Sand, magic carpets, Islamic art, Mecca, turban, luxury, camels, incense, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, arabesque art and cous cous are just a few of the images that spring to mind when thinking Arab world. But there is actually a misconception of what is the ‘Arab world’. Most often the ‘Arab world’ is thought of as solely the Middle East. The Middle East however is only the geographical area defined by the lands between Egypt and south-west Asia. The Arab world is much much larger. The geographical expanse of the Arab world reaches far wider when it is correctly defined by countries which are Arabic speaking.
That is to say, the Arabic language is the defining element of the ‘Arab world’. In total, the Arab world includes 25 countries and territories with a combined population of more than 358 million. This expanse stretches from the west coast of northern Africa (Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria etc) across to Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East.
The history of this expansive region is so deep that it is foolhardy to skim over how the past has influenced art and hence inspired, to a degree, modern web design. For example, Islam, the predominant religion of the Arab world, laid the ground stones for Islamic Art. One of the major reasons that Islamic art is rich in patterns and ‘arabesque’ repetition of forms such as geometrical floral designs is because it is feared by many Muslims that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and thereby a sin against Allah, forbidden in the Qur’an.
This denial of figurative art made way for powerful Arabic calligraphy and abstract depictions. Major outlets for artistic expression can be found in architecture, Arabic scripts, paintings and ceramics where intricate patterns adorn.
So Old Yet So Very Young
A wealth of history but web design still ‘immature’
With this wealth of calligraphic design for inspiration and the unity of the Arabic language defining the Arab world, one would assume that strong typographic design in the Arab web design world is abundant and advanced. But on the contrary. One sad reality about this rich script-based culture is that the web has failed to deliver enough support for Arabic fonts. That is until recent advances in Internet browser support. There are reportedly very few trusted and faithful fonts that allow for really beautiful typographical-based Arabic web designs. Tahoma is the number-one used font – it is available in Latin and Arabic.
So what has then probably most profoundly inspired, but at the same time flummoxed, modern web design in the Arab world is the calligraphic Arabic writing system. Some of our interviewees below impressed the fact that typography for Arab web design is very much Latin-based and the design industry is still very immature. But they are optimistic the latest advances in browsing tools and standards will open the flood gates to more Arabic-based sites.
Quick Overview of Web Design in the Arab World?
When exploring the characteristics of Arabic web design one will find several aspects that make it unique. From the beautiful resources that inspire the designer to the scrolling calligraphy, web design in the Arab world very much has a brand of its own. Below are some interesting points concerning Arabic web design.
- While there are some websites that follow CSS standards, Flash is still “considered the default” option for many commercial web design companies.
- The web is still transitioning from being thought of as an ‘interactive TV’: “clients will project their expectations from the TV medium onto the web which is a process that destroys any hope of creating a usable website”.
- On most international websites Arabic is the secondary language, especially on company and conference websites.
- Professional Arab websites generally have the extra effort of offering bi-lingual publishing – English and Arabic.
- Freelancing in the Arab world is not generally considered a good way to make a living.
- While cost is a major concern for clients around the globe, Arabic web designers report focusing on usability and standards first while improving costs.
- One of the most important influences of Arabic designs is arabesque (repetition of forms and patterns) and the various kinds of calligraphy.
- The Arab world is made of 25 countries and territories, and has a combined population of more than 358 million people. Due to this large area and high numbers income varies greatly from one designer to another.
- There are reportedly very few design schools and design events.
The State Of Affairs
We have asked web designers from various locations within the Arab world a series of 10 questions.
We would like to thank the following for participating in our article:
- Fatma Alemadi of Fatma Studio, Qatar
- Fouad Badawy of Mo3aser, Egypt
- Jennifer Haddad of jennifer Studio, Lebanon
- Ahmed Chergaoui and Younes Qassimi of Synergie Media, Morocco
- Karim Tarek of Karim’s Portfolio, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
- Ghaida Zahran of Ghaida Studio, Saudi Arabia
Could you please describe the life of a freelancer, developer and designer in Arab countries?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: Where I live freelancing is not a common thing. As a mother I’m very selective. I work on a few projects a year because of lack of time. I’ve discussed this with some other fellow designers and developers and I think chances in achieving a stable financial life as a freelancer in the Arab world are very weak. Web design is still a relatively new market, but I’m very optimistic that the market will boom and within few years this can be changed.
