Can a typeface promote unity? We look at two Arabic/Hebrew fonts

Is it possible to create a font that combines two different languages? Israeli type designers Liron Lavi Turkenich and Daniel Grumer have done exactly that. In individual projects, each has created a hybrid Arabic/Hebrew typeface, which aims to provide some unity between the two alphabets – and more symbolically, between the two communities. Both typefaces are currently being exhibited in Israel and we chat to the designers about how their bilingual fonts work, their inspirations and whether there’s any chance of collaboration between them in the future. 


Aravit words
Aravrit words

Liron Lavi Turkenich is a freelance type designer, originally from Haifa, Israel, and graduated from Shenkar College, Tel Aviv in 2012 with a bachelors degree in Visual Communication, where she created her font Aravrit. She also has a masters from The University of Reading in typeface design.

Design Week: What does Aravrit look like?

Leron Lavi Turkenich: Aravrit is a hybrid set of new letters that are composed of Arabic on the upper part and Hebrew on the bottom part. In order to read it, any Hebrew speaker would look at the bottom half of the letters, and an Arabic reader would look at the top half. A person basically only needs half of each script in order to read.

DW: What’s your inspiration behind Aravrit?

LT: Aravrit was designed as my graduation project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design during my studies of visual communication – since then it has grown and continued to develop. The inspiration behind it is personal and due to my surroundings. In Israel, we have three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. Every road sign uses all three, but only rarely is there a visual connection between the typefaces. Haifa, my hometown, is a multicultural city with both Hebrew and Arabic speakers and even there the scripts were not harmonised together. I was also inspired by my husband’s father – he comes from Argentina and feels more comfortable with Spanish. He was toying with the idea that we could all watch television together, but each of us use subtitles in the language that we prefer. I felt that I should try to design an experimental new writing system that would allow each of us to read what we were comfortable with.

DW: How did you create the font?

LT: I divided all the letters from the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, keeping only the upper half of the Arabic and the bottom half of the Hebrew, and then started modifying each half to form basic legible letters from each script. The two letters, from each script, are combined harmoniously into one letter. In some letters, the Hebrew is more prominent, and in others, the Arabic. This resulted in 638 new combined letters. Each time, I asked for feedback from different people to see how easily they could read the words. From the beginning I had to understand the scope of the project and make some compromises – the Arabic script is normally connected, and each letter has four forms (when a letter is located at the beginning of a word, in the middle, at the end and the isolated form). I only used the isolated form as, otherwise, I would have had to design thousands of glyphs.

DW: What were the challenges of creating a font that combines two languages?

LT: Because each letter is only half visible, I had to make sure that the important features which help to identify the letter remain. The viewers need to get used to looking at only one half (either top or bottom), but this seems to work fairly well – and the reactions I’ve received after others have succeeded in reading it are similar to the joy and great sense of accomplishment felt after solving a puzzle.

DW: How is the font read?

LT: Each writing system works exactly as is should – and so it happens that both Hebrew and Arabic are both read from right to left. The only thing that is different is that you should be looking mostly either at the top or the bottom.

DW: Why did you decide to put Hebrew on the bottom and Arabic on the top?

LT: This is due to legibility tests in which I conducted according to the nature and structure of each script: in Arabic, most of the recognisable features of the letters are on the top half, and luckily, in Hebrew most of them are on the bottom half. This allowed me to keep those features and combine both scripts, with specific modifications.

DW: Was anyone else involved in the creation of Aravrit?

LT: Many were involved in reading and giving feedback, including friends and family. Because I cannot read Arabic (yet), I had to gather comments from people who could. On my daily train commute to Tel Aviv from Haifa I approached random people who I heard speaking Arabic and asked them if they could assist me. When they agreed – they always did – I showed them test documents and asked them if they could read the words and if they were legible enough. As they weren’t designers and had never heard of the project before, their feedback allowed me to create something that would be clear to the majority. I also had help from some professionals, such as the wonderful type designer Oded Ezer and my classmate Shady Matar, a native Arabic speaker.

