’s birth should not limit one’s career options. A type designer who has spent significant effort to learn a script they did not grow up in, should not be turned away from the door because of the colonial past of their country of birth. If anything, we need to engage in what the late Edward Said called the dialogue of civilisations rather than the clash of civilisations. These are difficult conversations to be had particularly because of the harsh legacies of colonialism (past and present) which have decimated whole regions in ways that are difficult to recover from.

In practical terms, if a designer gets commissioned for a script that they are not native in and they would still like to design for it, one option—and others will be able to come up with other solutions—is to team up with a native designer and work together. This would be an educational experience for both parties and can help fill the gap for those scripts where there is a serious lack of native designers, or where the native designers need opportunities to further develop their skills.  Let me give one example from my own experience. When I joined Linotype in 2005 as a very inexperienced designer, I met Prof. Hermann Zapf, who suggested we revive his Al-Ahram typeface to add to the Palatino nova family. If he had simply passed on the work, I would not have had the chance to learn from him and this opportunity has changed my entire view of typeface design. We’ve made many strides in Arabic type design, but there is still such a big gap that we need many designers to step forward, whether for library or custom jobs. Similarly, many of the world’s scripts barely have any fonts available and there is much work to be done.

Finally, type designers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds face many barriers, whether they are BIPOC designers living in the Western world, or designers who are living in post-colonial countries. The structural power that has exploited both persists today. But to view them solely through the lens of racial subjugation is to deprive them of their own agency, their ability to forge a path forward, and to grow and prosper. This does not mean that the structural barriers should be ignored or forgotten, but rather that one can open new paths that form new structures of cooperation rather than structures of exploitation. There are many things one could prescribe to support designers from disadvantaged backgrounds: educational opportunities, scholarships, collaborations, mentorship, and so forth—but there is no easy answer as to how to overcome decades and centuries of injustice. Still, it all rests on one basic premise: respect for the Other, despite differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic background. Everything else builds on that.

The type design world is blessed with amazing individuals, a collaborative spirit, and an active and engaged community. It is this sense of togetherness that can help to expand this space to be more inclusive. The times we live in are challenging and are bringing up difficult questions that are hard to process. There will rarely be one right answer, and we will very likely disagree. However, the answer is not as interesting as the question itself. We could each come to our own conclusions, but we have all recognised that there is a bigger issue that needs addressing: the openness of our design space. Even if each of us pushes in a different direction, the result is a bigger space, richer and more diverse because of the variety of life paths and world views present.


[1] There is one important caveat here. Once we cross into the conversation about typography and graphic design, the presence of a designer on the team who is able to read the text is paramount because we are then operating in the realm of language, visual hierarchy, and how the audience will read the text laid out in a poster or a book. While this is tangential to the topic of this article, it is important to recognise the complexity of how we deal with type and that the answers that work for one scenario, the designing of typefaces, might not be the same across all instances dealing with type-related design.