Nadine Chahine's Design Journey

I recently had the pleasure of talking with the multi-talented Arabic type expert Nadine Chahine, a woman pioneer from Lebanon who continues to raise the bar through her innovative and enriching experiences. We met back in our first year of university at the American University of Beirut in 1996 and today, 21 years later, we discuss design, politics, being women, and war children living abroad and shaping the design world.
– Hala Malak

Hala Malak: Can you tell me a little bit more about how and why you choose to study graphic design?

Nadine Chahine: It was almost by mistake. The last few years at school, I had wanted to become an architect, like my dad. And then just when I was ready to apply to university, I saw a documentary about graphic design. I barely knew what graphic design was, but I thought it sounded interesting, so I just applied. There was no real insight into the field itself. I sort of threw myself into it and took a risk. And turns out I also was not very good at it! But it was more a reaction against what I did not want to do: math or science, which I studied when I was at school. So it’s a lucky coincidence.

HM: Was your family supportive of your decision to choose design?

NC: Yes, they were quite okay with it actually. They thought I might have a more competitive edge in the job market as there weren’t many graphic designers back then. The funny thing is that my math teacher at school was the one who got shocked: When we got the acceptance results and he was reading them out in class he said, “you know, Nadine you got accepted to graphic design. Did you apply to this? Was this your first choice?” I had to confirm at least five times because he kept asking me: “Is this what you want?” It was funny.

HM: We were both born during the civil war in Lebanon. Tell me a bit about your childhood. What were you like?

NC: Like many people from Lebanon who lived there during the war, I did not have a very good childhood. My family stayed in Beirut even when the bombs were falling. But in many instances, of course, it wasn't always war. There were times when life was almost normal, when there was no active fighting. I was very shy at school and as a child I was even worse. I'm the youngest of sisters with big personalities; I was always the quiet one. I used to like to play with my farm toys. I had a set of little plastic animals—cows, horses, pigs, dogs, rabbits, and I used to mix them with Legos. I would spend 5-6 hours in a row. I think I have had this quality in me until now. Not the playing, but the ability to sit down and focus and forget the rest of the world for hours at a time. I've always said that type design is like meditation for me. And when I design everything else disappears. So, in a way it's very similar. I remember noticing this even in my first year in graphic design: when I start a project and I'm caught up in the middle of design, everything else disappears. There is something very therapeutic about that. And this is the way such creative kind of endeavor really helps. This is why when you are a designer; you are always a designer—it becomes part of who you are and how you deal with life as well.

HM: Did you always envision yourself living abroad? What led you to leave Lebanon?

NC: Oddly enough, I never wanted or planned to leave. I wanted to stay home with my family. But when I finished my graphic design degree, I already knew that I wanted to get into type design. The idea of going for graduate studies always presented itself, but never as a ticket outside of Lebanon. It was always something that I would go do and then I would come back. It was only when I finished and got back that I discovered that I actually couldn’t live there anymore. Only then did I really start actively looking for a way out. It was unexpected.

Nadine Chahine img 1 type special

HM: Why type design? How did you discover your passion for it?

NC: My interest in typography started in typography class, which was the start of second year in graphic design. It was a specific class exercise in which we had to do collages and croppings of combinations of letterforms. And something somehow clicked with me—this relationship between white and black, the tension between corner and curve. I just totally got into it when I did my Arabic typography with Samir Sayegh. He's probably the person with the biggest influence on my life, ever. He's still my mentor to this day.

He showed us real Arabic calligraphy in an inspiring way, always positioning it as: “look at the great legacy that we have in Arabic calligraphy and Arabic history. But where are we today? How do we want to have calligraphy today and how do we want to go into the future? We can accept and build upon what we have, but we can also create something that’s ours.” That kind of mentality is important, because calligraphy is often perceived as too classical and non-moving, yet he has managed to propel this field forward and set so many of us on our path. He's just amazing.

HM: How are you continuing this legacy in your work?

NC: I do typography not calligraphy, but even with typefaces, they build on Arabic platforms and on the aesthetics we've inherited from centuries of art and design. It’s about how we manage to design typefaces that give us tools for expression for the kind of world we want to have. When I was studying graphic design, the quality of Arabic typefaces was very poor. It was almost sad to try to design in Arabic and see the contrast of very poor Arabic typefaces compared to the gorgeous Arabic language or Latin typefaces that we had access to. That lack of equilibrium—there was something not right about the fact that we couldn’t express ourselves in Arabic. So, that's what I wanted to do.