DW: You say that Aravrit is a project of “utopian nature” – what do you hope to achieve with your design?

LT: I did not intend this new writing system to replace road sign typography, but to bring awareness, encourage people in Israel to think about their daily lives and to remind them that we mustn’t ignore one another. I wanted each script to keep its basic features so that people could read it – but even still, while reading only one half, you cannot ignore the other script, as it is literally attached.

DW: You are currently exhibiting your font at exhibition Davar Hamelekh – why are you showcasing your work?

LT: Lashon” in Hebrew means language and tongue. This whole event is about the language in our lives. I was asked to exhibit my work there and I believe this will visually enrich the programme and get people to think and have fun while reading Aravrit.

DW: Who do you hope will use Aravrit?

LT: Overall, I wish for Aravrit to be known to many people. I have already received good reactions from Iranians and Lebanese people – I hope that, particularly in Israel, the project will encourage people to think about living together without ignoring one another. I don’t think it will become an official script – but as an experimental project, it’s extremely important.

DW: What do you think about Daniel Grumer’s project (see below)? How is his font different, and have you drawn inspiration from him at all?

LT: Daniel’s design is an actual typeface, whereas mine is more of an experimental writing system. I think his project is interesting, as it is a product of the need to find a typeface that would work for both Hebrew and Arabic readers – in Israel, we have some multilingual cases that this project could be addressed to. I graduated a few years before Daniel, so I only found out about his project recently, but was happy that he decided to design such a typeface. 

DW: Is there chance of collaboration between the two of you in the future?

LT: We have not collaborated yet, but we may do in the future. In the small community of type designers in Israel, it’s always lovely to meet another one.

DW: What was your inspiration behind the name ‘Aravrit’?

LT: This name is a combination of Aravrit (which means Arabic in Hebrew) and Ivrit (which means Hebrew in Hebrew).

DW: Are there any future developments for Aravrit?

LT: The project keeps on developing all the time, and new opportunities keep on appearing.


Daniel Grumer is a UX designer at a start-up company in Tel-Aviv, Israel. He studied Visual Communication at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and created his hybrid font Abraham during his degree.

Design Week: What’s your inspiration behind Abraham?

Daniel Grumer: Abraham is a dual-alphabet font containing both Hebrew and Arabic characters, which aims to display both languages in a visually equitable manner. I designed it as my Bachelor project, while studying in Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The inspiration and motivation came from local street signs, which display all three official languages of Israel (Hebrew, Arabic and English). These signs lack the typographic sensitivity I, as a designer, expect them to have. It is clear to see that we all live here, speakers of Hebrew, Arabic and English, but as the signs suggest, separately.

DW: What does Abraham look like?

DG: The main feature of the Abraham typeface is that text in Arabic can be placed alongside text in Hebrew and these texts will look like they both belong to the same font family. In order to achieve this optical balance I designed the Hebrew letters slightly higher and thicker. For decoration I consistently subtracted the corners in set angles. That is also what gives the font its unique look. It is a “side-by-side”’ collaboration – the basic separation between the languages was perfectly kept. Hebrew letters look exactly like regular Hebrew letters and the same for Arabic. In that aspect, this is basically a practical font that can be used just like any other font.

DW: How did you create the font?

DG: In a symbolic way, it felt much like negotiation. The Arabic letters wanted prominent ascenders, descenders, curves and bowls while the Hebrew letters called for firm structure, boxes and their own rhythm. Finding balance was the key – I was looking for “sweet spots” that enabled both languages to match without losing their identity. I always worked on both languages at the same time, side by side. I began with thin lines that were easier to handle, and slowly added weight.

DW: What were the challenges of creating a font that combines two languages?

DG: It is 100 per cent readable – the main challenge was in visually matching the languages and finding solutions without harming any of the sides. Even though both languages are very different today, they both came from the same historic roots – the design takes advantage of this. I traced historic resemblances between the alphabets, and emphasised the similarities.

