In 2020, MEM commissioned artist and calligrapher Joumana Medlej to design a new logo for the association, as well as to redesign the masthead for our journal, al-‘Usur al-Wusta. The following are Joumana’s notes on this project.
Masthead for al-‘Usur
The original masthead dated from the 1990s and was based on the lettering on a funeral stone. Though carefully traced, no amount of care could have made up for the deficiencies of the source script. The original stone carving lacked both mastery of execution and aesthetic merit, and was a poor representative of the time period. To anyone with even a passing knowledge of Kufic, it made the masthead look odd and amateurish.
The aim was to refresh the masthead but preserve its overall feel and silhouette, not overhaul the whole design. What I did was preserve the style of the forms as much as possible, while fixing it according to the proper rules of mature Kufic: all curves and angles are related and echo each other throughout, while the heights of letters have also been made consistent according to their individual anatomy.
I made a few aesthetic adjustments:
- The shape of a Kufic Ra reads as Dal to modern readers. A slight compromise, without turning it into a round-script Ra, made it less deceptive while creating a symmetrical shape at the meeting of the two words.
- The shaft of Ṭa faces backward, which usually only happens with Alif, but this creates a pleasingly contained feel for the masthead and echoes the first pair of “bracketing” shafts.
- I kept a little tooth on the Ṣad, despite it being highly optional, to break up a long flat surface and echo the shapes of the preceding Ayn and following Ra.
- The Alifs are taller than in the original masthead: this is because the corrected version of the text is slightly longer, so it needed to also be taller to preserve the original ratio (for the sake of not upsetting the long-standing cover layout).
Reducing negative space to hairlines is typical of Kufic and found in the most accomplished examples of it, including in manuscripts. This approach turns calligraphic letters made mostly of empty space into full, sculptural forms that have unparalleled presence. To our eyes, it also looks a lot more modern. In this particular case, it was essential because the masthead is a white shape on a white background, only defined by its outline. Normally I would advise against this choice, but colouring it in would have been too great a change. Getting rid of the awkward negative space simplified the linear shape so that it reads as a stronger shape, and a bolder outer contour saves it from looking unfinished.
Logo for Middle East Medievalists
The association had no logo at all. It needed to be created from scratch, with the following requirements:
- Visual continuity between masthead and logo is a priority, with an eye on creating a distinct visual identity across the board.
- The logo needed to be functional in single-colour applications such as etching on glass.
- It needed to be suitable for various mediums, not just print.
- Referencing the period was desirable, but not at the cost of making it look fusty.
For a central symbol we settled on the initials MEM, rather than trying to create an image, which would have been arbitrary and poor, and also not really fit the script-oriented spirit of the period.
Basing Latin type on Kufic is tricky. You necessarily end up with a blocky geometric script that feels jarringly modern, and attempts to tone that down can result in losing the relationship with Kufic altogether. I used angles and curves taken directly from the masthead to create a few options which, though blocky, wouldn’t register as generically modern. This was the chosen option.
The font was an equally delicate choice, as ideally it should balance out the strict geometry of the logogram with a more human touch, and perhaps give a feel of the time period, but without falling into a cliché. Looking at a range of options, from pseudo-Gothic to strict sans-serif fonts, the consensus was on Flareserif, which gives it just that little bit of distinction without attempting to look “period.”
Finally, colour: the original idea was the blue and gold of the Blue Qur’an, but the palette translates poorly out of context and looked more like a football jersey (it is in any case rather overused). Other historical palettes suffered the same fate, and lost any connection to their original source once applied to the logo. The most representative option, in my opinion, was black and red, which evokes early Qur’ans like nothing else, and this was our final choice.
Originally from Beirut, Joumana Medlej is a London-based artist, calligrapher, designer, and teacher whose work is found in private and public collections in the Middle East and in the West. She has published books on Arabic geometry, calligraphy, inks, and paints. For more information, see her website.