“I do typography not calligraphy, but even with typefaces, they build on Arabic platforms and on the aesthetics we've inherited from centuries of art and design.”

Communication with Arabic letterforms can be contemporary and modern. I think the trick is that we need to respect the heritage that we have and then build upon it. It doesn't mean that we copy it all the time, if you want to design in a new style you can do that. But we need to start off from a solid base. And the base is not the copying of other scripts, the base is understanding where we come from—our own aesthetic—and then building up from that into a modern contemporary language that has a place in global communication as well.

Nadine Chahine arabic type notes

HM: How do you represent being Lebanese, being a woman from the Middle East, being an expat, and being an immigrant in your work? Could you tell me about the impact identity plays in your designs?

NC: We are all a melting pot of everything that has ever affected us or inspired us. Being from and having grown up in Lebanon, I think, is my biggest driver. The war definitely has had more impact on me than being a woman. When I approach design, I am more influenced by what has happened and what continues to happen in Lebanon and the Middle East and its relationship with the west, then in my own experience as a woman. My dad and family have always been very liberal. We always had a lot of freedom at home and I grew up in a very progressive environment that gave me a lot of power as a woman. When I look at design, I approach it from a human perspective, rather than one gender or the other. For me it's always been about issues of conflict rather than identity.

“When I look at design, I approach it from a human perspective, rather than one gender or the other. For me it's always been about issues of conflict rather than identity.”

One of the most important milestones in my life was our graduation commencement speech by the late Edward Said about how we, Arabs, in today's world can have a dialogue with the Western world rather than a clash. There was a lot of political thought in his speech. It inspired me so much it put me on the path of designing Arabic and Latin together with the intention of creating harmony between them: coexisting and understanding one another. We don't need to become the other in order to have a healthy dialogue.

For those of us who have left home, we are in a privileged position of being able to speak to other audiences. We become ambassadors. When I go to the Middle East, I am helping to bring what is the most up-to-date thing going on in the Western world. What's the innovation, what’s the approach to design that we see internationally? How can we benefit from this, what can we learn? And then, when I am abroad, and I talk about the Middle East, I am trying to explain why things are the way they are. What is the root of the problem? Where is the distrust coming from? I try to clarify misperceptions and show that not all Arabs are the same and that they need to see the diversity between us. And that we're not all blowing ourselves up on airplanes.

Nadine Chahine SST Arabic typeface example

HM: How has the design world changed since you first became a designer? Do you see this reflected in your work?

NC: When it comes to Arabic typography and type design, the world has been changing quite dramatically. The quality of Arabic typefaces when I first started was quite poor. Then things started to change and Arabic typography, in my view, is starting its golden age. I've never seen in any of my studies of Arabic type design history, a drive of this much quality, variation, and wish to do more. I think we're in a wonderful place, and people are becoming more aware of the potential of just how gorgeous Arabic type design can be and what a great challenge it is. It's also resonating well with people because we could design all the typefaces we want, but if no one wants to use them, or if they're not really speaking to the public, then they don't go anywhere. We are seeing a public that is thirsty for new typefaces, for new expression. I think this is hopeful. This new drive of modernity in Arabic type design is actually reflecting a more progressive view within the Arabic world of where we are and where we want to be.

“This new drive of modernity in Arabic type design is actually reflecting a more progressive view within the Arabic world of where we are and where we want to be.”

But unfortunately, the Arab world is not where we need it to be, for a variety of reasons and sometimes it becomes a bit hopeless, even. But change is slow and is a process, and I think we all need to do our part.

HM: How did you jump from type design to going back to being a student currently studying politics at Cambridge?

NC: I've been very interested in politics for many years, and people who have seen me speak have noticed that I spend more and more time just talking about politics—politics of the Middle East as well as global politics. As things became agitated, I felt like I couldn't just design letterforms anymore and that I need to be part of this bigger conversation. I needed to educate myself about the issues. I wanted to have the legitimacy to speak. As designers, other designers take us seriously, but if I decide to speak about the current crisis going on outside of our field, who would listen to me? I'm just a designer at the end of the day. And this is where Cambridge came in. I wasn't planning to, I sort of fell into it.

It turns out that even if you've lived through an experience, it does not mean that you know everything about it. The more I read, and the more I study, the more I discover how little I know. I hope that I can bring this learning and education back into my design work. But I also want to bridge those two. As designers we learn how to reach out and express ideas. Politics on the other hand, is very complex. It's very deep and suffers sometimes from over-simplification.

