Nº 259

Ein Land, drei Schriften

Typographic Island Israel

What makes Israeli graphic design so special? What influence do ancient traditions have on current works? How do designers find inspiration and exchange ideas when their own script, Hebrew, is used by such a small group? Israel is roughly the same size as the German federal state of Hesse, but it’s not only the small dimensions of the country that make design here a niche activity. Only in Israel do designers and typographers have Hebrew as their first language of communication.

The Hebrew language and script were revived around one hundred years ago. Today, Hebrew is the official language of Israel and thus the instrument and subject for Hebrew font designers. Previous generations of font designers were in a way pioneers in this field. Over the last hundred years much energy has been put into the visual development of Israel and today’s market is constantly demanding new fonts. This has resulted in a wide range of great design, little of which has so far made its way to Germany, unfortunately. What gets designed in Israel usually stays in Israel, too. The general enthusiasm for graphic design in other languages often only applies to the use of Latin letters. In contrast, the abstract square script of Hebrew is completely unfathomable to most people.



The Unique Situation of Israeli Typographers


The combination of the three script systems Hebrew, Arabic and Latin is normal in Israel but unique in regards to the rest of the world. Designers working in Switzerland, for example, also regularly have to deal with trilingual design, but in contrast to Israeli typography the three official Swiss languages are all based on the Latin script system. But combining different and sometimes unknown script systems is an everyday task for Israeli typographers. When seeking solutions it’s important to know whether the script systems should harmonise with or stand in contrast to each other. “The greatest challenge is the harmonic variation. You need to consider so much – the size of the letters, their strength, the orientation of the segments, the text lengths – English text is longer than Hebrew – and so on,” says font designer Yanek Iontef.

One absolutely essential issue are the various reading directions. Latin script is read from left to right, Hebrew and Arabic from right to left. In multilingual editorial design, two text levels often meet in the middle of a publication because the English text starts at the front and the Hebrew text at the back. This technique changes the whole structure of a book, which thus has two beginnings and no end in the conventional sense.

Another difficulty is the text length: Hebrew and Arabic texts have pretty much the same length, while English text is longer. This difference in text lengths requires special attention and needs to be considered in the layout. Moreover, when producing multilingual design one needs to make typographic decisions for each language separately. In the process the designer has to consider all script levels so that the design can be realised in line with harmonic variation on all three levels.

Fortunately, the technical problems in designing Hebrew text have now been overcome. Previously it was necessary to adapt text in a time-consuming process and, for instance, to insert fonts as EPS-file – something that meant large data volumes for the designer as well as a huge amount of time and organisation for rounds of proofreading.


Trilingual Country – Monolingual Scripts


Israeli typographers are used to dealing on a daily basis with the two official languages Hebrew and Arabic and the trade language English. However, very few can understand and read Arabic. Although Arabic is firmly established in Israel’s visual world, most people do not have a feel for the script as such but instead perceive it as a familiar but visual element.

Until now Israeli fonts have mostly been configured monolingual in Hebrew. But now the design of bilingual fonts is becoming increasingly relevant and thanks to Open Type and Unicode multilingual fonts no longer present any significant technical barriers. Here, the Latin implementation of a Hebrew font is often carried out by a second designer, more often however the Latin version is directly realised in the design process. Michal Sahar is a good example of a designer who has developed from a Hebrew to a multilingual font designer in recent years. To date she has developed three commercial, multilingual fonts – Maccabi-Block, Arbel Hagilda and Alef/Alef Pro that contain the complete Latin script. The typographer and font designer Oded Ezer has given a Hebrew face to fonts such as Erik Spiekermann’s FF Meta and Font Bureau’s Benton Sans.

Arabic lettering, by contrast, is seldom included by Israeli designers in their fonts. Arabic can be seen everywhere in the urban Israeli environment and, like Hebrew script, it developed from calligraphic roots. But despite this common factor designers are mostly not familiar enough with the Arabic forms to enable development of a vectorised script that corresponds with their original forms.


