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.
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."