Designing the Font for the Tallest Building in the World

Calligraphy-inspired modern typography is increasingly in demand in places like Dubai.

sheller shilia banner 615.jpg
Linotype

The tallest building in the world is, by definition, quite visible. So it makes some sense that the creators of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai were fastidious about the look of the tower—right down to the font faces in the parking garage. Austrialia's Emerystudio, the firm designing the building's wayfinding systems—the signage that directs visitors around the huge structure—wanted to employ Arabic typography that'd be distinctive, legible, and harmonious when placed next to Latin lettering. Now, the font created for the tower may be spreading to other parts of the fast-developing Middle East.

In 1978, Dr. Mamoun Sakkal, Syrian-born, U.S. type designer in Bothell, Wash., created a Latin-complementary typeface called Shilia (after a mountain range) for a Saudi company. At Emerystudio's behest, he transformed it into a newer type family called Burj Khalifa Shilia. Was he inspired by the unparalleled views afforded by the skyscraper? Not quite.

Arabic lettering was barely on Westerners' radar only a dozen years ago. "These are very exciting times to be an Arabic type designer," says one font maker.

"I wish I had a chance to go to the top of the building or wander in and around it," Sakkal, who was commissioned in 2006, told me. "But when I started the design, the construction was at level 50 of a total of 160 floors, and during the few months it took to complete and approve the typeface design, 50 more floors were completed. Any inspiration was based on descriptions and imagined futures."

For Sakkal, who was trained as an architect, making mental pictures of unbuilt structures was not a problem. Besides, when designing a font face like this, the main considerations are practical ones: "If you are driving your car through the building garage, you want to read the exit route signs easily and without confusion," he said. "On the other hand, the typeface will be used throughout the project for many years to come, and it should maintain freshness, modernity, and timeless quality that would not date it or the building."

All the signs in Burj Khalifa are bilingual, with both English and Arabic appearing next to each other with equal prominence. Landor Associates developed the brand identity for Burj Khalifa (previously Burj Dubai) and had selected Foundry Sans as the Latin typeface for use throughout the project. The firm had also chosen an Arabic font face, but Emerystudio wanted something different for signage. Shilia would work better, Emerystudio decided, because the weight is suitable for backlighting messages, the characters are narrower so that message lengths are more contained, the contemporary character of letterforms harmonizes with the Burj's contemporary geometric sign-structure and architectural design, and it best complements the selected Latin typeface.

Linotype's brochure for the Shilia font family

Now, Sakkal's font may start showing up outside of the Burj Khalifa. Nadine Chahine of Monotype Imaging and Linotype in Germany, a Ph.D. candidate working on legibility studies for Arabic script, saw the Shilia sketches that Sakkal had on his website and approached him with an offer that Linotype—the firm that holds copyright for many of the world's most most popular fonts—license the typeface for even broader applications than the building. "My role here was simply as the Arabic Specialist," she told me. "Shilia is a unique design and it fits perfectly with the kind of modern and elegant design that so many branding designers are looking for."

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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