Particular Challenges and Influences


Hebrew font design frequently takes the historic, cultural and calligraphic traditions as its point of reference. Some 2,000 years of script documentation provide the designers with ancient handwritten manuscripts and scrolls from which they can draw inspiration. Most Hebrew letters are based on the square form, consisting of straight lines and are easy to execute by hand. Here, the contrast between horizontal and vertical lines runs contrary to Latin script. While the vertical lines appear more visually dominant in Latin letters, in Hebrew the horizontal lines are much thicker.

For Yanek Iontef the biggest challenge when creating a new font is to design forms that are sufficiently interesting: “Hebrew forms constantly repeat themselves and are quite similar to each other. Most are square, with only a few circles and triangles.” Moreover, Hebrew makes no use of capitalisation. Hebrew fonts tend to resemble each other – if you leave out the few ascenders and descenders then some of them can no longer be told apart. So there are limited possibilities in designing a new, experimental font because there are only few variables. Moreover, Latin font design has a tradition of italics that’s not customary with Hebrew letters. Michal Sahar, too, regards it as a challenge to design an original form: “In Hebrew there are almost no letters that ascend or descend from the x-level – which is a property that can radically change the appearance and feel of a typeface.”

Besides referencing Hebrew traditions, designers can also draw on font design in other languages. Here, the task of the designer is to understand the style and the elements of Latin script and to connect these to the history of Hebrew script. According to Oded Ezer here the danger is that the result fails to do justice to the Hebrew forms: “The most common mistake of Israeli font designers is to try to imitate Latin scripts.”


Small Market – Big Opportunities


Many typographers in Germany are showing a growing interest in foreign scripts such as Arabic or Chinese. Western designers are fascinated by the unfamiliar forms, and now technology also makes it easy to work with foreign script systems. But is interest in the Hebrew script, and in a German-Israeli typographical exchange, rising too? More and more, this seems to be the case: Israeli designers are giving lectures at international conferences, design magazines are publishing design from Israel and international foundries are increasingly interested in integrating Hebrew in their multilingual font families.

Despite this, the market for Hebrew fonts is still mostly confined to Israel. There is, however, a demand generated by companies and design agencies that serve the Israeli market or a Jewish community outside of Israel. There is plenty of potential in the design of individual fonts for these clients, but so far standard scripts have been used too often for this purpose. “Some don’t even observe the basic rules of Hebrew forms, such as Arial,” says Michal Sahar.

What are the consequences of the small market in this small country for its young and talented designers? What possibilities do young Israeli font designers and typographers have? The market is small but rich. Only few fonts can be sold, but since the Hebrew script has not undergone any development for hundreds of years there is a strong demand for striking fonts. Originality is a major factor here. If a newly presented font resembles another one too strongly, especially a well-known and historically successful one, then it will probably be rejected by the community of established designers and typographers – especially if intended for commercial use. The demand for individuality in typeface design stimulates the designers to come up with fresh fonts and creative letter styles. Oded Ezer believes that Israeli designers have an advantage here: “For young talents this means that it’s easier to be seen. It means that a talented young designer can influence the whole country, simply by brilliant work.” Israeli typeface designers may not get rich by selling their fonts, since their target group is relatively small. But on the other hand, in their own environment they are not a small fish in the typography sea but can become part of a magnificent heritage in Hebrew culture.

Hadassah – The favourite font of the professionals


Asked about their favourite Hebrew font, Israeli designers almost always give the same answer: “Hadassah!” This font by the typographer Henri Friedlaender retains the traditional Hebrew form and simultaneously gives it a modern, contemporary touch. Hadassah is one of the masterpieces of Hebrew font design and is regarded by most professionals as the best Hebrew typeface of the 20th century.




Katrin Brüggemann is a graphic designer with great passion for typography and foreign scripts. In 2013 she graduated with the Bachelor of Arts diploma from her Communications Design course at the University of Applied Sciences Mainz. In 2012 she spent a semester studying at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. The influences gained through her time spent abroad and her encounters with foreign typography became part of her work. Her Bachelor thesis “Alefbet – Hebrew Graphic Design” was awarded four design prizes and published in renowned international publications. Katrin Brüggemann lives and works in Frankfurt/Main.







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