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A Type Design Brief: What Is In It, And Why Does It Matter?

Type design is equal parts suffering and euphoria. It is a walk along a winding road that goes on for many weeks and months before it’s done. A type design brief is like a charter path: It asks you questions, and the answers will guide you to where you want to be.

It will not make the walk much shorter, but the chances of getting lost will be much lower. Below are six questions that will shape the typeface through its first moments of creation and serve as guiding principles through the various stages of the design.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

1. What Is The Intended Function Of The Typeface? Link

A typeface is a group of symbols destined to be rendered as words. The purpose of all letters is to communicate a visual or linguistic message to you, the reader. Sometimes they tell a story in a novel, sometimes the news of the day. At times, they direct you on the highway, while other times they update you on what your friends are having for dinner.

A typeface is a bunch of drawings that come to life when used as text. The words and their context will differ, and, therefore, the function of the typeface will vary according to the intended usage. A typeface designed to shout news headlines at people rushing about to get to work will be different from a typeface designed to capture the delicacy of a French wine.

Deciding on the function of a typeface is the first question that needs to be answered in a design brief. It will be the principle that guides you (the reader and, here, a designer) to judge whether the design works. It is similar to deciding what to wear every morning. Are you going to the beach or the office? Are you going to a party or the gym?

The thing is, even the most gorgeous high heels are not suitable for a treadmill. In the course of designing, you might draw letterforms that look great but do not perform well when put to use. If you’ve already decided on the intended function of the typeface, then the dilemma of choice is less scary.

Gebran2005 is a newspaper headline typeface meant to have a bold and strong visual presence. (View large version6)

2. In What Sort Of Media Will It Be Used? Link

There was a time when all books were printed, and the main use of type was either for text or display. Today, we have added one word that modifies how we read and how we design typefaces: text or display, and where? The nature of ink, paper and the pressure needed to imprint the former onto the latter is very different from the nature of the light emitted from a glowing screen.

The way this affects a design is either subtle or pronounced, depending on how small the text size is and how high the resolution of the screen is. In either case, one needs to know whether the typeface is to be read in print, on screen or both.

Another qualifier quickly presents itself: and in which country? There are regional variations in typographic trends and visual language. Some typefaces are meant to be universal in appeal, and some dedicated to particular regions. Knowing where it will come to life will help you to design a more robust typeface.

Neue Helvetica Arabic for SKY was custom modified to be used in SKY News Arabia’s TV broadcasts and websites. The height of the font has been restricted in order not to require a tall space. (View large version8)

3. What Language Does It Speak? Link

For many years now, typefaces have been conceived to speak in many different scripts and languages. Some design concepts are quite difficult to translate across script systems. With this in mind, map out your character set in order to plan how the design will extend across various scripts. This is also important for managing time, projecting costs (for the client) and collaborating with other designers.



SST was designed as the corporate typeface for Sony, and it supports several scripts, including Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, Thai and Japanese. (SST Arabic by Nadine Chahine, and SST Latin by Akira Kobayashi.) (View large version12)

4. What Personality Does It Convey? Link

If the typeface were a person, who would it be? Would it be male or female? Young or old? Hip or conservative? Sometimes it’s not about the personality, but rather the behavior. Formal or informal? Relaxed or tense? And sometimes it’s about the voice. Loud or soft? Confident or shy?

Determining these traits will help you to visualize the kind of impact the typeface should have, and these are usually connected to function. A typeface meant for newspaper headlines will be loud and confident, rather than shy and soft.

Baraem is the corporate typeface of Baraem TV, targeted at children between the ages of 3 and 6. It’s personality is fun, informal and childlike. (View large version14)

5. What Design Characteristics Are Needed Or Desired? Link

Finally, it is time to talk about the design. Does the intended function call for a serif or sans serif? A handwriting script or all-caps wood blocks? High contrast or mono-linear?

Starting with these questions and staying within the realm of curves and outlines is possible, but a typeface that is strongly tied to a particular function or environment has a better chance of transcending the boundaries of black and white and representing more than just letters and words.

Afandem Dynamic’s is intended as a full-fledged text face in the style of Ottoman Naskh calligraphy. (View large version16)

6. Which Calligraphic Or Typographic Style Are You Referencing? Link

This is where the design engine starts running. If you are designing a sans serif, will it be a humanist or grotesque? Each style has its own conventions of structure, proportion and modulation of strokes.

A typeface is like the human body. The skeleton is the structure underlying the letters. You will see it by drawing a line in the middle of the inner and outer edges. The structure conveys proportion and movement: fast or slow, energetic or relaxed, wide or narrow.