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: The way the society in the Arab countries view freelancing is still immature. If he/she works at home all day long on his/her computer, according to Arab societal thinking, this is not a job that can make a living. But because of the lack of suitable job opportunities for young people, many of them are starting to tend to work as a freelancer over the Internet.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: From experience with freelancing life in Lebanon, it can’t be a reliable and only source of income for the designer or developer. It very much depends on the clients a freelancer has, connections and reputation. It’s a life with two faces: on the good side, you have freedom, since no one is being the manager more limiting the creativity, other than the client; and on the bad side, you have the instability.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: Most of Moroccan web designers and developers are young (16-30 years old) and have less experience compared to Europe and North America. However, they’ve proved by many occasion that they’re eager to learn more. In many cases, the client doesn’t measure the full potential of Internet. Therefore, the designer/developer deploys more efforts in educating the client rather than building the website. The process takes more time. Some Arab businesses tend to favour dealing with European agencies than trusting young local talents. That leaves us sometimes with the feeling that local designers/developers aren’t considered at their fair value.
Karim Tarek, UAE: I don’t really work as a full-time freelancer, but I think each of us have our own way of doing things and planning. Generally, I don’t think the life of a freelancer in the Arab countries should be different from any other freelancer in the world, but it is really hard to survive as a freelancer in the Middle East.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: I’m currently working fulltime with Rayat Brands and freelanced for only a short while after I graduated. It’s very difficult to get started as a freelancer here in Saudi Arabia. Clients prefer to work with established agencies rather than individual freelancers because it is assumed that if you were skilled enough you would be employed at an agency. Being a freelancer means you are the CEO, Creative Director, Client Servicing, Accountant, and Designer all in one, and requires masterful time management, and the requirements for a successful freelancer in Arab countries is the same as those in the US and Western Europe. The challenge is greater however, because of a lack of local support communities and resources and tools.
Are there any regular meetings or events?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: Very few.
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: Big technical activities and events are very limited in the Arab region, but with the combination of the following: spread of information technology; growing numbers of companies working in this field; and, young people interested in learning more in this area, the situation improves gradually. Small activities and events organized by youth groups and small technical groups have begun to spread in recent years.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: I’ve never heard of any official freelance meeting or events, so, as far as i know they don’t take place. But usually I and fellow designers sit and discuss design topics during our informal gatherings.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: There is not yet a main event that brings together Arabic freelancers, developers and designers from Arab countries. We mostly meet in European/American Events. In Morocco, the only event that brings together Moroccan freelancers, developers and designers is the Maroc Blog Awards, an event that rewards the best social media actors from Morocco.
Karim Tarek, UAE: I heard about the “Submit Conference” - it is for entrepreneurs and professionals involved in the Internet industry in the Middle East, focused on many aspects of Web applications, like technology, marketing, design and entrepreneurship. That is the only one I’ve heard of. Maybe there are others but I think they don’t promote and market it enough.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: There are no regular meetings for freelancers. Saudi Arabia is a very private society in that regard but the situation is getting better. A few years ago a local artist group in Jeddah, that met on deviantArt, formed the Jeddah Urban Artists and we had our first exhibit as a group in 2006. There is also a more active group, Riyadh Geeks, which meets regularly in Riyadh and is centered more around technology and software/web development than design.
Are there any significant differences between Web designing in Arab countries and and ones in the US and Western Europe?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: I think the communities in the US and/or Europe are more active, but that doesn’t mean that we are left far behind. Also, with the Internet I don’t think we can separate designers according to their regions. A lot of Arab designers who I know are already working in international markets selling their products and work around the Internet .
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: There are no significant differences in web design techniques in the Arab region than anywhere else. Any difference is due only to the perceptions and demands of clients which vary from project to project and client to client.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: Yes there is. The mentality of the clients and users in the US and western Europe is different. They are up to taking challenges and don’t set limitations to creating creative designs. This is a big problem in the Arab world especially KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and sometimes in Dubai and Bahrain. The web design standards for such countries is totally different – they don’t care about the user experience nor if the website they are requesting is accessible to users or if the website reflects the line of work of the business. They have standards that in most cases don’t follow the worldwide trends in design because they are not well involved in the new innovations and evolution in web design.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: Arabic is written from right to left. That means that many websites need to be redesigned to have an optimized website in terms of usability. Also the coding scheme is different, more design elements are added because Arabic characters are shorter and wider than Latin characters. This gives a different visual appearance to the website.
