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« 289. Meet James Chastain, Signpainter. | Main | 287. The Super Bowl Logo for 2011 & Beyond. »
Wednesday
Feb102010

288. More Arabic & Western Identities Coexisting.

13 months ago I posted an article showcasing some of the Arabic translation of Western brand identities that I had found on my vacation to Dubai. The article proved to be fairly popular as others were just as fascinated by seeing something familiar being visually translated into something foreign. I have learned quite a bit about Arabic since then (though I'm still quite a newbie) and have grown to appreciate some of those designs more while seeing flaws in others for the first time. It was with these 'new eyes' that I had been tracking down more of these examples over the last few weeks. Most of the first two sets posted last year were easily accessible in major malls near where I was staying. This set required a lot more effort and a few of them required a kind taxi driver that literally slammed on the brakes whenever I got close to one.

First a bit of disclosure. When I was growing up the only exposure I would have had to Arabic would have been on the national news and it would have been mostly of the negative variety. As a matter of fact—and this is a tough thing to admit—I almost subconsciously associated Arabic to something vaguely evil. Or at least extremism, as I only saw it on The News about the Middle East and war, both internal and external. That's not to say that I didn't (even as a teen) know on an intellectual level that such a blanket label was ridiculous. I did. And I knew that it wasn't true too. It was simply a slight and instinctual reaction that I hadn't paid much attention to until visiting Dubai. Suddenly I saw Arabic everywhere. And it wasn't on a banner next to a burning American flag, or written across a curtain in front of which sat a group of men with large stocks of ammunition. It was on a stop sign. It was on the hotel I was living next to. It was next to a familiar figure on the wall telling me where the men's room was. And it was this new exposure that gave me the opportunity to recognize a very subtle subconscious filter and its labeling of something Arabic as being something scary or menacing. Actually Arabic is a beautiful language, especially in written form. And even though it's not necessarily a good thing that there is a Starbucks's sign with Arabic underneath that familiar green and black mermaid, it does tend to alter your perception of things.

Mo, my new favorite taxi driver in Dubai, doing his thing.

Mo graciously disregarded all traffic regulations and general rules of the road to stop whenever I suddenly saw a logo that I wanted to photograph. He waited. And if I walked too far away from the cab in my endeavors he somehow managed to be just a few steps away when I was ready to go. I did tip heavily but do hope good mojo follows him around for awhile. Thanks Mo!Keep in mind, I've only been in Dubai since last fall and I can't speak but a few words. But by combing the city for these identities I have learned to recognize probably 75% of the alphabet and the sound that the letter makes even if I can't actually produce the sound with my mouth. I've heard stories of people learning English while watching American movies and now I'm learning Arabic by looking out for logos. It's rather funny, I think. I certainly don't know everything but I do know enough to share a few tips that might help you appreciate the designs for what they are and what they are not. If you want to skip ahead, the link to the new gallery is at the bottom of this post.

First Arabic is a phonetic language, which is to say that if it sounds a certain way it's spelled a certain way; probably making an Arabic spelling bee a lot easier than an English one. There are combos of letters that have similar sounds, but to a trained ear they are easily distinguishable one from another. Secondly, Arabic reads right to left. This allows for a nice symmetry in some identity designs when showing an English version on the left (read left to right) and an Arabic version on the right (reading right to left) with a symbol in the middle. It can be a lot to take in, but most often it works out okay.

This reminds me of the thing that has thrown me off the most while working over here. The Adobe CS suite Middle Eastern version, includes this right to left thinking in the software. So in Indesign what was previously the arrow to move forward in a document (the right arrow) is now the arrow to go behind and vice versa. Not only that, but the up button (wherever it can be found) now corresponds with going further into a document while the down button moves backwards, which is a flip of how it is in the US. Of course this can be changed in the preferences but I've kept it there to remind me of this reversal. The difference needs to be accounted for in design and layouts and it's a nice reminder. It only seems like a small detail until you realize how this changes your perception of a piece of communication and visual hierarchy and a number of other things. Thankfully, they do drive on the right-hand side of the road here in the UAE.

Anyway back to Arabic. It's phonetic. It reads right to left. It has 28 letters (plus one symbol that should most likely be counted.) What gets a little tricky is that each letter changes shape depending on where in the word they fall; beginning, middle or end. I'm told that you hardly notice this as a native speaker but I still get a little confused. The script is cursive and letters flow into each other with a small group of letters that are exceptions. There are only three vowels each with a long and short sound. Short vowels are noted by marks above or below consonants though they are normally not shown in modern text. Long vowels occur when short vowels are combined with three specific letters of the alphabet. And there are no capital letters. Got all that?