Palatino Arabic and Palatino Sans Arabic have the same skeleton, but the modulation is different. (View large version19)

Then you have the flesh. This is the weight around the skeleton. Where you put the thins and thicks will largely be determined by the tool you use to trace the skeleton. Now that you almost have a full body, you must think of the head and feet. Will you have serifs, or do you prefer flats? This is where the design brief splits from a single path into many. If you were to present the first five questions to five different designers, you would likely get different answers to the sixth question and, by extension, different designs.

As such, the sixth question is more of a transitional phase between the conceptual definition of the typeface (i.e. what it is supposed to do and represent) and what it will actually look like.

This is when the real fun begins.

Note: All typefaces included this article were designed by Dr. Nadine Chahine herself.

(al, il)

Footnotes Link

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Dr. Nadine Chahine is an award winning Lebanese type designer working as the Arabic and Legibility Specialist at Monotype. She has won several awards including two from Type Director's Club in New York in 2008 and 2011. Her work is featured in Megg's History of Graphic Design and in 2012 she was selected for Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People in Business, and again to its Most Creative People in Business 1000 in 2014. Her typefaces include: the best-selling Frutiger Arabic, Neue Helvetica Arabic, Univers Next Arabic, Palatino and Palatino Sans Arabic, Koufiya, and BigVesta Arabic.

  1. 1

    @Nadine your article is an awesome article. But may I ask if you please… What is the point of posting English article with (Arabic screenshot/images) fonts? I am not against you, reading articles written by Arabic authors makes me feel good.


  2. 3

    Great as usual Nadine! I hope this is a part of a series of articles about type design :)

  3. 4

    As someone who can’t read Arabic, I noticed that the use of Arabic examples meant I could only see the typefaces as (in the words of the author) “a bunch of drawings”, and so I couldn’t be distracted and/or influenced by what the words meant. I’m not sure it would work in every article about typefaces, but it did make me think a bit harder about the principles discussed in the article.

    • 5

      I was wondering how it would feel for someone who can’t read Arabic to read this article and you answered that! Thank you! :-)

    • 6

      That’s exactly how I felt, too. Being unable to read any of the content within the examples actually helped convey things like the “personality” of the font. Great article Nadine!

  4. 7

    Sommer Aweidah

    February 18, 2014 6:30 pm

    I LOVE IT! Thanks Smashing Magazine for posting an article on arabic fonts! I love that you understand that the world is bigger than the English language! Keep up the great work.

  5. 8

    Wonderful article. I really like your work and I believe there is a great future in Arabic typography!
    I would love to know more about specific design particularities (and challenges) regarding Arabic typography. As a “westerner” I’ve been working with Arabic fonts on some projects but always had to get the help of an Arabic native to “get it right”.
    A very simple example is: legibility is not the same if we keep the same font size as in Latin fonts. Another one is: can Arabic fonts be classified as Latin ones (e.g. script – humanist – slab…)?

  6. 9

    Why Arabic… I can’t read any Arabic and I guess most of us can’t. Finally if it were Chinese I guess that I would be able to read it.

    Finally as an East Asian user, I must say that there are few good CJK typefaces, especially those optimized for display, except for Windows Vista fonts. I would be very happy if you wrote an article on East Asian typefaces.

  7. 10

    A very informative article. Arabic calligraphy has a great history and a great future as well. I am not native Arabic, but the strokes in Arabic typography always inspires me.

    Thanks Nadine.

  8. 11

    Wow this is very very wonderful!

  9. 12

    It was really nice to open Smashing Magazine this morning to an article with Arabic typography written by a Lebanese! Made me so proud!!
    Great article, good stuff :)

  10. 13

    Great article. Thanks a lot.

  11. 14

    شكرا نادين

  12. 15

    Great article,
    Can’t wait to see more from you.

  13. 16

    Great post, waiting for more!

  14. 17

    abed el salam

    March 1, 2014 3:08 pm

    Thanks, nice post

  15. 18

    This is informative. This is my first time to hear about this and I don’t know how to read Arabic. But, I really admire those arabic strokes. For comparing it as a human body. The structure conveys proportion and movement: fast or slow, energetic or relaxed, wide or narrow. Impressive!

  16. 19

    oh good things to know

  17. 20

    RD Design London

    March 14, 2014 4:04 pm

    Thank you Nadine, for re-introducing an Arabic world and drawing attention to font elaboration.

  18. 21

    Andrew Patrick

    April 15, 2014 2:01 pm

    I really appreciate the efforts of the author regarding type design brief keep up the good work .


  19. 22

    thanks for informative share! It’s great!

  20. 23

    Great post, Thanks!

  21. 24

    Masoud Mohammadzadeh

    April 26, 2014 12:11 am

    Thank you. I think Discover Compassionate Love and Emotional Intelligence are important for start and also pleasure . good post.

  22. 25

    In the name of Allah
    thanks a lot


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