Karim Tarek, UAE: Yes I think so. Web design in Arab countries doesn’t have an identity yet unlike US and Europe.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: Web design in Arab countries is sorely behind that in the US and Western Europe. Extensive and inappropriate use of flash, nested tables for layout, and non-standard markup plague Arabic websites. Unfortunately the web is viewed as ‘interactive TV’ rather than a medium all of its own, and clients will project their expectations from the TV medium onto the web which is a process that destroys any hope of creating a usable website. Flash is considered the ‘default’ medium for commercial web design, and this leads to great user frustration because internet speeds in Arab countries are much slower than those abroad. For example, here in Saudi Arabia, the fastest speed you can subscribe to is 20 MB, and the cost is unjustifiably great. The trick is to manage client expectations and produce a website that will both “wow” the client and remain usable.
Where do you get inspiration from?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: I get most of my inspiration from the design community. I read design blogs and visit css and design galleries. I’m also inspired by other forms of art like photography, decor and fashion. I love colors so anything with colors gets my attention.
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: The Arab region as an environment is very rich with wonderful places and resources that are good sources for inspiration. This is reflected in some designers’ works, however the main sources – considered as the easier – are the different images spread on the various photo sharing web sites, tracking CSS exhibits and keeping track of the work of other designers.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: Everywhere, especially online. I always do research online – read design blogs, & books. Inspiration isn’t achieved from one place in particular for me. Sometimes I get inspired from looking at something that is in no way related to the project I’m working on.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: Websites like behance.net, flickr.com, dribbble.com. Web design galleries such as inspirationti.me, unmatchedstyle.com, siteinspire.net. Design related blogs & portals : smashingmagazine.com, aiga.org, alistapart.com, ilovetypography.com, thegridsystem.org. Arabic Calligraphy.
Karim Tarek, UAE: deviantart.com, smashingmagazine.com and searching google.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: I get inspiration from showcase websites such as Best Web Gallery and CSSRemix. I enjoy browsing dribbble for general design inspiration. Video games are a great inspiration for me personally because they have such rich interfaces. I also seek inspiration away from the computer, elevators, television sets, and even non-electronic objects that we interact with daily.
What’s the situation on the market? How much do designers earn?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: It really depends.We are talking about a lot of countries with a variety of incomes. According to where I live, some people in other Arab countries will think that I have high prices but for people in my country and countries around me my prices can be fair.
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: When you talk about the Arab region, you are talking about 25 countries/territories that have various living standards. But let me talk about Egypt and the Arab Gulf states, where most of my work is concentrated – the cost of a medium-sized project starts from 400 dollars and up to 1000 dollars.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: It differs based on the client, the project and the reputation of the designer. You have clients that are willing to pay a fair amount for the work of a freelancer and some who think that since they are working with a freelancer, the prices should be low – usually the price expectations are really low. The rate starts of at ~$300 for the price of a static homepage.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: The market is still immature. The designers are mainly autodidact and young. We don’t have enough design schools in Morocco. Estimations vary a lot from a region to another; a designer charges by the day, and it’s approximately $200.
Karim Tarek, UAE: This is a tough question, I think each country is a different story. Currently I live and work in UAE. All the companies in the market are mostly foreign companies. It is really rare to find a pure Arabic company and if you were lucky to find one mostly they lack quality, I’m not sure of how much web designers earn but I know that building a website in UAE costs a lot. I would expect that a full-time web designer would get from 10.000 to 25.000 AED (United Arab Emirates Dirham) based on experience, talent, creativity, company and how lucky he/she is.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: Income varies greatly from one designer to another; but the average basic salary for a fresh graduate in Saudi Arabia for example is about 4,000 Saudi Riyals which is about 12,800 USD a year. The variation begins as experience increases and designers with a few years of experience under their belts can earn anywhere from 22,000 USD to 50,000 USD a year.
How do you see the status quo of Web design in Arab countries?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: If the web design in the Arab world was a human, I would say we are in the “teenage” stage and hopefully this teenage boy/girl will grow up to be a smart and successful adult soon – God willing (as we say in Arabic).