DW: How is the font read?

DG: From right to left, as both languages are written in that direction.

DW: Was anyone else involved in the creation of Abraham?

DG: Absolutely – since I had never designed anything like it, and since I’m not an Arabic speaker, I knew I had to consult with several people. Noam Schechter (from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design) was my main instructor. He guided me through four months of intensive work. Hussein Alazaat is a Syrian calligrapher from Jordan who I conducted Skype video conversations with. Adi Stern, Michal Sahar, Oded Ezer, Yanone, Ben Nathan and Nir Yeini also contributed from their experience. 

DW: Has any research been conducted into use of the font?

DG: My instructor Noam Schechter encouraged me to challenge myself and experiment with the languages. I was trying to experience Hebrew (my mother tongue) through the handwriting of Arabic people – I walked the streets of Jaffa and East Jerusalem and tried to examine how Hebrew typography looks in an Arabic-speaking environment. There was something fascinating about it. I noticed their habit to over-curve the letters, as if it was Arabic. I tried to bring some of that into my font. I also used many typographic books to learn more about the alphabets. One project that I learned a lot from was Typographic Matchmaking (Netherlands, 2008), in which Arabic and Dutch type designers collaborated to create Arabic versions that matched popular Latin typefaces. Showing the font to Arabic speakers was also a very important part of the process.

DW: What do you hope to achieve with your design?

DG: There are over two million Arabic speakers in Israel and, unfortunately, the complicated situation between Jewish and Arabic people of Israel keeps getting worse. Perhaps a big change could start from something small. I believe small things matter. By finding mutual compromises, I created some sort of a typographic bridge between the languages – my message is to show that it is possible. I want this project to encourage more Israeli type designers to develop their fonts with Arabic support.

DW: You are currently exhibiting your font at Davar Hamelekh – why are you showcasing your work?

DG: I want the image presented to trigger curiosity, a first impression of “What language is this?” On a second look, Hebrew speakers notice that they recognise some of the letters before they figure out that the rest are Arabic letters. I think that the complicated political situation can make Hebrew speakers afraid of Arabic – I think this artistic way of showing Arabic mixed with Hebrew, and therefore in a different context, can neutralise these thoughts.

DW: Who do you hope will use Abraham?

DG: After publishing the font, I hope to see it being used by public organisations, institutes and out in the streets of Israel, as well as in any design project that features both languages.

DW: What do you think about Liron Turkenich’s project? How is her font different, and have you drawn inspiration from her at all?

DG: I think Liron’s project is beautiful and was a great inspiration for my project, as it was designed two years before mine. Although our intentions are very similar, our projects are very different. “Aravrit” is a fascinating experimental project that brings Hebrew and Arabic to “live in the same house”, while “Abraham” is a practical font that makes Hebrew and Arabic “perfect neighbours”.

DW: Is there chance of collaboration between the two of you in the future?

DG: We actually met for the first time at the opening evening of the “Davar Hamelekh” exhibition. I think it would be very interesting to collaborate in the future!

DW: What was your inspiration behind the name “Abraham” (full name, ‘Avraham-Ibrahim’)?

DG: It is pronounced “Avraham” in Hebrew and “Ibrahim” in Arabic, but all these names refer to the same biblical father – Abraham. According to the story in the Bible, Abraham had two sons – Isaac and Ishmael – I went back to the point of the story before they were separated. I think the biblical name creates an interesting mix between old and new, since the design of the font itself is clean and doesn’t contain historical traces (i.e. calligraphy, serifs etc).

DW: Are there any future developments for Abraham?

DG: My intention is to release a font family with three weights: light, regular and bold. I am really looking forward to it. Afterwards, besides designing dual-alphabet fonts, I think it would be an interesting initiative to start examining how the Latin alphabet could come into this equation too.

Both fonts are being exhibited at Davar Hamelekh, an exhibition that is part of Lashon Rishon, the eighth annual conference of the Hebrew language, running until February 25 at the Rishon Letzion city hall, Israel.

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