We need to be able to communicate very complex thoughts in ways that are accessible to the public, in ways that we can encourage everyone to be part of the political process. Politics should not be left to the politicians. We all need to be politicians because this is the world we live in.

HM: What’s one of the biggest learnings you gained from your journey? Do you have an important lesson that really grounds you in who you are and in your career?

NC: I think it would be how we approach both career and life in general—fixed versus growth mentality. Fixed mentality says that this is who you are, and this is what you can do, and you just do it. Growth mentality looks at you as a constant student of life. You continuously educate yourself, you challenge yourself, and you grow as a person. I think this is the biggest thing in my life. When I was a child my whole family and I thought that the only thing I was good at was math and science. I could not sing, I could not draw, I could not paint, I could not dance. Turns out that I can draw actually because I'm a type designer. So, I can do that now. I can also play the piano, which I started when I was 35, quite late in life. You are supposed to start playing piano at 5, not 35, but I did it. And I actually turned out to be quite good at it.

If we look at ourselves only as how people have defined us, we get stuck in a box for the rest of our lives. But, if we look at ourselves with potential then we can try to be anything, we will at least try and turn our world into an experiment.

Nadine Chahine and Adrian Frutiger
Chahine with type designer Hermann Zapf in development of the Palatino Arabic typeface.

HM: How do you work around being labeled as a minority? What is your stance about diversity and design?

NC: It's much easier for people to categorize everybody else. I tend to refuse to sit in one box. I think that's the fun part, when you can jump across the boxes. I've been fortunate because when Linotype employed me in 2005, the whole point of my existence in the company was the fact that I was the Arabic specialist. So, in that sense it was fine. I wasn't there to compete for jobs that would be going to somebody else. I was there to help them grow the Arabic business and to connect with the Middle East. That made it easier for me to be in that space.

If you have one person who is multi-skilled and multi-talented, then you are able to draw connections from different fields and different skills and combine them in ways that other people can't. And I think this is what we need to show. By encouraging design education as well, we need to grow our talents in diversity of fields, rather than just in one. Because if you think of fields like tectonic plates, interesting things happen when these plates bump into each other. That's where you get the earthquakes, that's where you get the volcanoes and the mountains—where drama happens. When different fields come together something exciting happens.

HM: One last question to wrap up. What are your future plans?

NC: I have always known what I wanted, how things would be. But now for the first time in my life, I don't know where I will be in a few years, or how things will be, or what I even want. In my heart, I am a designer. This will never stop. But I am also making space for politics. And I don't know in what shape that will be. It feels very exhilarating, like the start of a new chapter. More politics in my design; more design in my politics. I don't know. But it will be exciting for sure.


  • 1978 Born in Beirut, Lebanon
  • 2000 MA in graphic design at the American University of Beirut
  • 2003 MA in typeface design from the University of Reading, UK
  • 2002 PhD from Leiden University, The Netherlands
  • 2004 Started working on Frutiger Arabic for Linotype
  • 2005 Joined Linotype (now Monotype) in Germany
  • 2005 Met Hermann Zapf and starts work on Palatino Arabic
  • 2012 Started collaborating with the MIT AgeLab on legibility research
  • 2012 Selected by Fast Company as one of its 100 Most Creative People in Business
  • 2015 Promoted to Monotype’s Type Director and moved to London
  • 2017 Joined Cambridge University to study international politics

Nadine Chahine 150px Nadine Chahine is an award winning Lebanese type designer working as the UK Type Director and Legibility Expert at Monotype. She has an MA in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, UK, and a PhD from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Nadine’s research focus is on eye movement and legibility studies for the Arabic, Latin, and Chinese scripts. She has numerous awards, including two Awards for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008 and 2011. In 2016 her work was showcased in the 4th edition of First Choice which highlights the work of the 250 top global designers practicing today. In 2017, Nadine was selected by Creative Review to their Creative Leaders 50 which aims to celebrate, educate, and inspire those who are leading creative businesses, organizations, and teams in the UK.

Hala Malak headshot Hala A. Malak is a Beirut-born design critic, curator, educator, researcher, and strategist who has transcended stereotypes and challenged the status quo in her purpose to help make the world a better place. Malak holds graduate degrees from HEC Paris and SVA New York. Speaker and published in the likes of Print Magazine, Design Indaba, Metropolis Magazine, AIGA, and MOMA, and is co-founder of strategic design collective Design and Flow. She is a professor of design strategy at Parsons New York. Hala currently resides and works out of Brooklyn, New York.

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The 2018 Design Journeys series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.