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: Web design in the Arab region is still in its early stages and the Arab production over Internet is small compared to the number of Arabic sites and the number of users. But, with an increasing number of young designers who have creative ideas and have a desire to keep up with everything new in this area, it is improving well.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: It is evolving. Web design is totally different from they way it was when I started working three years ago. Clients are more open to the trends and breakthroughs in web design. They are more involved in the Internet world. Websites produced have a more professional international look but still you have a fair percentage of clients who still live in a nutshell and don’t like outside-the-box ideas. The good thing is that the percentage of these clients is decreasing each year, more and more.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: More than 75% of Arab Internet users are under 35. They heavily use social platforms like Facebook and MSN and play a lot of online games. Arabic websites that have a large traffic focus a lot on content and tend to neglect the design part.
Karim Tarek, UAE: Web design in the Arab countries needs a lot of improvement, which in turn needs a lot of effort from individuals like web designers or web developers plus companies. Though, I don’t think in our countries people have the luxury of doing open source projects or writing high quality articles – every one is busy make a living. Life is hard here.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: Currently “advanced” web design is considered anything that is heavy on animation. Flash is the de facto medium for websites, however more clients are beginning to understand the drawbacks to relying heavily on Flash.
Are there any patterns of usability or rules of thumb that are typical of Arabic design? Are the standards of Web design in Arab countries changing?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: People are so crazy about Discussion Boards. Sometimes I think that every kid in my neighborhood has his/her own board. When we first had the Internet years ago people knew the Internet as a place to have freedom of speech through boards, places to say things that they can’t say anywhere else due to regimes in some Arab countries. This is starting to change – but slowly. Also, because some technologies don’t support Arab language except in their later versions we are left behind unable to use this technology until Arabic is supported. And if you think that working with your site design for cross browsing is hard, try right to left design where browsers act strange sometimes and IE bugs are more and harder to solve.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: Yes there are patterns of usability that are usually followed but these are not official standards. Unlike web design in English there are no international standards that all English websites somehow follow. Still, the Arabic language in web design is underestimated and not treated the way it’s supposed to be. It is becoming somehow a secondary website language when in reality it should be the primary language that should be treated initially while designing a website. Usually each country has it’s separate guidelines that should be followed, for example, Dubai Government has that. They have there own set of guidelines and rules that should be applied to all websites designed for the Government of Dubai.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: Perhaps the most important thing to take into consideration is culture. Sometimes designs are rejected because they contain elements that may be considered as inappropriate or shameful. So rule number one: be aware of the cultural specificities of the region you’re designing for.
Karim Tarek, UAE: With respect to usability, there is no difference between an English design and Arabic design – same rules apply. The web standards in Arab countries should be the same like the international ones and I believe it is changing every day, but not every one follows the latest standards As an example you still find websites using tables to build the structure of the web page, so standards are the same but are we making use of it?
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: It would seem that a lot of the web design in Arab countries seems to be stuck in the 90s. This however is slowly changing as talented designers are beginning to observe usability principles and web standards more and also as the web is becoming more of a tool than the entertainment medium people assumed it was years ago.
And how does all of this work? Is the situation currently good or difficult? Do most customers want to have English-speaking or Arabic-speaking sites?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: Most companies want to have two languages, Arabic and English, so in most cases you have to work twice with a lot of the design aspects. For blogs and more personal sites it’s mostly one language Arab or English.
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: This depends on the type of client. Most companies and organizations request that they should have their site in both Arabic and English, and others are in English only. However the sites of individuals should often be in Arabic only and are directed mostly to the Arab user only.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: Unfortunately the Arabic speaking sites are treated as a secondary language in most of the websites. The number of websites which cater first for the Arabic style are somehow rare. Arab countries have come far and evolved when it comes to website design and styles. Still, we need to grow a lot to become like the US and European countries.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: The main projects in Arabic are currently government and institutional projects. Many Arab businesses appear to search more in English or French than in Arabic and prefer to have English-speaking or French-speaking sites. As the Arab world gets more and more connected to the web, I think more Arabic-speaking sites will be created.
Karim Tarek, UAE: In my opinion the situation is bad :), Mostly clients ask for both, though top priority is for the English websites and some clients don’t even care to have an Arabic website – English will do.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: The situation is difficult and like any transition it is challenging but ultimately inevitable. People are beginning to look to the Internet for more than simply looking up a company’s brochure website, but they are starting to see its potential as a valuable tool as well. Thus more web applications such as Qaym and 3aish Jobs are being developed. English speaking websites seem to be the default request by clients as well, even though user demand is great for Arabic websites.
