F5: Samar Maakaroun Shares Arabic Typography, a Heritage Site + More

04.14.23 | By
F5: Samar Maakaroun Shares Arabic Typography, a Heritage Site + More

Being Arab and British, designer Samar Maakaroun says she exists in the space between the two through work that embraces nuance, complexity, interaction, and play. Forever in search of opportunity and information, Samar’s designs explore the intersections, integrations, alignments, and divergences that can be found in between language, culture, aesthetics, and visual approaches.

The design world is somewhere Samar has known she belongs for quite some time. “I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, my siblings were playing outdoors, but I had decided that I will make a three dimensional house out of paper inside my french literature sketchbook. I do not remember the book I was trying to design for, nor did I know what paper art was at that age, but what stayed vividly with me was the satisfaction of making an idea in my head materialize into real life,” she shared. “The enjoyment I got once I managed to achieve this abstract idea despite all the creative blocks, not knowing much, and the stacks of paper I worked through … I was totally immersed, in full flow, oblivious to what my siblings were doing and anything outside the pages of my sketchbook.”

light-skinned woman with dark, curly hair wearing a royal blue sweater and long gold necklace

Samar Maakaroun \\\ Photo: Arnaud Mbaki

At one point, Samar experienced a show by Xavier le Roi — “Product of Circumstances” (1999) – at the Ayloul festival in Beirut. It left an impression, and also happens to be a wonderful example of crossover. “It was a sort of lecture performance about the artist’s double life as a choreographer as well as a molecular biologist,” she said. “The story in a nutshell drew parallels between the controlled environments of scientific labs and his inability or ability to control his body. I remember being fascinated by his humor, how we turned such a simple dichotomy into a very engaging performance, while raising philosophical questions about structures of control and hierarchies of power. The actor was moving in space between the two sides of the stage, one dedicated to the science, and one to the dance, simple and effective spacial alignment with the subject matter.”

With over two decades of experience, Samar has had the chance to work on landmark identities with some of the world’s biggest design studios, including Pentagram, M&C Saatchi, and Apple. She’s helped M&C Saatchi coin the first ever integrated destination Brand – Brand Dubai – which launched in 2014 and is still going strong. In 2015, Samar assisted Apple in building their brand in Arabic with their digital, retail, and print teams. And she’s worked with Pentagram to rebrand the Abu Dhabi Media portfolio, and later brought the Diriyah City brand to life.

Then in 2022, Samar and a team of four designers, spanning three generations and speaking seven languages between them, formed Right to Left. The studio introduced a fresh approach to the London design industry by bringing together designers who cover every aspect of brand design – from naming and strategy, brand identity, motion design, signage, and way finding to digital-content development, cultural consultancy, and editorial design. In short, Right to Left specializes in designing for hybrid brands by integrating worlds, cultures, and languages.

When not designing, she enjoys cooking or taking a walk to make the switch from work mode to personal life. Today, Samar Maakaroun is joining us for Friday Five!

abstract black art on white paper

Samir Sayegh, Strokes in Dialogue, Kalimat wa Hurouf, Ink on Paper, 70 x 100 cm, 2013 \\\ Photo courtesy of Athr Art

1. Samir Sayegh

Samir Sayegh is an incredible artist whose body of work in modernizing the Arabic script spans decades. He was my Arabic typography teacher during my BA years, and he is now a friend and mentor. Samir taught me, and all the designers of my generation, so much about typography, life, and the art of the script. His work has inspired everyone working with Arabic typography today. Samir is one of those artists who are ahead of their time, and I do hope one day that I would get to see a retrospective of his work, hopefully soon, in one of the design museums in London.

illustration of an Arabic in robes with Arabic text

Photo courtesy Arabic Design Archive

2. The Arabic Design Archive

The Arabic Design Archive is an open platform digitizing documents from the history of design in the Arab world, including book covers, posters, stamps, invitations, and other ephemera. It aims to address the absence of open source archival material, the scarcity of history books on design, as well as the lack of local governmental initiatives to write and safeguard their creative histories. Our histories inform our present and future and are essential to any practicing designer today. I chose to include this pick as it is a huge ambitious effort worth celebrating.

red, yellow, black, and white page from a pop-up book

Photo: Yi-Zhi Huang

3. 600 Black Spots: A Pop-up Book for Children of All Ages by David A. Carter

Although this book is designed for children, I find a lot of joy flicking through its pages. The shapes and structures created with colored paper of varying thicknesses are just delightful. It’s a fantastic sculptural object featuring a different surprise on every page. Perhaps this book, to me, is one possible iteration of good design: mixing color and science, playing with form and texture, removing all excess, crafting beautifully to end up with something that surprises and delights. All the while making it look seemingly effortless.

