“We knew that war was coming so I wanted to find a way out and continue to do art,” says Wissam Shawkat, an Iraqi calligrapher who moved to Dubai at the end of 2002.
At the time, he was unsure that he would be able to earn a living as a calligraphy artist in the United Arab Emirates, despite having sold several of his works from art exhibitions in Baghdad to buyers in the Gulf. But a stint in an advertising agency was enough to convince him that demand for Arabic calligraphy was growing, particularly from businesses looking for corporate logos.
Mr Shawkat now splits his time between fine art calligraphy and designing logos for some of the largest companies in the UAE. He has created logos for hotels, government bodies, leisure facilities and banks. As well as logos for regional companies trying to emphasise their roots, he also translates international brand names into Arabic typography for their Middle East operations. Shop signs and corporate stationery, for example, typically feature the English name on the left, the logo in the middle and the Arabic name on the right (because English reads left to right while Arabic reads right to left). He recently completed a piece for watchmaker Patek Philippe. “I had to take the aesthetics of [Patek Philippe’s] logos and make them in Arabic in the same style,” says Mr Shawkat. “It can be challenging because you are converting from Roman letters to Arabic and sometimes you have letters that won’t work.”
Calligraphy is an obvious choice for companies targeting Arab consumers. “The main reason for going for Arabic calligraphy was to show our strong local presence with religious attachment,” says Mohammad Junaid Khan, head of marketing at Takaful Emarat, a sharia-compliant insurer based in the UAE. “We
are in the business of providing insurance in compliance with Islamic principles . . . Arabic calligraphy creates more emotional reference to the consumers.”
Emirates Airline was one of the first companies in the region to use calligraphy in its logo. “Emirates has had the same identity, with some minor tweaks, since 1985,” notes Mike Platts of North55, a brand consultancy in Dubai. “The success of this brand, which predates a lot of the other larger brands using calligraphy by 10 years or more, blazed a trail for the inclusion of Arabic in the identities that followed.”
When companies commission new logos from branding agencies in the region, they are usually presented with at least one calligraphic option. Golfer Tiger Woods opted for a calligraphic design for a golf course bearing his name that was planned for Dubai. “Tiger Woods was very keen to see the Arabic side of the identity come through and chose the calligraphy option,” says Hermann Behrens, chief executive of The Brand Union, a global consultancy that used calligraphy for the first time in 2005 when it designed a logo for Saudi Arabia’s Al Rajhi Bank.
International companies that open operations in the Gulf often use calligraphy as a stamp of authenticity. Calligraphy might be considered an odd choice for those international companies that employ and cater to non-Arabic speakers, but the designs are rarely judged on their legibility alone. “It’s about creating an icon,” says Mr Behrens.
Artistry tends to take precedence but the designs can be adapted to help potential customers. Takaful Emarat added three colours to its monochrome calligraphic logo three years ago to make it easier to read.
“Legibility is the enemy of creativity,” comments Mr Shawkat. “I always try to tell clients, ‘since you are going to have the words in English, and sometimes in Arabic too, why sacrifice the artistic for legibility?’ ”