How do Arab designers handle typography? Are any font embedding techniques widely used? Is the choice of available fonts big? How vivid is, in your opinion, typography in Arabic web design?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: There are a good number of Arab fonts, while still mainly three are widely used. The font most used by designers is Tahoma which looks lovely on windows and loses its lovely curvy look on Mac – still I prefer it for smaller text. Most CSS styling techniques are designed for English (Latin) letter so applying them to Arabic text can make the texts looks funny sometimes :). Font embedding technique doesn’t work well with Arabic fonts so this is not used yet. Hopefully we can find a solution for this soon or maybe someone already came up with one and I don’t know :)
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: As an Arab designer i am usually afraid from the Arabic language and it’s a challenge to be able to design a website that looks good and user friendly in Arabic. But it’s a challenge I’m getting good at since the type of projects i work on are 90 % Arabic websites. The fonts used on the web for Arabic are unfortunately still limited to the default Ariel, Verdana, Tahoma and most of the time the font used is Tahoma because it is the most legible on the web. Arabic typography should start to take its rightful place in the web design world. It’s a nice language and it’s our main language in the Arab world. If we don’t treat the language as important and revive it no one else will.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: Based on the sites we designed in Arabic, typography is often limited to the list of fonts already existing on the operating systems. It’s mainly due to the lack of typographic variety. A small example describing this : the number of Arabic font families existing in Linotype directory (http://www.linotype.com/en/51438/kategorien-arabisch.html), compared to the number of sans-serif font families (http://www.linotype.com/en/51431/kategorien-serifenlos.html) - 784 versus 40! Font embedding is not very popular. Solutions like Typekit doesn’t yet offer Arabic fonts. That being said, we think it’s just a matter of time before we’ll be able to deliver custom types in websites using these technologies.
Typography is progressing & there’s some high quality type designers, such as Nadine Chahine, who designed the Arabic versions of well known fonts (helveticaneue, frutiger, palatino, etc..)
Karim Tarek, UAE: As to my knowledge there is no font replacement technology like Cufon or sIFR which supports Arabic, so we just use system fonts which makes the Arabic web layouts much less pleasant than the English one. As for fonts, Arabic fonts are extremely expensive and free ones are hard to find.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: The state of Arabic typography on the web is dismal. This makes designing websites in Arabic a gamble, because you could never tell how the website will look on different users’ computers, the short-term solution for this is to use background images for text, which of course is a usability nightmare and many developers simply ignore the issue and hope for the best. There needs to be a standard set of Arabic typefaces that are available on every operating system, the equivalent to Georgia, Arial, etc. in English.
What makes an outstanding design agency in Arab countries?
Fatma Alemadi, Qatar: Sometimes creativity and individuality … and mostly connections.
Fouad Badawy, Egypt: The appropriate prices or the low prices sometimes! Quality of work, quick response to customer requests as well as a Portfolio that contains good-level work. All these factors increase the success and spread of companies at least at the level of individual customers.
Jennifer Haddad, Lebanon: An agency that cares about quality not quantity. An agency that caters for user experience and stay up to date with the design trends and create its own trends. An agency that works on a variety of projects not just one specific type of project. An agency that has and gives good consultancy service to the client and somehow is able, through that, to influence the client in a good way. Finally, an agency that has the right project cycle and treats the project with care and gives it its rightful time to be finished.
Chergaoui and Qassimi, Morocco: Web designs in Arab countries are primarily intended for a particular culture or nation rather than the World Wide Web. Thus, local expertise is the key! The one who thinks big, works hard and overcomes regional challenges will surely succeed.
Karim Tarek, UAE: A team of passionate people who want to do their own thing instead of follow others and selling crap.
Ghaida Zahran, Saudi Arabia: I would say the same qualities that make any design agency outstanding; matching client expectations with user expectations by creating websites that are both usable and attractive.
Selection of Web Designs from the Arab World
- Fadi Ghandour
- Saudi Mac
- Dr Net
- Maya Zankoul
- Ayman Itani
- Entrepreneurs Law
- Unlimit Tech
- Yalla Startup
- ArabNet Conference
- Submit Conference
- Riyadh Geeks
- Beirut Twestival
- Dubai Tech Nights
- Saudi Geeks
- Maroc Blog Awards
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- Showcase of Web Design in China
- Showcase of Web Design in Israel
- Showcase of Web Design in Russia
- Showcase of Web Design in The Netherlands
- Showcase of Web Design in Germany
- Showcase of Web Design in Mexico
- Showcase of Web Design in Ireland
- Showcase of Web Design in Lithuania