Designing the Font for the Tallest Building in the World

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

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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.

"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."

Arabic type design was barely on Westerners' radar only a dozen years ago. Now, "we are definitely seeing an unprecedented level of interest in Arabic type design," Chahine said. "This is on par with the increased level of design sophistication and the sheer energy that seems to be flowing in this field. These are very exciting times to be an Arabic type designer, and we are lucky that the font technology has developed to a level that gives us so much freedom in design."

Designing Arabic typefaces, of course, comes with its own particular set of challenges. Chahine said designers must choose which broad "structural reference" to handwritten script to follow, Kufi (squarish) or Naskh (more rounded). The task, she said, is to navigate "how much distance is tolerable between typographic interpretations and the pen movements they reference. It is almost like we have an elastic band that ties the letter forms to hand-written ones. We can either go very close in design, and then there is no tension at all, or we go far and the farther you go away the more tension there is. There comes a point where one goes too far, and the band snaps."

Once Linotype became involved, Sakkal expanded the formal scope of the new Shilia beyond the Burj Khalifa version by adding alternate letterforms, weights, typographic features, and languages coverage to include Persian and Urdu, for a total of 21 styles. Burj Khalifa Shilia has 580 glyphs, while the subsequent Linotype Shilia has more than 1,800 glyphs. Advanced OpenType programming was used to implement complex features; Sakkal's daughter, Aida, carried out most of this programming.

Five months after the premiere of Burj Khalifa Shilia early in 2007, Shilia was commissioned for use in Armani Hotel Dubai located within the Tower, the world's first hotel designed and developed by Giorgio Armani. The Latin typeface was Linotype Univers Thin, so a different version of Shilia—"Armani Shilia"—was developed to match it. In addition to the thin weight, slightly different proportions were used here, as well as rectangular dots instead of circular ones. As always, Sakkal's eye was towards usability.

"I believe that those who develop typefaces that are completely disconnected from conventions, or at odds with these conventions, most often waste their time and efforts because users usually discard such work over time," he said. "Having an intimate knowledge of Arabic calligraphy and its long history makes my typefaces more natural and less pretentious. Although I am a firm believer in the need for artistic innovation, I think that in type design intended for general use, this should be balanced with the needs for legibility and unobtrusive originality, both of which are intimately related to historical precedence and collective experience with the written language over many centuries."

With the increasing economic development of the Middle East, type design for the region may become a prosperous business. If Sakkal and Chahine are indicative, Arabic lettering will once again become a flourishing art.