Amman: A young Arab capital in a region dominated by ancient capitals. A modern city with shadows of an ancient heart. An Arab success story of the 20th and 21st centuries, with an unlikely beginning and a promising future. A melting pot of cultures and a collage of influences. An open door to the Arab levant and the wider world. But first and foremost: home to over two million people and a destination of Jordan’s guests.
This is the city, we at SYNTAX where commissioned to brand in 2008.
SYNTAX is arguably the only ‘large’ design company in Jordan. The city is host to local, regional and international ad agencies, for sure. But pure design companies (as opposed to media-oriented marketing communication agencies) are a rarity.
Branding Amman is something we have been involved in, even before the idea became a real project at Amman’s Municipality. Our first branding presentation was to the predecessor of Amman’s current mayor, at the request of the so-called Amman Commission, a group of architects and entrepreneurs appointed by HM Queen Rania to help the municipality think outside the box of ‘the city as an engineering/infrastructure problem to be solved’ and start considering issues of urban identity, conservation of heritage and better design when dealing with the city.
In 2006, a new mayor, Oman K. Maani, came into power with a mandate to take Amman into a more progressive, 21st century planning and management paradigm. With his arrival, city branding was firmly on the table of discussion. An international tender ensued in which SYNTAX competed. To our utter delight, we won the bid for the project and started work early 2008.
Amman is a city with an identity crisis, which we as a team of people living in the city feel every day. It is a city with an unlikely modern beginning in the late 19th century, as a village among ancient Roman ruins of past millennia, that became refuge for a few hundred Cirkassians, a people from central Asia, brutalized and expelled from the homeland by the Russian Empire in the mid 19th century. The arrival of the Hijaz Railway line to the village in the early years of the 20th century would define the fortune of this settlement, as it would be chosen as the capital of Jordan, a new Arab state, in 1921.
As the village grew into town and the town grew into a city, its early years where hard but promising, attracting migrants to what was perceived as a new order after the demise of the Ottoman empire. But conflicts in the region, most notably due to the creation of the State of Israel, changed the fortunes of this nascent town in 1948 and then again in 1967 to become the haven and refuge to the displaced people of Palestine.
Defying easy categorization, as it neither follows the cliches of the orientalist vision of what an Arab Muslim city should be like, nor the purely modern principles of western town planning, Amman’s identity is hybrid, multilayered and complex. The best image we could find for it was that of a collage.
The city’s hilly nature adds to that reality. Hills are stronger than most of the city’s monuments. It is a city of views not one of boulevards leading to great monuments.
Being in a neighborhood full of legendary cities like Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, Amman’s identity seems weak. Unfortunately it was further weakened by its own financial and governing elites whose image of Jordan was more related to the country’s archeological sites like Petra or the desert, but not its urban reality. Amman’s own residents somewhat denied their own identity by clinging to constant comparisons between their ‘semi city’ and the legendary old capitals around them.
A sudden influx of money in the 1970’s, from the booming Gulf countries did not help the city’s identity either. As people’s sources of income became increasingly divorced from the city’s local resources and life, private exuberance triumphed over public space, discourse and participation.
But the 1990s brought new hope for Amman’s identity as a new generation of historians, architects and normal residents started viewing it differently. After always looking to expand outwards, early signs of looking back at the older neighborhoods started showing. A new appreciation of the city’s history started to emerge. Amman was finally ready to tell its story again and some of its people started accepting its identity for what it is and not in relation to a real or imagine oriental or occidental model.
As we started to tackle the Brand Amman project we went deeper and deeper into probing the perceptions of people, what was written about the city and how the city itself manifests itself physically.
It was in the midst of our research and conceptualization effort that the idea of creating a typeface for Amman was thrown into the mix.
In the summer months of 2008, I received an email from Yanone about his possible involvement in the branding Amman project as a type designer. As far as I am aware, there never has been an attempt to create a typeface for an Arab city. The concept of city branding itself is new in the region and only a handful of city branding projects exist, mainly in the Gulf region.
When it comes to street signage or any other public communication efforts, most city authorities don‘t even consider this as something to think about. And although the Arab region has an extremely rich calligraphic tradition, today, city typography simply relies on common, overused PC fonts, often of the second or third rate.
Creating a family of typefaces for a capital city like Amman seemed a distant dream.