Photo: Samar Maakaroun

4. Hegra National Heritage Site (AlUla), Saudi Arabia

I recently had the opportunity to visit AlUla to run a workshop with local people as part of a program directed by Arts AlUla, in Saudi Arabia. During my stay I had the opportunity to join a guided tour of the stunning heritage site, Hegra, pictured above. It is rare these days to find a destination so arresting, and yet so hidden from travel books and blogs. What was most striking in this place was the contrast of opposites, desert and oasis, heat of the day and cold of the night, flat sand and utterly ragged textured mountains, old town and new architecture, traditional farmers mingling with contemporary artists. The energy of a place transforming in tune with its context was palpable and invigorating; it was fantastic to experience this discovery in the middle of the desert out of all places.

three people posing for a photo in a design studio

Photo: Samar Maakaroun

5. My Studio + Team at Right to Left

I recently came across a stat from 2019 that I found hard to believe, only 01.% of creative agencies are founded by women. I am not entirely sure of the accuracy of this number, but I sure hope that figure has improved today. No matters the odds, I thought it would be fitting to have as my fifth pick my team, especially Liz and Jacob who have been with me since the start and who trust my leadership and show up as their best selves everyday.


Work by Samar Maakaroun + Right to Left:

digital illustration of white abstract shapes on a black background with the words 29 Words for 29 Letters

29 Words for 29 Letters is an experimental typographic index inspired by the process of working with two languages and bridging two wildly different worlds, while building brand identities. In this exercise, we chose one word for each letter in the Arabic alphabet, playing with the fluidity of meaning and translation. We believe language defines culture, and creates the concepts within which this culture shapes itself. The words displayed are chosen from our daily lives in London – mostly concepts, expressions, sounds, smells, thoughts, and ways of being that we often find ourselves explaining.

red Arabic text on a bright purple background with confetti

Brand identity for Majid Television in collaboration with Pentagram, andArt & Graft \ Majid is a TV and magazine for children that’s very popular in the Arab world, and belonging to a family of brands managed by Abu Dhabi Media. Between 2017 and 2019, I worked with Pentagram to rebrand the portfolio, Majid being one of them. \\\ Image from the TV package created by Art & Graft.

animated gif of graphic design

Multilingual Typographic experiments at Right to Left Our studio is multilingual – we speak fluent English, Arabic, French, Chinese, and Italian. Since we use a variety of scripts everyday as designers, we wanted to explore how these scripts compare, and create a place for the conversations we have around typography. So, we set up Type Map at Right to Left. In the image above are posters around rules of type, leading, kerning, modularity in Chinese and Arabic, numbers and meaning, and sometimes arranged marriages.

brown, royal blue, and bright yellow pop-up cards on a black background

Pop-up Eid Card \ In this project we used the Kufi script with its highly modular and geometric forms, to turn typography into architecture using paper only as material. Bespoke letterforms, set around specific inward and outward folds and cuts, created our master blueprint for a pop-up card with the message happy holidays (عيد سعيد). The word ‘Eid’ sat on the top level, followed by ‘saeed,’ the second word which sat below, allowing the vertical panels to be the type, and the horizontal panels to buttress the message, Once the blueprint was functional, we combined multiple colors inside and outside to end up with a happy holiday card that uses no inks of printing. \\\ Photo: Chung Hin Ching

Kelly Beall is Director of Branded Content at Design Milk. The Pittsburgh-based writer and designer has had a deep love of art and design for as long as she can remember, from Fashion Plates to MoMA and far beyond. When not searching out the visual arts, she's likely sharing her favorite finds with others. Kelly can also be found tracking down new music, teaching herself to play the ukulele, or on the couch with her three pets – Bebe, Rainey, and Remy. Find her @designcrush on social.