There are a few additional characteristics that I think are important. Arabic is written out using English characters sometimes and this is called transliteration. (Transliteration is useful when helping give an American a chance at proper pronunciation for example.) Most Arabic letters have an equivalent sound in English, so it usually works out. And lastly, one of the aspects of the language that gives me the most trouble is the fact that the way Arabic is written is usually different than how it is seen when printed. (Much like our cursive and print, though less pronounced.) There are many different styles of Arabic calligraphy so sometimes the differences are small and sometimes not so small. I still see signs that I can't even pick out a single character. The printed characters can be a problem especially when the designers get a little creative or abstract with the letterforms.

If you are interested in learning more the best article I have seen comes from a blog called 29 letters, it's a brief history of modern Arabic Type from the 1930s to the present. It helped give me a sound understanding of how things came to be with the language. I also found a good book called, Very Simple Arabic Script by James Peters. I've been working my way through it so when I begin taking spoken Arabic classes, I'll be able to see the words in my head as Arabic script—not transliterated English characters.

The Arabic Letterforms (via 29 Letters):

That brings us back to the identities themselves. Most often the designs are western and then have the Arabic version designed. Given all the peculiarities above and the differences to English, this can be quite the task. Most often the Arabic is simply the characters needed to most accurately produce the sound similar to that when the name of the company is spoken in English. Sometimes, the Arabic is translated. This usually occurs when a thing is part of the company name. For instance if a company was called Cake House sometimes the Arabic wouldn't be the characters needed to produce the sounds cake house, they would be the Arabic word for cake and the word for house. Though this isn't always the case, strangely.

Most companies do use an English (and what I really mean is Latin-based or Roman character) version and an Arabic version here in Dubai. Each individual case presents a unique set of design challenges converting one from the other. Some of the resulting solutions are absolutely brilliant while some don't even try to convey the same style and simply use a traditional Arabic script. (You should know that here are those that think this is the best way to go, eliminating the need to distort the characters to match design elements of the original.) And there are plenty that fall somewhere in between. Personally, I like to see the styles if not match, at lease complement each other. This is much easier when designing an identity from scratch than it is to do after the fact, which is why I'm was so excited to post those first few sets of logos in the first place. It's fun to see what happened when designers were confronted with these challenges.

Yes, I could have found some of these versions on the internet I'm sure. But part of the aesthetic at work is the material in which the signs are made and getting images of the physical signs seemed more important than to simply find an Arabic version of the logo. I hope you enjoy perusing this latest set as much as I have acquiring the images. It has been a labor of love. 

Introducing even more Arabic & Western Identities Coexisting.


*I will most likely fold the old galleries into this one in the near future as my access to flickr is limited (it's blocked here in Dubai.) But for now, you can find the previous retail identity set here, and the packaging work here. I will be posting an additional consumer goods / packaging entry soon too, so look out for that. If you are a designer in Dubai, you won't be able to view the old slideshows - but you can always take a long cab ride and see them in action. Find any that I have missed that you think are worthy of being added? Why not take a few shots and send 'em my way via jj (the at sign) graphicology (dot) com. Thanks!

**The image at the top is my favorite sculpture I've seen in Dubai, sitting across the street from my apartment and a block away from the Burj Khalifa seen in the background. Can't help but smile when I walk past.



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Reader Comments (3)

I like your observance of the Arabic language evoking a different feeling once you see it in a friendlier place. Hard to be scared when it's directing you to the baby changing area. :) Really nice photos.
February 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
Brilliant post!

I'm a graphic design student, and currently doing my dissertation in translating brands and advertising in different cultures. My girlfriend is studying Arabic, so she's told me quite a bit about it.

You can probably guess I found this post (and the gallery) incredibly fascinating.

I'm curious: how hard is it to design stuff in a different, unknown alphabet? Is it hard if you don't know what the text says, and if you don't know the local design conventions? Or is it easy if you're able to disassociate yourself from the meaning of the text (considering some people already do this with the Lorem ipsum placeholder text)?
February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrey P
I have only designed a few pieces in Arabic so far, and usually have enough native speaking peers that if any question arises, there is help nearby. (Most times I work in English and have a coworker that does the Arabic.) I will say that with most meaning removed from my consciousness I see the form of the text much easier. This can be a good thing. But I always get a translation so i know the meaning of the piece I'm working on. It's important for all the design decision one has to make. I think the biggest issue with Arabic is how far is too far when straying from the hand-written aspect of the script, especially when matching something from the west. Some of the designs really stretch the letters into a weird place, almost beyond recognition. Would love to see your dissertation, and if i can help in any way I am certainly willing. Cheers and thanks for the comment.
February 16, 2010 | Registered Commenterjj

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