But the stars aligned in the right way for this project. SYNTAX became the fortunate meeting place where such a project became possible. We’ve known Yanone as an a talented and willing design intern, as part of our training program of German Bauhaus design students. During his first internship at SYNTAX some years ago, he learned the basics of Arabic letterforms and ended up designing a pixel font which he called Abdali, after Amman’s now-defunct main bus station. Then there was Hussein Alazaat, a designer with a passion for traditional and new Arabic calligraphy. Last, but probably most importantly, we had a forward looking and open minded client team at the Greater Amman Municipality, headed by a mayor who appreciated design and its strategic value.
The Amman brand that emerged was built on the principle of accepting Amman for what it is. A creation of the 20th century (yet in a place of where ancient civilization settled). A body of hills, stairs, white stone houses of human scale, blue skies and mild weather and soul of rooted diversity, stability, resilience, openness and relative comfort of living.
As we developed these brand values and visualized them, the first conceptual sketches for the Amman typeface where sent by Yanone while he was still in Germany. Inspired by the squarish, cubic architecture of Amman architecture and its hilly skyline, the first letters that he sent had an interesting angular quality to them. The letterforms also had a certain quirkiness to them which I felt where appropriate for a city that is best described as an informal and non-monumental collage.
One of the most critical aspects of this project was that it aimed at creating a type family that has both Arabic and Latin members, who share a common DNA, yet also fit into substantially different traditions.
The practice of creating Arabic type based on the geometry of Latin fonts is fairly common in the Arab world, especially in the field of logo conversion. But this is not what Yanone or SYNTAX where trying to do. I would describe Yanone’s approach as contemporary, cross-cultural traditionalism. The Arabic and Latin typefaces were to share common traits, but each should respect their own calligraphic and writing tradition, including overall letter shapes and horizontal/vertical stroke contrasts.
Such design approach has only come to the surface in the last few years, exemplified by the work spearheaded by Huda Abi Faris, who had western and Arab type designers work together on groundbreaking arabic versions of modern western fonts.
Our project was different in that this was a typeface started from scratch (not a conversion) where the design sketches for the Arabic and Latin versions of the typeface emerged together at the outset of the design process.
I can describe the design collaboration that unfolded in the Amman syntax office as follows: Yanone was the energy and the designer of the typeface, showing a remarkable understanding of Latin type, the technology and logistics of the process, as well as a talent for quickly grasping the principles of Arabic letterforms and writing. Hussein was the ‘Arabic consultant’ spending hours with Yanone to provide feedback and corrections, making sure the typeface obeyed the general spirit of arabic letterforms. I jokingly say that a consultant like Hussein would have been perfect for Eric Gill, whose attempt to design an Arabic typeface ended in failure because he made fatal mistakes in his Arabic letter drawings, commissioned by the British Mandate authorities in Palestine in the early 20th century!
My role was that of a mediator and facilitator, providing feedback that ranged from ‘common sense’ notes to that of allowing the occasional breaking of a traditional rule to allow room for experimentation.
As the early versions of both the serif and sans serif versions of the font started coming out, we immediately started incorporating them into our branding presentations to the client, at first not even mentioning the font explicitly. An early version of the word ‘Amman’ in Arabic, made its way into one of the logo options we created for the city, which happened to be the option that was finally chosen by the citizens.
The final family of Amman typefaces is versatile. City communication, especially in an up and coming city like Amman, whose identity is still in flux, sometimes needs to feel formal and traditional, yet also needs to feel young and dynamic at other instances. Having both sans serif and serif variants of the typeface is extremely useful. In Arabic type there are no serif and sans serif fonts. However, for the Amman typeface, we interpreted these notions as modern and traditional. Both variants have the same underlying skeleton. The modern Arabic font is more of a uni-stroke adaptation that, to arab eyes, looks more geometrical and perhaps a little strange. The traditional font looks decidedly more calligraphic, with varying stroke widths and a softer appearance. Overall, the Arabic Amman typeface is different enough from the mainstream to raise some eyebrows and objections, but close enough to the established traditions of arabic letters to be accepted by readers.
As the Greater Amman Municipality starts to roll out the new Amman Brand across multiple citizen and visitor touch points, the Amman typeface is already starting to be seen in the wild. One of the first examples is the city’s tabloid-sized newsletter, printed in 100,000 copies and distributed all over Amman. Signage, banners, ads and other publications are to follow in the coming months and years.
If anything, this project shows the possibilities of respectful cross-cultural design collaboration and innovation. Used correctly, this typeface will also add to Amman’s unique character, further enriching its collage of diverse influences and cultures. I also hope it puts Amman on the typographic world map.