-ING Creative Festival Dubai

As-salamu Alaykum (Peace be upon you), custom lettering

When organizer Ramy Alawssy invited me to speak at the -ING Creative Festival in Dubai, I wanted to make a little gift for the audience. I usually start my talks with a “Hello” slide, so it seemed only right to create some Arabic lettering for the occasion.

Easier said than done, of course. I don’t speak, read or write Arabic, and it’s not an easy alphabet to pick up. Looking at the wealth of gorgeous Arabic calligraphy in general and at the many examples of the phrase “As-salamu Alaykum” in particular, I tried hard to figure out what was letter and what was style. Try it with Roman letters. What makes an A an A? Is it the angle? There are squared-off letters that are perfectly clear. Is it the enclosed space at the top? An inverted V will read, too. What about serifs? What about script letters or a mix of upper- and lowercase letters?  

Of course, I could simply copy the standard lettering found on Wikipedia, but that’s the equivalent of using Arial. I was told that this default typface was mostly used for official documents, and would look out of place if used for a special occasion. Ornamentation was called for. I did some more studying, made sketches, and then relied on friends fluent in Arabic and possessed of good taste in design to help me balance aesthetics and legibility. My thanks go to Sonali Pahwa, Rajah Dagstani and his wife Dr. Martine McManus, and to Ramy Alawssy and his team, of course. 

Initially, I had planned on morphing “As-salamu Alaykum” into “Hello,” but as you can see from this (inverted) study, the attempt was neither particularly impressive nor particularly clear. It wasn’t a bad idea, but required a lot more time than I had available. The initial Hello should’ve used all pieces of the Arabic letterforms, and the timing of the transition needs to be just right to feel organic.

As it was, I tried to seek shelter in familiar terrritory, slathering everything in gold. It had worked so well on the movie titles for Immortals and Mirror Mirror. Of course, I spent ages refining both of those finishes to make them feel true. In this case, a quick Photohop effect made me reconsider. It looked nice enough, but not quite great, either:


With some fiddling I arrived at a stone texture I borrowed from Angelica, and expanded the composition with a background texture I took from a tarnished piece of silver. As my talk focused on the existential importance of Easter eggs, I added a few discoverable details for eagle-eyed viewers. Here’s an example. There are three more: 


In the end, I hope that I produced something that was understood for what it was—a heavily accented greeting from a well-meaning stranger.


Detail of the finished piece on the -ING main screen
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