Personas and calligraphy

A modern take on graphic design

"Nathalie Fallaha may not be a familiar name, but her elusive branding design work in Beirut is almost ubiquitous. From boutiques to banks to grocery stores, many bear the hallmark of her design practice: subtle and carefully considered logos with a proclivity for typography. Though Fallaha has been working with major clients since founding her branding agency in 2000, with the launch of her art design company Alephya, she has begun in recent years to pursue her love for typography in an artistic field, one free of client-centered design solutions.

With a name composed of the first and last letter of the Arabic alphabet, Alephya is a design company with a wide commercial scope that finds its inspiration in the expressive power inherent in the Arabic alphabet.

The designer’s aesthetic concept is guided by use of the Arabic letterform, something she considers purely an artistic tool. Partly inspired by Arabic calligraphy and arabesques but derived from neither, Fallaha uses Arabic letters to draft unique patterns by exploring design markers like line density, line quality and pattern-making. The content of the design, though taken from the alphabet, does not denote any meaning.

“This is something I have to keep telling people,” Fallaha said, “it is not legible, it doesn’t mean anything, we are using the Arabic letterform as a tool.”

She maintains it is the first time the Arabic letterform is being treated in a purely aesthetic way, with uses, once a pattern is designed, in fashion, furniture, home accessories, stationery, jewelry and fabrics. Of late, Alephya’s typographic design patterns have appeared in household goods such as carpets and cushions, napkins and bookcases, fashionable tops and scarves as well as notebooks. The applications are broad, which is why Fallaha names the company a life design brand, but the idea is simple: The Arabic letter in its pure form remains the main design ingredient.

Her unique passion for Arabic typography harkens back to her formative years as a student of the American University of Beirut’s then newfangled graphic design school.

“I came to graphic design totally randomly,” she said.

Fallaha had considered studying architecture and business until she learned of a new graphic design department, replete with instructors trained abroad. When she inquired as to what graphic design pertains, she was told it combined visual art, with sculpturing, “but in fact it was none of these things.”

“The faculty members we had were very strong ambassadors of bringing to light our culture, our local culture, and they really tried to get us to think of where we come from, what our role in society is as citizens, as individuals and as designers,” she says.

In particular, she credits an eye-opening Arabic calligraphy class and instructor Samir al-Sayegh for planting the seed of Arabic typography as a design concept, disassociated from the calligraphy found in religion.

“I have been driven by this agenda I set for myself since then,” she says, as she leafs through her old thesis she titled ‘(roundtable)’, a visual journalism project studying the trilingualism of Lebanese society using just color and Arabic, English and French typography as investigative tools.

The thesis project was important to Fallaha’s future work in typography because it laid the groundwork for her understanding of how to communicate with typography, and how the form can often assume a language of its own. Presented in book form, the thesis project is a series of typographic tableaus, a color-coded transcription of the opinions voiced by various prominent opinion-makers that Fallaha interviewed as she sought to investigate the multiplicity of languages in the delicate confessional balance of Lebanon.

She describes her method as visual journalism where a specific code of type, script, lettering, color, size and position are used to transcribe the various linguistic groups in Lebanon and their differences and similarities.

For Fallaha, now is the perfect time to pursue Arabic typography, as the widespread integration of computer technologies has brought text-based information to the fore in everyday life.

These developments ushered in increased interest in the field of typography across many fields of visual communication, especially when letterforms play a role in circulating trends. This is something Fallaha knows only too well, because she has been at the forefront of branding them with her agency.

The seven-member design practice, vit-e, works discretely both as a branding and digital agency. The team caters to the design needs of a range of companies in the corporate world as well as in the food and fashion industries. The agency acknowledges that each branding project is as much about defining the persona of a new entity entering the market as it is about making a pretty logo.

One of the ironies of Fallaha’s work is that although it is everywhere as identifiable logos in boutiques, product and institutional logos, her artisanship is never credited explicitly. With Alephya, the spotlight falls on her work as an artist and not as a reputable businesswoman.

Her many years running the branding agency has provided ample opportunity for Fallaha to perfect her subtle typographic sensibilities.

Developing the brand identity of the Beirut Art Center was one such project.

“The main base of that [BAC] design was it needed to be completely bilingual, because it does carry a dual identity. It doesn’t only exhibit to locals, it is a bridge to the international arts scene,” Fallaha explains of the idea behind the center’s logo – a blend of the Arabic and Latin alphabet to form a typographically subtle ‘B’ shape.

“There is a subtle play involved that is not too abstract and not too figurative, so [the brand] is always recognizable,” she says.

As a instructor at the Lebanese American University and the founding director of vit-e since 2009, Fallaha did not explore her artistic inclinations until she decided to stop teaching which “gave the time for Alephya.”

“I would say, thanks to the design education I’ve had and keep on having with my work, graphic design is not a job, it has really become an absolute way of life, an essential thing.”

by Samya Kullab