Arabic in multi-script signage and wayfinding

A talk by Julia Petretta

arabic-in-multi-script-signage-and-wayfindingKeep it simple and don’t make people think – this is the common ground rule for signage and wayfinding designers. Simplification in multi-script wayfinding environments however is anything but simple.

The complex elements of a signage system become increasingly intricate in a multilingual layout – especially so when the two languages make use of different scripts. Another layer of complexity comes with altering the reading directions – from right to left and left to right. The Arabic script makes use of both: Arabic text is written right to left, while its numerals are read left to right.

Cultural identity is a crucial ingredient for reading signs in context. It plays into our sense of orientation and expectation of arriving where we want. With increased social and economic exchange between the Middle East and the West, we find more and more multi-script wayfinding projects arising in the Middle East. While the projects vary, they all have to cope with similar decisions of managing a multi-script design process for a signage system.

Natural questions then arise: What is the right layout? What is the right font size? But decisions on look and feel are just the beginning. Translations, information hierarchy and standards follow in close range. Multi-script does not necessarily mean multi-lingual, and messages get altered or even lost in translation. And as standards help our wayfinding in international transport, life beyond the transit lounge carries on in its cacophony of visual complexity. All of this is for the designer to understand and evaluate.

This talk gives an overview of basic design understanding for a multi-script decision-making process: regional historical and cultural background information, the Arabic writing system, its development into various scripts, its role in historical and modern signage in urban environments and modern typography. It will touch upon the nuances of translation, the importance of cultural context, the complexity of layout hierarchy, and the Arabic script within modern sign typography.

About Julia

Julia holds degrees in communication and information design from Mannheim, Germany and a Masters in Typeface Design from the University of Reading with a focus on the Arabic script. She has lived and studied in Egypt. In 2010 Julia worked with Merson Signs on a Knowledge Transfer Project on Middle East airport signage. She is currently a Last Mile wayfinding consultant for the London Olympics.

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