If you travel to countries where people speak multiple languages — so, pretty much any nation that’s not the United States — you’ll notice that signs often speak multiple languages, too. Helpful? Ideally. But not especially attractive. And sometimes, the signs are so busy, they can actually be hard to read. In Lebanon, where residents jaw in Arabic and French (and often English, too), a designer has found a way to visually marry Eastern and Western letter forms to produce bilingual signage that looks like it’s anything but.
The signage, by Lebanese-born, Brooklyn-based Mary Choueiter, forms the visual identity of the Beirut Exhibition Center, a new contemporary art space in Beirut. Choueiter was inspired by the center’s new building (by L.E.FT Architects), a low-slung box with a corrugated aluminum facade that artfully mirrors and warps the surroundings. As a riff, she distorted both Latin and Arabic alphabets, hardening the elegant cursive of the latter and softening the harsh blockiness of the former. The result: a single typographic aesthetic in which the Arabic and the Latin smoothly reflect one another. “My proposal was simple: to bring together the disparate visual forms of English and Arabic in a cohesive typographic approach,” she says. “…I made the conscious decision of not compromising the letterforms of one language to meet the visual language of the other at the expense of the whole. I was rather altering both equally to reach a whole based on the sum of its parts and its own unique visual language.” Side by side on the building, they could practically pass for brothers.
The best part is that they’re still plenty easy to read. You could even argue that they’re more legible because they don’t force your eye to wade through a jumble of wildly disparate characters to find what it’s looking for.
Core77 named Choueiter’s design a runner-up in the 2011 Design Awards. “These elegant environmental graphics solve myriad problems,” juror Paula Scher says. “They combine Arabic and English in a beautiful way; they connect seamlessly with the architecture; they are realized in excellent materials appropriate to the building. The building and graphics are a landmark breakthrough in the region.”
They also just go to show the value of good graphic design in branding, especially abroad. Foreign businesses are notorious for swooping into the Middle East and slapping generic Arabic script onto their logo and calling it a day. (Do a Google image search for “Subway” and “Middle East” if you don’t believe me.) But imagine if they invested in typography that’s sensitive to the particulars of Arabic. It could go a long way toward clarifying and communicating the companies’ brands. And who knows? Maybe it could even redound to the benefit of their bottom line.
[Images courtesy of Mary Choueiter; hat tip to Core77]