“Arabic script has a great and extensive history of development and refinement, and this is reflected in how many forms a letter can take, depending on its context,” explains Egypt-based type designer Hosny. “There are lots of tricks to balance the black and white in the line, or even the page as a whole. But these things are hard to automate, and trying to emulate calligraphy in type often backfires.”
In the centuries when Latin typefaces were blossoming, Arabic printing was comparatively neglected. Foundries of the twentieth century developed just a few dozen Arabic typefaces compared to the many hundreds of Latin designs.
The challenge of Arabic type design continued into the digital age. The limited collection of Arabic fonts included in early desktop computers and web browsers were dull and clumsy—sometimes missing characters and often riddled with errors. As the Arab-speaking world came online, this gap in type design became even more conspicuous, and people responded by inventing an ad hoc vernacular, transliterating Latin to Arabic in emails, chats, and text messages; for example, “3” would be used to represent “ع”; and عين would be written as “3ain,” instead of the more formal transliteration of “Aain.”