May 4, 2017

Dubai: a city so dynamic that the government designed a typeface for free expression


It’s not often that I get to think about the political implications of a typeface. In fact, the last time I did was years ago when I tried to dissuade an author and designer from using Fraktur, the typeface most often associated with Nazi propaganda, for a book’s titling. Type is apolitical because it asks what can be represented, not what is represented. It hides itself behind the meaning and context of what it’s trying to convey. Simple when it needs to be simple. Elegant when it needs to be elegant. It evinces the golden ratio better than the most perfect pine cone. It treats the x-height (read, the median height) like the affectionate marking a mother makes from the crown of her child’s head on the banister.

It is not without some dismay, then, that I write today about Dubai Font, a newly released, free-to-the-public typeface brought to you by the same people who dredged the ocean to make an island look like a palm tree. Its design was funded by the government of Dubai—aka the poet Fazza aka the Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum—with the stated intention of furthering the United Arab Emirates’ “vision to become a regional and global leader in innovation.” The statement from Hamdan goes on to say that the design is “a remarkable symbol of success and tolerance” and the “openness and harmony of the people of the UAE,” because it includes character sets in both Arabic and Latin.

Last week, Liam Stack of the New York Times reported on the Dubai Font’s release to call out some alternate facts. His assessment, not far from my own, was that this is a strange move from a government that suppresses speech, oppresses immigrant laborers, and has numerous times been cited for human rights violations. “The United Arab Emirates has no democratically elected institutions,” he writes, “and no formal commitment to free speech. It has been accused of systemic human rights abuses, including torture and the forced disappearance of government critics.”

And in an interesting twist, the announcements coincide with a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #ExpressYou, which asks the citizens of the world (including those in Dubai, presumably) to use the new type to express their thoughts without limits.

This made me think of a couple possible uses…

(Read more about immigrant labor abuses in Dubai here)

(Read more about crack downs on dissidents here)

(Read more about Human Rights abuses and the advocates being silenced here)

Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.