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Arabic book design: slow progression

Since the end of the nineteenth century Arabic book designers have influenced the social and cultural situation in the Middle East with their work. Huda Smitshuijzen Abi-Farès has written the first global overview of this neglected field of science. PhD defence 10 January.

Historic reconstruction

The research carried out by Smitshuijzen Abi-Farès is the first to shed scientific light on the transition period within Arabic graphic design culture, thus closing a longstanding gap in graphics teaching. She shows that the visual aspects of books - such as design, lay-out, typography and illustrations - are essential in connecting the reader with the book; they also influence how the reader experiences his or her cultural identity. The PhD candidate made a historical reconstruction to demonstrate how present-day Arabic book design arose from a fusion of centuries-old traditions and new Western influences.  


She discovered that from around 1970 engaged, progressive Arabic artists regarded the printed book as a suitable medium for popularising art. In their work they merged traditional Arabic images and modern Western values into one eclectic whole. They recognised the important role played by children's books, for example, as a tool for cultural development. Beautifully designed and illustrated publications, completely in Arabic style, appeared that taught children  to think as responsible individuals, based on Western scientific methods. 

Slow evolution

The evolution of book design proceeded more slowly than in the Western world, her work shows. Unlike in the more fragmented Europe, where there is no single authority in control of printers and publishers, in the Ottoman Empire writing traditions were standardised. Everything was in the service of the State, and the State exercised absolute control. It was only when the power of the Ottoman Empire waned that there was more freedom for innovation. Nonetheless, it was difficult for Arabic designers to let go of the traditional conventions, partly because the - graphically challenging - Arabic script was difficult to reproduce on a large scale. 

Clearing up a misunderstanding

Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, a graphic designer with a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies, realised during her Graphic Design and Typography programme in the Middle East that all modern examples of designs of Western publications were by Western designers. 'I really couldn't believe that design was exclusively a Western activity,' she explains. 'As a book designer, typographer and teacher, I felt it was important to clear up that misunderstanding.  That's when I started to compile a history of Arabic book design.' 

Previously unrecorded

Because of the unchartered territory of modern Arabic book design, Smitshuijzen AbiFarès first had to carry out several years of field research in order to gather data. She started by visiting Arabic book fairs to gain a good understanding of the many types of books and how they differ in terms of the quality of their content, design and binding. 'I did a lot of archive research, but I also interviewed publishers, editors, designers and book producers in Cairo and Beirut, at that time the centre of the Arabic book world. It was wonderful to discover this unrecorded history, particularly because I myself am from Beirut. I look now with a completely diferent mindset at things that I wouldn't have given a second glance in my teenage years.' 

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